Jul

Footballer of The Year 19/20

Alison Bender   Uncategorised  

The FWA have just announced their footballer of the year. Jordan Henderson, and I couldn’t be happier for him.

I cast my vote, leaving it as late as I could so I could consider as much of the season as possible, and unlike most years it was a pretty tricky decision.

For me, it had to be a Liverpool player; after 30 years of waiting they’d finally won the League and they’d done it by such a huge margin; still able to set a new club record points tally of 99 for the season if they win their final game against Newcastle.

My attentions turned straight to Sadio Mane who has scored 21 goals this season,17 in the Premier League which has contributed a staggering 18 points. A few people had mentioned the assists of Firmino, but he’s not managed to find the back of the net at Anfield (until Liverpool’s 4th on Wednesday night against Chelsea) and has been on a bit of a dry run lately; I was looking for consistency.

On the Football Writer’s Association website it states clearly that the vote for footballer of the year that has been taking place since 1947 (not the PFA Player of the year which took place 25 years later) it is not just about footballing ability, but something originally referred to as leading “by precept and example” which means your contributions off the pitch.

That lead me to consider players like Marcus Rashford who used his voice off the pitch forcing the government into a U-turn which saw free school dinners back on the agenda after the most terrible of times for some during this pandemic.  This off the pitch contribution had been key to last year’s winner Raheem Sterling who had started to stand up for racism when few other players felt able to do so.

This is a concept I like, especially in a footballing world where players such as Ronaldo and Messi exist, incredible footballers with bags of natural ability. I like the idea that someone can be rewarded for effort, leadership, improvement and developing others around them. It is a theory close to my heart, I’m writing my first book on the subject; the idea that someone can achieve success through hard work and self determination as much as raw talent alone. For that reason my vote went to Liverpool’s captain Jordan Henderson.

Jordan took the captaincy from Steven Gerrard in July 2015 and has been the model pro ever since. It may not be a popular vote, I know his footballing ability is not the best in that team, and I did toy with voting for Virgil Van Dijk. I was one of the lucky few allowed to watch Liverpool lift their trophy at Anfield on Wednesday; an honour not wasted on me.

Prior to this I’d been watching Premier League games with natural sound, ie. no false crowd noise as I wanted to get a sense of what the players were experiencing. Nothing beats the real thing though, and once inside the stadium I noticed just how vocal some of the players are. Virgil Van Dijk with his low reverberating tones was the one who stood out, constantly organising his team throughout.

Henderson was absent with a knee injury sustained in the win over Brighton so he wasn’t able to in use his influence on the pitch, but he was there pre match doing all the media duties and supporting his team; a confident talker and friendly face to the media. A player who has always had to fight for his place; he’s selfless on the pitch, assisting those around him, and versatile too, having to fill in at defensive midfield when Fabinho was injured. There is clear adulation for “Hendo” from his teammates too. Andy Robertson said he is technically one of the most underrated players in the team. Of course there are other talented players in that team, and you only have to look at the quality of those goals on Wednesday night to have your vote pulled all over that squad. Trent Alexander Arnold’s Free kick was exquisite.

When the final whistle blew on Wednesday night and the players milled around the pitch, it was one of the most surreal endings to a football match I’ve ever seen. It was eerily quiet, and didn’t feel anywhere near as historic as it should have. The players did get their Championship moment, as the music belted out, pyrotechnics blasted and personalised ticker tape flew around the stadium. At that moment it was hard to see if there were fans or not, and must have felt like “the moment.”

After Jurgen Klopp’s interview with Sky he swaggered over to my camera and leant casually across the railings, beaming. I reciprocated his actions and screamed my question over the noise. “So how does it feel to finally get your hands on that trophy?” It was a strange moment because it reminded me of my first question to him, here in the same location four and a half years ago in October 2015 when he was unveiled as Liverpool manager. Then I’d asked him if it felt surreal to finally be here and in many ways the question now was the same one.

“I woke up this morning and I was manager of Liverpool FC” He told me. “Of course it’s absolutely crazy what’s happened here. Like I said when I left Dortmund it’s not important what people think when you come in, what’s more important is what people think when you leave. Please give us the time to work on it… if we want this could be really special, if we want and if we are prepared to work for it, if we are patient….in a special Liverpool way we can be successful but we can wait for it…I don’t want to say we have to wait the next 20 years, but in four years I think we’ve won one title in this time, I’m pretty sure.” And he was right, four full seasons and he was lifting that trophy.

After Liverpool lost the Champions League final to Real Madrid I bumped into Jordan Henderson on a family holiday in Portugal. It was only a couple of weeks after the event and he was clearly still hurting, you could see how much this had meant to him. My mother in-law uncomfortably remarked at how small his feet looked and he replied cheerily “they’re a 7 and a half.” There are not many footballers who would have been so gracious given the circumstances, but that’s Henderson. He’s used to the criticism and it bounces off him leaving him the energy to focus on the real things that matter.

As he walked up to me on Wednesday night, medal hanging proudly round his neck I was tempted to tell him he’d got my vote, but I shouldn’t imagine he cared, he’d just lifted the Premier League with his team mates; posting the picture on his Instagram with the words: “Anything is possible. Never stop believing.”