The Football Writers Association has an unofficial criteria for its end-of-season award.
Charles Buchan, a writer for Football Monthly and one of the founders of the accolade, suggested that some form of recognition be given to a player who was considered to have stood out by “precept and example” to be considered the footballer of the year.
On Saturday, the Professional Footballers Association announced its shortlists for their player of the year awards for 2018/19. Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk and Manchester City attacker Raheem Sterling are the frontrunners, each prominent in their respective team’s charge to win what would be a momentous league title.
Van Dijk has transformed Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp’s defence was shambolic until the Dutchman was recruited in January 2018, and for all the quality in attack, where team-mate Sadio Mane has also been nominated and Mohamed Salah, winner of both the FWA and PFA awards last season, is one of the more controversial snubs in the history of the award, it’s safe to say that without their £75million defender, the Reds wouldn’t be genuine title contenders this season and Liverpool would be waiting for 28 years to tick over 29 on their league title drought.
For one player to single-handedly have such an outsized impact on a team, and consequently on the destination of the country’s biggest trophy, usually would be enough to romp to an award win. Yet his task is made twice as hard by his position – it’s been over a decade since a defender was named PFA’s player of the year, and 30 years since one won the FWA award.
And, of course, there’s the competition. Sterling has managed 23 goals and 11 assists, and emerged as the most crucial player in a side that includes Kevin de Bruyne – though he’s been injured – David Silva, Bernardo Silva and Sergio Aguero – the latter two have also both been nominated.
City could perhaps still be challengers without Sterling, given that players like Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez are being kept on the bench and maybe would have developed in a similar way if their colleague wasn’t around. Though that does a disservice to the determination and strength of personality that Sterling marries to his prodigious talent.
Speaking of that strength of personality. In the history of this award, only four winners have been black – N’Golo Kante, Thierry Henry, Les Ferdinand, and John Barnes. Mohamed Salah and Mahrez, both Muslims, are the only other non-white players to have won a gong that has been given out since 1974.
The list of great non-white players to have missed out on this award includes players like Didier Drogba, Andy Cole, and Rio Ferdinand. This is not to say that players have been deliberately looked over because of their race, nor that anyone should be awarded purely because of their skin colour or religion. But it makes a statement that barring a major surprise, either Van Dijk or Sterling will join a small group of players to have been recognised.
Back to that “precept and example” criteria. This season, Sterling has had to embrace a new role: one of the leaders in the sadly still-ongoing fight against racism in football.
Ever since he rose through the ranks to become a first-team player at Liverpool, his career has been in constant scrutiny. Newspaper headlines about buying a car or a house for his mother, abuse for leaving the Reds for City that was far more vitriolic than deserved – and Sterling has recently spoken out about the racism he dealt with in Merseyside – over-the-top criticism for his national team performances when several other Englishmen have been spared.
The 24-year-old has dealt with the abuse with class – not that this should be a requisite anymore; the days of Jackie Robinson breaking through in baseball in America and having to resist every provocation because reacting would end his dream of a sporting career are long gone. Sterling would be well justified to hit back immediately and angrily to any racism he’s subjected to.
Instead, in the face of abuse from a fan against Chelsea, Sterling simply laughed and took to social media to make a statement, pointing out the different coverage two of his youth team-mates – Tosin Adarabioyo, black, and Phil Foden, white – received when buying houses for their mothers.
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Good morning I just want to say , I am not normally the person to talk a lot but when I think I need my point to heard I will speak up. Regarding what was said at the Chelsea game as you can see by my reaction I just had to laugh because I don’t expect no better. For example you have two young players starting out there careers both play for the same team, both have done the right thing. Which is buy a new house for there mothers who have put in a lot of time and love into helping them get where they are, but look how the news papers get there message across for the young black player and then for the young white payer. I think this in unacceptable both innocent have not done a thing wrong but just by the way it has been worded. This young black kid is looked at in a bad light. Which helps fuel racism an aggressive behaviour, so for all the news papers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all i have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity an give all players an equal chance.
Then there was Montenegro last month, when he stood up for himself and England colleague Callum Hudson-Odoi in the wake of abuse from the home fans during England’s 5-1 win in which he scored the final goal and then celebrated by holding his ears, letting the crowd know he’d heard exactly what they’d said.
There is an argument that this is a football award that should be determined by footballing exploits. But narratives always take hold. Van Dijk is benefitting from one himself.
Sterling is spearheading Man City’s bid to become the first to defend the Premier League title since 2011. It’s not quite as good a story leading one of England’s biggest clubs to a first league title in 29 years. Advantage, Van Dijk.
But the City attacker isn’t just starring on the pitch. He’s growing up and coming of age with the entire country’s eyes on him, and forcing that country to face a reckoning about itself.
If there’s a footballer who’s stood out by precept and example this season it’s Sterling.
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Unai Emery fears Arsenal blew a big opportunity in the Premier League’s top four race by losing 3-2 at home to Crystal Palace.
Christian Benteke, Wilfried Zaha and James McArthur all found the net as Palace stunned Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, hindering the Gunners’ chances of Champions League qualification.
Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struck for Arsenal but the Gunners never looked like pulling off any kind of rescue act, leaving manager Emery counting the cost in defeat.
“It was very frustrating because it was a big opportunity,” said Emery.
“But we’ve had plenty of big opportunities before today, plenty of key moments, that give us the opportunity to achieve our first target, to play in the Champions League next year.
“But yes, today we lost a big opportunity. It doesn’t change our idea or plan for the next match. It’s in our hands. I still have confidence though and I want to be positive.
“Because we have been working hard to be in this key moment with the chance to finish in the top four.
“We can be proud of the whole season. Today we’re frustrated but tomorrow we have to stand up and prepare for Wednesday’s trip to Wolves.”
Shkodran Mustafi produced a string of mistakes on a day to forget in the Easter sun in north London, but boss Emery refused to lay the blame at the feet of the Germany defender.
Emery said: “We cannot speak about the player usually. I prefer to speak about the consistency in the season.
“And today also against players like Benteke, Zaha, you can suffer more than in different situations. If we were better in set-pieces we could win this match.
“And also if we could control possession especially in the attacking third. We didn’t find the best situation to take more chances. I think Mustafi has been consistent (across the season).”
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Tottenham are increasingly confident that star midfielder Christian Eriksen will sign a new deal at the club, according to reports.
The 27-year-old has been linked with a summer exit, with Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Manchester United all said to be interested in securing the Denmark man’s services.
Eriksen’s current contract runs out next summer, and negotiations between club and player had seemingly stalled as Europe’s biggest clubs circled around the current Premier League season’s joint-assist leader.
However, Goal report that the club expects former Ajax star Eriksen to sign a new deal that will double the Dane’s £75,000-per-week wage, which will bring him on par with midfielder Dele Alli, who signed a new contract in October.
Eriksen has been instrumental in Tottenham’s success in recent seasons, and the club were reluctant to lose out on such a key player.
At 27, the player is set to enter his prime, and Tottenham, who are locked in a battle to secure a top-four spot and Champions League qualification that comes with it, want the Dane to help take the club further in the next few seasons.