My first personal football honour: ‘Most Improved Player 1977-78’.
Delighted with that accolade, I couldn’t wait to show off the gleaming trophy to my dad, who’d played semi-pro football in England before I was born.
Joe Laverty looked distinctly underwhelmed.
“Most Improved Player... you know what that means, son? It means they thought you were useless, and now they think you’re a little bit less useless...”
Cheers Dad. That man, God rest him, always knew how to ruin a young teenager’s moment. Or, as he claimed, keep Our Kid’s feet on the ground.
Mine were so leaden anyway, they needed little help on that score.
Still, I regarded my ‘Most Improved Player 1977-78’ award (Nigel Worthington was, I believe, a previous recipient) as recognition that I’d done something right, and team-mates in that Ballymena youth team agreed I was a worthy recipient.
It’s rare when a quorum is reached on who merits what, come the end of a football season.
There were few grumbles, however, when Linfield’s Chris Shields scooped the men’s Player of the Year title at the Northern Ireland Football Awards last month.
But across the water, it was less clear cut. Mo Salah was crowned as the Footballer of the Year, although the Liverpool man would hardly have been shocked had Manchester City’s peerless Kevin de Bruyne pipped him to that one.
No, the real consternation came when the shortlist was published without KDB’s midfield colleagues Bernardo Silva and Rodri on it.
And where on earth was Son Heung-min’s name?
The South Korean was, by a country mile, Tottenham Hotspur’s best player last season — yet it was his team-mate, frontline partner and Bloke Who Says ‘Obviously’ An Awful Lot, Harry Kane, who got the nod ahead of him. Really, guys?
Not only that, but Cristiano Ronaldo also made it onto a six-strong list that also omitted West Ham United’s Declan Rice, leading to accusations that the selections owed more to a player’s profile and status than his overall performances throughout the season.
Kane and Ronnie had decent enough seasons, and ‘decent enough’ was apparently sufficient to get them in there.
Still, it’s all subjective, right? Footballer of the Year is decided by the Football Writers’ Association, an august body of correspondents from the national newspapers.
Player of the Year, on the other hand, is chosen by the Professional Footballers’ Association, who occasionally choose a different winner but, on this occasion, made it a Salah double.
Or maybe a treble, with the Egyptian maestro also one of six Liverpool players chosen in the PFA’s Team of the Year.
That’s twice as many as City who, lest we forget, won the Premier League for the second successive season.
Salah deserved to be in there, Sadio Mane too, and (although he can’t defend) Trent Alexander-Arnold — but it’s hard to justify Virgil van Dijk, world-class centre-back though he is, getting the nod ahead of City’s magnificent Aymeric Laporte.
Moreover, was Thiago, who was nevertheless undoubtedly and regularly impressive, a more effective midfielder than Rodri (or even Rice) last season?
And, at the risk of repeating myself, did the majority of those professional players really believe Ronnie was better than Son Heung-min in 2021-22?
To be fair, I suspect Son was a victim of the votes being cast in early April; after which he made a major contribution to Spurs’ late surge to the top four while Ronnie’s form fell off a cliff.
With that in mind, perhaps the voters believed in April that Liverpool were heading for the unprecedented Quadruple.
In the end, however, City bagged the biggest prize, scored the most goals, conceded the joint-fewest and won the most games.
There’s little doubt that, had the votes been later in the season, the PFA Team of the Year would have been different.
But, prior to most of the silverware being dished out, the ‘impression’ seemed to be that Liverpool have more recognisable ‘stars’ than City, whose first XI is less easily identified.
They also have, in Salah and the now departed Mane, prolific, high-profile, headline-grabbing strikers — something City haven’t had since Sergio Aguero drifted out of the first-team reckoning although it didn’t prevent them winning back-to-back PL titles.
That has changed with the purchase of Erling Haaland but, as I mentioned in a previous column, there’s no guarantee that the Norwegian goal machine will actually blend seamlessly into a City ethos based on teamwork, constant rotation, possession and collective hard-running.
They had six players in last year’s (2020-21) PFA Team of the Year, but won the league by the proverbial country mile, rather than a single point.
Even so, in the three seasons when City, under Pep Guardiola, finished with 90-plus points, it was a non-City star who got the nod as PFA Player of the Year.
The failure to properly recognise Son, however, remains the most egregious omission.
He finished level with Salah for the Premier League’s golden boot but doesn’t take spot kicks and scored five more non-penalty goals — i.e, from open play — than the Liverpool man.
Son’s remarkable form under Antonio Conte was the principal reason Spurs are in next season’s Champions League.
He won all his own club’s personal player awards... yet his fellow professionals still decided that Kane, who scored 10 fewer goals in the Premier League, was more deserving of a place in the top six.
If only Son was the England captain, and not from a little-known town in Southeast Asia...
What’s the odds he gets nominated next season, with less impressive stats?
Son scored 23 Premier League goals — six more than in the previous campaign.
That was worth ‘Most Improved Player’ at least...