We’re over a month away from the end of the English league season, and there’s still plenty of time for every team and player to experience a change in fortunes. Awards time!
With nearly a fifth of the season to go, the PFA is ready to announce its Players’ Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year and Team of the Year for each division in England. The players have voted, tuxes are being rushed off to the drycleaners, and a whole lot of people should prepare for disappointment.
Obviously many fans and footballers, not to mention managers, pundits and journalists, will say the wrong person was named Player of the Year, because only one man can win from a wide field (although Dele Alli seems to have Young Player of the Year sewn up for the next few seasons). Many will disagree with the Player of the Year decision. Team of the Year, though, is different.
Everyone disagrees with Team of the Year.
It’s simple: every side's supporters feel they have at least one strong candidate for inclusion. With 11 winners instead of only one, more teams should be recognised, right? Alas, you can’t please everyone. In 2007, for instance, eventual champions Manchester United led Chelsea by just three points with four games remaining when eight United players made the PFA’s Team of the Year. It's a meritocracy, but even though it’s the players themselves who vote, there will be unsung heroes who remain unsung.
And yet there are some Premier League footballers whose omission from every season’s Team of the Year is more shocking than the PFA naming a 2015/16 Championship XI that had 12 players. This isn’t hindsight, either: these unfortunate souls were obvious Team of the Year candidates at the time.
We’ve picked an Unlucky Losers XI, playing in a time-honoured 4-2-3-1 formation. It’s OK – look at the defensive midfielders and you’ll see they have this covered.
GK - Pepe Reina
Reina is a paradox. The follicly-challenged goalkeeper has a collection of winners’ medals that he barely earned (in Spain’s three consecutive international tournament triumphs, he played once), yet he was a superb glovesman who could’ve won more.
To add insult to injury, Reina never made a PFA Team of the Year despite winning the Premier League Golden Glove three years in a row. Even with 57 clean sheets between 2005/06 and 2007/08, Reina lost the popular vote to Newcastle’s Shay Given, then Manchester United’s Edwin van der Sar, then Portsmouth’s David James. The guy couldn't catch a break.
RB - Michael Essien
That we’ve had to follow Jose Mourinho and force Essien into the side at right-back shows that the PFA Team of the Year does get it right sometimes, at least in this one position.
Essien, though, is very unfortunate never to have received an end-of-season shoutout. The Ghanaian midfielder was integral to Mourinho’s first Blues side, received several Ballon d’Or nominations and won Chelsea Player of the Year when they finished second in 2006/07.
CB - Steve Bruce
Sadly, it’s often the case that double acts aren’t evenly rewarded. Nigel Hawthorne won four consecutive BAFTAs for Yes (Prime) Minister; co-star Paul Eddington, zero. I know, right?
Manchester United’s 1990s success was built on the solid defensive partnership of Bruce and Gary Pallister, generously nicknamed Dolly and Daisy by United gaffer Alex Ferguson, yet while Pallister played 22 times for England, Bruce was never capped. Similarly, Pallister was picked for the PFA’s top-flight Team of the Year five times – five! – but Bruce, not even once. Harsh.
CB - Ledley King
It’s easy to forget that, when he still had some cartilage in his legs, King was arguably the best centre-back in the Premier League.
Naturally Spurs fans adored their captain, but King was also well-respected by his peers. Thierry Henry said in 2006 that King “will get the ball off you without you even noticing; without making any fouls.” Just 10 yellow cards and zero reds in a 350-game career is testament to that.
LB - Nigel Winterburn
Many would argue there was no separating Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn in that famous 1990s Arsenal back four. Well, apart from the centre-backs, obviously. They separated them.
While Dixon’s attacking initiative and ability to score incredible own goals probably gave him the edge, Winterburn wasn’t making up the numbers in his 584 Arsenal appearances. Sadly, just as Tony Adams was in four PFA Teams of the Year and Martin Keown none, Winterburn didn’t received the recognition that Dixon did.
CM - Xabi Alonso
The Spaniard never made a PFA Team of the Year during his five seasons at Anfield. Fortunately his mantelpiece is pretty full anyway.
There’s no doubt Alonso really hit his straps at Real Madrid, but his calmness in possession and occasional hankering for an outrageous goal didn’t go unnoticed in England – except in the PFA awards, where his Liverpool team-mate Steven Gerrard took the plaudits.
Still, it’s not as if foreign midfielders integral to their team were regularly overlooked...
CM - Claude Makelele
No, wait – it’s exactly like that.
It's both unsurprising and oddly appropriate that the crucial part Makelele played in Chelsea’s mid-2000s success went unnoticed in the PFA awards each year. Bought from Real Madrid by Claudio Ranieri, the midfielder drove the Blues to consecutive league titles under Jose Mourinho, with his tenacity, tackling and knowledge of the game – and his place in it – giving his team-mates the freedom to attack, often under his own direction.
However, the Frenchman was invisible to all except his team-mates (there’s a reason Real Madrid’s players were distraught to see him sold). The greatest trick Makelele ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist. Well, that and reinventing the role of the central midfielder.
AM - Gianfranco Zola
Yes, it’s another Chelsea player – yet this one’s a surprise. Zola, with his obvious footballing skill, exciting attacking ability and all-round nice-guy persona, seems like exactly the kind of guy who’d win votes from every player. Apparently not.
Zola had talent, drive and a winning mentality that helped Chelsea to end their 25-year wait for a trophy and claim four in four seasons, yet that wasn’t enough for the Italian to make one PFA Team of the Year.
Intriguingly, the same period saw Roberto Di Matteo, Gus Poyet and Marcel Desailly also miss out. Everybody hates Chelsea, it seems.
CF - Robbie Fowler
This year, Dele Alli will almost certainly become the fourth footballer to win PFA Young Player of the Year two seasons running. Before him there was Wayne Rooney, who was also named in three Teams of the Season, and Ryan Giggs, who was in six.
And between them there was Robbie Fowler, Young Player of the Year in 1994/95 and 1995/96, yet never considered good enough for the big boys’ XI. With 163 Premier League goals in his career, the first 50 coming four months before his 21st birthday, he should feel a little hard done by.
CF - Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink
“Nobody cares about Hasselbaink!” you say.
“He scored 103 goals in 205 Premier League games for Leeds and Chelsea, then helped Middlesbrough to a UEFA Cup Final,” we say.
“Fair enough. Fancy a pint?” you say.
Oh, go on then.
CF - Sergio Aguero
AKA the man who inspired the creation of this team. Aguero might be the most talented striker ever to play in the Premier League, yet in six seasons with Manchester City he’s been beaten to PFA Team of the Year by Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy, Diego Costa, Robin van Persie (twice), Luis Suarez (twice) and Harry Kane (twice), with Kane likely to make it three this season, accompanied by one of his fellow Player of the Year nominees, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku.
Five Argentines have been picked for the PFA’s top-flight Team of the Year, including Fabricio Coloccini, and Aguero isn’t one of them. Five Manchester City players have been picked since Aguero’s arrival, two of them twice, and Aguero isn’t one of them. 175 games, 118 goals, four trophies and a dramatic title-winning strike: not enough, apparently.
As if these omissions weren't bad enough, we have a packed subs bench
Just the 152 clean sheets.
Crucial to Mourinho’s title wins.
Back when Leeds were good.
Utterly brilliant, lest we forget.
Admittedly, he improved in Madrid.
Because the fans can’t vote.
Paolo Di Canio
Because his many opponents could.