Georgina Turner
Friday April 16th, 2010

John Terry described it as "the ultimate accolade" after winning it in Chelsea's title-winning 2005 season; Cesc Fabregas was proud to claim a "very prestigious trophy" after bagging the young player title in 2008. To English football's elite, it is the decoration they crave most, the recognition of their peers. So why is the Professional Footballers' Association's (PFA) latest batch of shortlists for its end-of-season awards so underwhelming?

That's not to say that Wayne Rooney, Fabregas, Didier Drogba and Carlos Tevez, the four listed for the PFA Player of the Year, do not deserve recognition for their impact on this season. Rooney is the strong favorite, and rightly so. Manchester United has relied upon him entirely. Statistics alone confirm Fabregas' importance at Arsenal; 15 goals and 15 assists make him the club's top scorer and the league's top provider. Drogba is chasing Rooney for this season's golden boot, even if Chelsea has shown itself better able to manage in his absence. Tevez has his highest Premier League goal return leading Manchester City's front line (22 in 30 games so far) and will no doubt be looking forward to rubbing Alex Ferguson's nose in it in front of his crowing new supporters when United visit City tomorrow.

But the whole thing still seems flawed. For starters, the votes are cast too early; why? Must players submit their choices by sea mail to a remote processing center? Surely a premium rate text number would have them all typing away feverishly with their handsets in no time. Given a bit more time, players may this year have found themselves tempted by the artistry of Florent Malouda over his teammate, Drogba. A later vote would still fail to persuade players of the merits of some -- Frank Lampard has produced had possibly his finest season in Chelsea's midfield and once again fails to make the cut -- but a later deadline would at least encourage a little more reflection.

Without the constant barrage of headlines that the season brings, players might engage their brains for a moment before picking up their pencils, rather than simply ticking the season's top-four pin-up boys. Of course the sight of Fabregas hobbling on a fractured leg epitomizes his dedication to Arsenal's cause, but would a bit more brainwork not lead the thinker towards the contribution of someone like Fabregas' teammate Thomas Vermaelen, at least for a second? Vermaelen's own absence for the remainder of the season will be every bit as detrimental to an Arsenal team that suffered its first defeat at White Hart Lane for 11 years, and travel next to face Wigan on Sunday.

There are always going to be players who miss out because their importance to their club is not replicated by their impact on the league. Steven Pienaar (Everton), Matthew Etherington (Stoke) and Luka Modric (Tottenham) have all been at the heart of things for their respective clubs without attracting too much fanfare. Inevitably, a shortlist -- this year reduced from six to four names -- must fail to accommodate some excellent players. But the selection of four attacking players is a failure to acknowledge the value of performances further back the pitch. This is hardly a surprise -- Terry is the only defender to have won the award since 1993 -- but in a season when 'Big Four' defenses have looked more suspect than usual, it smacks of a lack of imagination that the best defenders elsewhere have also been overlooked.

Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill won't regret a penny of the $7.5 million he spent on Richard Dunne last summer; the former Manchester City man's strength and anticipation has surely earned him a spot in the league's team of the season. After another quietly impressive season, Everton's Leighton Baines is also a candidate for the back line. Michael Dawson has been magnificent at the back for Spurs: recent stats have him winning 84 percent of tackles made and making twice as many interceptions and headed clearances per game as Rio Ferdinand. Matthew Upson and Gary Cahill may be battling at the other end of the table, but their muscular resilience to the endless onslaught West Ham and Bolton have faced this season deserves credit nonetheless.

These are not names to better the four chosen, but the fact that they did not stand a chance of being recognized in this vote is to be lamented. If the decision rests on goals and assists, we may as well use the Actim Index and be done with it. Perhaps we need to lower our expectations; after all, this is the award that went to Ryan Giggs in 2009, arguably his worst season in 18 years of Premiership football. Or perhaps we need to split the award between attack and defense, and throw in a Lifetime Achievement gong for good measure. But then the additional category currently in place -- Young Player of the Year -- is already an unfortunate waste of time. This year Rooney and Fabregas find themselves on the list, despite both having won it in the past -- Rooney twice, and as long ago as 2005 -- alongside Villa's James Milner and Birmingham City's Joe Hart.

PFA chief Gordon Taylor is right to praise Milner for the fact that "he has stuck in there, shown his adaptability and versatility and made it to the top", but having had eight years to do so, the 24-year-old's selection isn't really in the spirit of the thing now, is it? Fabregas is only 22, but with six full seasons at Arsenal under his belt, and the captain's armband on his sleeve -- not to mention his young player title two years ago -- his eligibility is almost as laughable as Rooney's. Hart is the only nominee who looks a comfortable fit on such a list; he turns 23 on Monday and is playing only his third full season. Irrespective of the rules, however, it's a worry that previous incumbents should still attract votes in a season that has produced plenty of other young talent.

Alongside Hart ought to be such names as Jack Rodwell, Everton's dexterous 19-year-old midfielder, or Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey, also 19, who had already done enough before being injured in February to be a viable contender. The exclusion of Gareth Bale (20), whose switch from left back to left midfield has produced some sizzling displays for Tottenham, is completely baffling. Bringing razzmatazz to Bolton's midfield might not be that difficult in comparison, but Lee Chung-Yong (21), has done enough in his first season in English football to attract attention from other clubs, including Liverpool. His comfort on the ball is a revelation, and he and Jack Wilshere, on loan from Arsenal and only 18, combined well to discomfit Chelsea earlier this week, although the league leaders won 1-0. If anyone at Bolton can unlock Stoke City's defense at home tomorrow, it's likely to be a pair with such energy. They may not be better than Rooney or Fabregas, but these are the kinds of players -- barely past puberty, full of potential, having an impact -- that should form the basis of conversations about young players of the year.

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