It’s that time of year when the question constantly being asked is: “Who is your player of the season?” (Unless you are asking on behalf of one of the official awards organisers, in which case you asked this question about six months earlier). In this case the question being asked is who is the Liverpool FC player of the season?
As anyone with a remote interest in the English league could tell you the Reds’ season was split into two distinct and very different halves. The first half was played under dark clouds and endless thunderstorms, daylight was nowhere to be seen and words like ‘miserable’, ‘angry’ and ‘relegation’ were often to be heard. The second half was played in glorious sunshine with not a cloud in sight, with plenty of cold beer on ice and words like ‘joy’, ‘delight’ and ‘victory’ often to be heard. That’s less of an exaggeration than it might seem meaning there’s little point looking at performances from Roy Hodgson’s ‘era’ when choosing a player of the season.
Kenny Dalglish knew that the biggest problem at Anfield had nothing to do with transfer budgets or what type of marking to use. It wasn’t about which players shouldn’t have been sold or which players shouldn’t have replaced them. The issues Liverpool had were on a list longer than the Mersey but the biggest problem was what was missing at the club, and that was unity. On his return in January he set about restoring it; in no time at all the team were winning games and problems became opportunities, certainly where injuries saw certain players getting a chance they might not have expected to get.
At the back
In defence Kenny has seen injury after injury which means he’s rarely had the opportunity to pick the same back four. Skrtel has played every league game so far this season and has certainly looked more assured in Kenny’s half of the season; Carragher came back from injury after Kenny’s return but problems at full-back saw him deployed at right-back once or twice. Eventually those injury problems have proved a blessing because, after seeing Martin Kelly fulfil the promise many knew he had, Kenny later went with the even younger duo of John Flanagan and, to a lesser extent, Jack Robinson, both of whom exceeded expectations. On top of that Glen Johnson got back to the kind of form that had seen Liverpool fight for his signature in summer 2009; playing on the left seems to have rejuvenated him, although that might just be down to the general change in mood and boost in performance that most of the squad have displayed.
Whilst the younger players have been getting so much positive press it’s been easy to ignore the importance of that man who plays behind them all. Pepe Reina has played a big part in letting those youngsters settle in, giving them the confidence that comes from having someone of his quality and experience keeping goal. But more importantly, in the grand scheme of things, Pepe spoke out more than once against the former owners and made it clear that changes needed to be made – including investing in the squad – if the club was to match the ambitions of its better players. He signed a new deal a year ago but with that reportedly containing minimum-fee release conditions, the club continually in a mess and the cloud showing no sign of lifting his future was increasingly looking likely to be elsewhere. Pepe wouldn’t have taken leaving Liverpool, and uprooting his family, lightly but that clause gave him the opportunity to take that drastic step because there’s little doubt that he’d have had a number of suitors to choose from at that price.
In some quarters there were mutterings of discontent that he wasn’t going on the record to confirm his commitment to the club, with one or two becoming rather critical of the best keeper Liverpool have had in many years. Yet what Reina was doing wasn’t disloyal, as the cries from the usual sulking far extremes of the support were suggesting – he was ensuring that any doubts about the new owners, however small, were unfounded. Four years of broken promises, from rogue owners and the men sent by the bank, meant the words “trust us” meant little to him and had he gone it would have sent out a message to supporters that all wasn’t well after all. His recent comments about believing in the project suggest that all is as well as we can ask it to be and Pepe is a contender for player of the year for the part he’s played both on and off the pitch.
In the middle
In midfield the last remaining member of “best midfield in the world” (according to the Kop song) was hardly able to prove he was worthy of such a title. Some will read far too much into his body language and even suggest he doesn’t care, but Steven Gerrard does care, deeply, and frustration is easy to misread. Injury niggles have plagued his season and his last act in a Liverpool shirt this term was to force himself to play through injury in the 3-1 defeat of Manchester United at Anfield. The efforts he made to get onto that pitch should say enough to silence his detractors; the surgery that followed, twice, should be enough to make them want to curl up and hide. A fully fit and fully rested Steven Gerrard will see some top flight managers wishing they could join them.
His absences, the loss of the others names from that version of the song and the farming out of the £17m Aquilani on a free 12 month loan to Juventus meant that some other names got the chance to stake a claim to one of the many positions Steven might have been otherwise used in. Joe Cole and Milan Jovanovich were worth every penny of their transfer fees, if not their wages, and seem unlikely to be here next season. Lucas Leiva – once said to have been on the last MD’s cull list – has become the master of Liverpool’s midfield, leading by example and never once letting any criticism upset him. The baby-rocking celebrations from most of the team shortly after he became a dad said a great deal about the team spirit there is at the club nowadays. For many fans Lucas is their player of the year and he’s certainly deserving of a nomination.
Jay Spearing has come of age and at the very least is a useful player to have in the squad. If he improves as much next season as he has this he’ll be more than a useful squad player. Raul Meireles is said by some to be Roy Hodgson’s one good signing, but there is always some dispute about whose signing he actually was. It no longer matters, but Kenny and Steve Clark deserve some praise for getting the best out of him, something that wasn’t happening in the cloudier half of the season. Maxi Rodriguez was a good signing and isn’t on the kind of wages some people suggest he is. On his day he’s a vital member of the team and in recent games he’s been on his day quite a bit.
When it turned out to be true, that Fernando Torres really did want to leave, it took some time to sink in and a lot of fans were absolutely devastated. His form hadn’t been great but there was always a feeling that it was only a matter of time before it got back to how it used to be, and with Kenny around he couldn’t have asked for a better teacher or motivator. But Nando’s mind had been made up long before and he wasn’t going to turn down what must have felt like a final opportunity to escape. From feeling angry and disgusted with him a lot of fans now feel sorry for him, he seems to have listened to the wrong advice and looks to have made a bad decision – but there aren’t any calls to have him back.
As Torres went out Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll came in. Carroll looks more than a little promising, although the usual snipers will be watching and waiting to see when it’s the ideal time to pile some pressure on his shoulders, especially the England-supporting snipers that seem to take great pleasure in doing down their supposed heroes. Kenny will do all in his power to give them few opportunities for that and Carroll seems the kind of character that will prove them wrong the best way of all – on the pitch.
Suarez was coming to the club regardless of what went on with Torres but his arrival was somewhat overshadowed by the last-minute changing of the number nines. He took Kenny’s old number, a number that has proved to be a burden to many of those who’ve worn it in the past, and never once seemed troubled by it. He’s been outstanding and he’s ours, which is such a nice feeling to have, and if he continues the same way next season he’ll be player of the year hands down.
One player who might have felt threatened by the arrival of Suarez is Dirk Kuyt, but Kuyt continues to be part of the plans of every manager he plays for and having just been rewarded with a new contract he looks set to remain part of Kenny’s plans. For various reasons he’s been used in a host of positions this season and has played well in all of them. He’s shown he can do a decent job up front alone but his best position is anywhere in support of the main striker. His attitude is outstanding and transmits itself to the rest of the squad; incredible self belief and an outright refusal to give up. Like Lucas he’s had a lot of stick and been many a supporter’s scapegoat for the past few years – but who else would a Liverpool fan want on the pitch after a penalty has been awarded? It’s perhaps the first time since Jan Molby was turning footballs into cannonballs that we’ve felt so confident about our penalty taker.
And the winner is…
All things considered Dirk Kuyt gets my award for player of the season, but he’ll have some stiff competition next season. Lucas will get better as will many of the others, including Suarez and Carroll. There’ll be new signings over the summer and competition for places that is healthy rather than grudge-causing. And next season we should be able to look back fondly at the whole season, not just the final half.