FWA Interview: John Cross on Robin van PersieBy CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
Image courtesy of Action Images.
IT IS no surprise that Arsenal striker Robin Van Persie has been elected the Footballer of the Year by members of the Football Writers' Association.
Joe Hart has been a model of consistency for Manchester City; Wayne Rooney, who was runner-up, and the born-again Paul Scholes, who was third, have been magnificent as Manchester United show their customary best form in the second half of the season during the battle with their noisy neighbours for the Barclays Premier League title.
But in terms of consistency from his first goal of the season against Udinese last August no one has done better than Van Persie who operates in football's most demanding role. When members of the FWA decide on their choice they should consider "the professional player who by precept and example" is the Footballer of the Year. The yardstick is not whether a player has helped his team to honours, it is about his individual displays over the season.
That has been the case since the FWA was formed in September, 1947 by Charles Buchan, Roy Peskett, John Thompson and Clifford Webb on their way home from Brussels (by boat) after seeing Stanley Matthews, who was to be the first winner - there was 42 members then as opposed to approaching 300 now - lay on all five goals as England beat Belgium 5-2. Long-serving former chairman Dennis Signy said: "Note the word 'the' in the original minute. Over 60-plus years this has become, in my opinion, the most prestigious award in football. Others have followed suit with similar awards but this is THE Footballer of the Year."
FWA members have one vote each. Occasionally the national committee have discussed the possibility of a 1-2-3 system but with little enthusiasm. It can be said with confidence the Footballer of the Year will remain on a one-member one-vote basis. The roll of honour is a Who's Who of the greats of English football and Van Persie's name sits comfortably alongside the previous winners.
Steve Bates, the FWA chairman, said: "Robin Van Persie has had a wonderful season and is a worthy winner of our award. He joins a long list of outstanding footballers. His goals have lit up the Barclays Premier League and carried Arsenal to the brink of Champions League qualification.
"The quality of his goals, the consistency with which he has scored and his attacking movements have been an eye-catching feature of Arsenal's season. This was reflected by the overwhelming margin of his victory."
John Cross, a self-confessed Gooner who covers Arsenal regularly for the Daily Mirror, underlined the FWA guidelines for voting and said: "When I think of the Footballer of the Year I think of an individual, irrespective of his team's success. I take into account his influence on his team and when you look at all the candidates, and there have been some outstanding performers this season, Van Persie has had more effect on his side than any other player I can think of."
The transfer of Thierry Henry to Barcelona in 2007 may have seen the departure of the player many Arsenal fans consider the finest to wear the famous red shirt but it allowed Van Persie to become the main striker rather than supporting the Frenchman from a wider role.
Cross said: "They were two big personalities when they played together first time round. Henry was so good he overshadowed everyone whether he intended to do this or not. Van Persie was not the only player who struggled a little living in the shadow of Henry. It is only since Henry left for Barcelona that Van Persie has really hit the heights. There's nothing sinister to this, it's just a natural progression.
"Henry set incredibly high standards for himself and as a player Van Persie or anyone can only learn from the best. Van Persie has done that in terms of dedication and focus. Henry was a big student of the game and used to watch hours and hours of football from around the world, taking something from each game. He would analyse his own displays to learn from mistakes. He would also read just about everything that was written about him in the English media.
"Van Persie has followed a similar route. He has a huge appetite to learn and this is a great quality to possess."
As a youngster Van Persie had a spikey side to his character which we still see occasionally. He entered Dutch football folklore during his first season with Feyenoord when there was a dispute over a free-kick with Pierre Van Hooijdonk in front of 50,000 fans. The teenager took the set-piece when the elder player was preparing his run-up. When confidence was handed out Van Persie was near the front of the queue.
Incidents with Tim Krul and Gary Caldwell showed Van Persie has plenty of fire in his belly and Cross said: "He's matured from being a little indisciplined in his early days. Top players need a bit of the devil in them. Van Persie's desire to win makes him a bad loser and that's no bad thing. Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, said 'show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser.' People have accused Arsenal of being a soft touch but not Van Persie.
