The Footballer Of The Year is announced this morning at 10am, and one thing is certain — not everyone will agree with the choice.
Praise and opprobrium often follow in equal measure on the choice of player voted for by members of the Football Writers’ Association (FWA) in England, who have been bestowing the honour since 1948, making it the oldest individual award of its kind in world football.
And one key difference between the writers’ award and the PFA’s Player of the Year, which started a quarter of a century later, is that journalists traditionally consider demeanour on and off the field of play as much if not more than pure footballing ability.
The original wording laid down in 1947 by the FWA’s founding fathers, who included former England internationals Charles Buchan and Ivan Sharpe, was to make an award to the player, who “by precept and example, is deemed to be the Footballer of the Year”.
That phrase makes a crucial difference between the player who has simply shown the most impressive skills — which could be the same man every year — and the footballer who has carried himself well, shown good character, and made a significant impact on the English game.
The fact that the first winner was Stanley Matthews encapsulates this concept best.
Not only was Matthews arguably the greatest English player of all time, but he was an exemplary player, never booked, a fitness fanatic and visionary, a superb ambassador for the game.
He won it again in 1963, shortly before retiring with the distinction of being the oldest man to appear in English football’s top flight, at the age of 50.
So it is not always the best footballer who wins. Sometimes players are recognised more for outstanding achievements than ability, such as 1969, when the award was shared by Dave Mackay and Tony Book, the ageing but highly successful captains of Derby County and Manchester City.
This year, for example, votes were cast for Marcus Rashford after his superb initiative in helping to feed underprivileged children and force a change in policy from the UK government. Yet few would argue Rashford has been the best footballer in the Premier League.
Jordan Henderson is a front-runner, yet even his biggest fans would concede he has not had as good a season on the pitch as team-mates such as Sadio Mane, Virgil Van Dijk or Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Many football writers, including yours truly, consider Kevin De Bruyne to be the best and most complete footballer currently playing in England, but he may miss out to a Liverpool player because of their success in winning the Premier League.
One wonders how De Bruyne will be viewed if he can lead Manchester City to Champions League success.
But he, or another player, may yet triumph if we get a repeat of 1999, when Manchester United failed to produce the Footballer of the Year despite completing the treble of Premier League, Champions League, and FA Cup.
There were a handful of outstanding candidates — Roy Keane, Peter Schmeichel, Ryan Giggs, Teddy Sheringham and more — but the Red vote was split and Tottenham’s David Ginola came through to win. Suffice to say Alex Ferguson was not impressed and his infamously low opinion of most football journalists dropped another level.
“What do youse lot know?” was the tone of his riposte.
It is a moot point. Often the PFA Player of the Year will thank his fellow professionals and say to be voted best by one’s peers is the highest honour.
Yet most players also know how little thought is usually given by PFA members to their voting obligations.
The procedure is that each club captain or PFA rep will collate votes, often casually followed en masse, and forward them to PFA HQ.
In the case of the FWA, each of the 500-plus members has a vote, and the diversity of opinion is a good indicator of consideration given by journalists who are usually professionally unbiased, often have decades of experience, and have watched thousands of games.
So it is not unknown for the Footballer of the Year to praise FWA members for their good taste and judgement — and even Fergie had to admit we got it right when Keane, Sheringham, Cristiano Ronaldo (twice) and Wayne Rooney subsequently won the award.
Traditionally the presentation has been made at a gala dinner in London on the Thursday before the FA Cup final, initially at the long-gone Hungaria restaurant, then Cafe Royal for many years, before moving to the Royal Lancaster Hotel. It is now hosted by the Landmark Hotel, although this year has been postponed because of Covid-19.
It has also been shifted from pre-FA Cup final Thursdays in order to accommodate the final weekend of the Premier League, after which many players jet off on holiday.
Only a handful of winners have failed to accept their trophy in person, some with good reason, others not.
Terry McDermott caused much consternation when he failed to arrive at the dinner as planned in 1980.
A few frantic phone calls brought news that the Liverpool midfielder was at the races, somewhat the worse for drink, and would not be attending!
Perhaps it was no coincidence that, in later years, McDermott sold his award and the PFA trophy he won the same season, as well as other medals.
Some players had more reasonable excuses. When I became FWA Chairman in 2003, Thierry Henry was the winner and a charming guest. But when he retained it the following year, he was invited to play in Fifa’s centenary game against a Uefa 11 in Paris on the same night, so Gary Lineker, another two-time winner, accepted the award on his behalf with a superb speech that confirmed the former England captain’s coming of age as a public speaker.
The following year, Frank Lampard kept me and the FWA committee on tenterhooks by announcing in advance that he would be late in accepting his award. It was entirely understandable, however. Chelsea had won the title four days earlier, and one of their biggest fans was a 10-year-old girl called Lucy, who was terminally ill with a brain tumour, and not expected to live long enough to see them win. She battled on so that she could be at Stamford Bridge for the final game — and get a hug from her favourite player, Frank Lampard.
She passed away soon afterwards, and he was determined to attend her funeral, in Kent, on the same day as our awards night. Having had his car stolen the night before, and then getting stuck in traffic on the way back to the dinner, I would have forgiven Lampard for saying a quick ‘thank you’ and sitting down again. But he wowed the audience of 600 or so guests from the world of football and media, including four former England managers, with a speech that was at times moving, witty, gracious and always heartfelt.
It brought the house down, restored one’s faith in footballers as fine human beings, and was reprinted in full that weekend in the Observer.
Not all winners have been so determined to make the event. Luis Suarez informed the FWA he was needed on urgent club business overseas in 2014, but it transpired he was making an advert for his sponsors. A year later, Eden Hazard cancelled on the day of the award, citing surgery on his troublesome wisdom teeth, which came as a surprise to one of our colleagues who had interviewed him the day before.
But mostly the winners have been gracious, honoured, and spoken warmly about the award. Past winners are always invited back to the dinner, and some of the old-timers such as the great Pat Jennings never miss it, as a chance to catch up with old friends from the world of football and journalism.
Jennings was one of those players who won both FWA and PFA awards, a universally popular winner. Other winners have been more contentious, and there is always debate about who should have won.
But as our former chairman Dennis Signy used to say: “We don’t always get it right, but we rarely get it wrong!”