When news broke that Gareth Bale was set to be crowned PFA player of the year it immediately set teeth gnashing. How could the PFA overlook so many more deserving candidates? Critics cite Bale’s lack of sustained impact over the season and reference his inferior goals and assists compared to other midfielders. They also argue that Bale’s most memorable moments were reserved for two Champions League matches against Inter.
These are all valid points, but they suggest these awards are based on an objective analysis of all the available evidence. History suggests otherwise. The PFA awards often result in flawed outcomes. David Ginola won the award in the 1998/99 season; if you recall, Ginola had produced some memorable showboating for Spurs and scored the odd fantastic goal in the process, but Ryan Giggs had been a far more consistent and effective performer in the same position. Let’s not forget, this was the season that Giggs scored that goal against Arsenal, and scored a vital last minute equaliser against Juventus in a Champions League semi-final on route to United’s treble.
When Giggs finally did win the award in the 2008/09 season, it was widely seen as a sentimental gesture in recognition of Giggs’ longevity at the top end of the game – no one was claiming it had been a vintage year for the legendary United winger. If Giggs would have made a more worthy winner in 1999, you could make an even stronger case for his teammate Peter Schmeichel. Make no mistake, had it not been for Schmeichel’s heroic exploits in goal that season there would be no historic treble for United. Scmeichel’s contribution was so great that I would argue he would have made a fitting winner of the 1999 World Player of the Year award (that honour went to Rivaldo).
Even a relatively high profile, creative player such as Wesley Sneijder can be overlooked when the gongs are being dished out. He failed to make the Ballon d’Or short list for 2010, despite being instrumental in Inter’s treble and the Netherland’s progress to the World Cup final.
The simple truth is that football isn’t very good at celebrating the players that have really made a difference in any given season. As fans, we know who the unsung heroes of our team are, but to the wider football community, it’s the players that deliver moments of magic that get us talking.
So it was with Bale. Yes, Inter were awful at White Hart Lane, and his hat-trick in Milan was ultimately meaningless, but you’d have to be an incredibly bitter cynic not to enjoy those displays of raw athleticism coupled with an explosive left foot.
There are players more deserving of the award than Bale this season, many of them have already been mentioned in newspaper columns and blogs. Personally, I would have voted for Vidic or Nani for their consistent contributions over the length of the season. But, in what has been one of the more mediocre seasons in Premier League history, it is not entirely surprising that the players’ vote has been swayed be a few fleeting moments of genuine excitement. It’s not the first time; it’s unlikely to be the last.