"He has also changed as a player because when he arrived he was used in a wider position and was something of a supersub for the first couple of years. I never thought of Van Persie as a number nine, only a number 10. I didn't think he would be a central striker but he has been phenomenal this season. Thirty eight goals in 50 games is an outstanding ratio. In fact throughout his Arsenal career has has averaged almost a goal every other game."
While Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira may fit the more traditional view of a captain, Cross believes Van Persie's leadership strengths should not be underestimated. He said: "While he may not bark orders or gee-on his team in a vocal sense, Van Persie leads by example. The way he plays can only insipre his team-mates and I think he has become an excellent captain."
Arsenal's press relations are first-class but the way football has changed over the past 20 years means it is harder for writers to become close to players. Press conferences tend to be stage managed while the mixed zone (aka a bun fight) after Champions League ties and internationals are often the only chance for journalists to grab a quick chat with top players.
Cross said: "Whenever I've been able to talk to Van Persie he's been very helpful. He's honest and forthright in his views and always has something to say. He's taken a back seat recently because of questions about his future but football writers have almost given up asking about this. After a game the other week a reporter from Norway asked me if we'd be talking to Van Persie about it and I told him he'd been asked so many times we wouldn't bother. What more can he say apart from 'we'll see at the end of the season.'?"
Van Persie will sit down with Arsene Wenger next month to discuss his future. The Holland international has another year to run on his contract and while Van Persie loves Arsenal, their history and heritage, the only trophy he has won is a 2005 FA Cup medal as a substitute. With his 29th birthday approaching Van Persie has to decide whether to remain with the club that have helped him become one of the world's most prolific strikers or try his luck elsewhere.
Having lost Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri last summer Arsenal do not want another high profile departure. Cross said: "I'm not sure if he will sign a new contract in the near future but that does not mean Arsenal will sell him this summer. Arsenal are determined, even if he doesn't sign a new deal, that he stays another year. I don't think Arsenal fans would begrudge Van Persie leaving at the end of his contract because they know he has given everything for the cl;ub. But Arsenal will not have their hand forced like they did with Nasri and will want Van Persie to stay until 2013. The club Arsenal fear this summer is Real Madrid."
Van Persie will be aware that Dutch players such as Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Klass-Jan Huntelaar have not prospered at the Bernabeu in recent years.
Cross added: "I think Jose Mourinho tried to sign Van Persie when he was at Inter Milan but I think whatever happens to Mourinho this summer Real will be keen to sign him."
More immediately Van Persie will be at the Lancaster London hotel to collect his Footballer of the Year award on May 3.
Table taken from the official Arsenal website.
FORMER GUNNERS WHO WERE THE FOOTBALLER OF THE YEAR PAY TRIBUTE TO ROBIN VAN PERSIE
Thierry Henry: “I saw him come in here and at the very beginning he wasn’t the easiest guy to deal with but then I wasn’t either, I guess. It’s amazing to see how he has improved. That tells you how intelligent a player he is. I have total admiration for what he is doing right now. Thank God he is playing for Arsenal and doing well. It’s nice to see a player improve. What RVP is doing now, in terms of not just goals but ratio of goals - apart from Ronaldo and Messi - is ridiculous. He is doing something amazing. That also tells you how important it is for him to not be injured. He has never had a chance to have a full season since he has been here, he was always out for two or three months. For the very first time he can go on a roll and you can see the difference. I can only admire what he’s doing now.”
Dennis Bergkamp: “He has been playing in a role [the main striker] which is very difficult. I think it is easier for a guy like Robin or me to play behind the striker and feed the main striker. Basically he is the one up front who has to make a difference which puts a lot of pressure on him but he can deal with it. He can make the difference time after time and in my opinion that describes a great player. It’s incredible how he has developed himself and players like that deserve trophies. His character and style of play is fantastic.”