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THE FOOTBALLER OF THE YEAR RACE IS ON – COULD IT BE A DEAD HEAT?

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

“The professional player who, by precept and example, is considered by a ballot of members to be the Footballer of the Year.” – from the Football Writers’ Association’s minutes, 1948.

THE DISCUSSIONS, some of the heated variety, are already in full flow. Who should be the recipient of the Football Writers’ Association’s Footballer of the Year award on May 9?

In the past decade the winner has often been obvious from February or March as Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie joined the illustrious list of winners. This season three players are dominating the thoughts of those who will vote: Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez and van Persie. Others such as Juan Mata, Michu and Michael Carrick have their respective claims, but the Tottenham midfielder and the strikers of Liverpool and Manchester United are the current favourites.

The criteria laid down by Charlie Buchan, the writer-publisher of Football Monthly, in 1948 still applies today. The original founder members – Buchan, Roy Peskett, John Thompson and Clifford Webb – decided on a boat trip home from England’s 5-2 win in Brussels to form the Association. Buchan later proposed an award to “the professional player who, by precept and example, is considered by a ballot of members to be the Footballer of the Year.”

This asks that more than playing outstanding football is taken into account and Liverpool supporters, understandably defensive of one of two ignominious entries on Suarez’s cv which may preclude some FWA members giving him their vote, would point out Eric Cantona won the award in 1996 despite being banned until October 1 for his kung-fu kick at a Crystal Palace supporter, though the incident occurred the previous season.

In 2013 it is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect any top player not to have been involved in some controversy or other, be it simulation, a red card or an off-field indiscretion. It is a decision for FWA members where to draw the line. What has never been a yardstick is whether the footballer about to receive a member’s vote is part of a successful team. It is an individual award and many Footballers of the Year did not play for trophy-winning sides.

The award is decided on a one vote per member basis. The FWA have briefly discussed a top three voting system, but the view has always been that nothing is broke and doesn’t need fixing. Similarly, the FWA have never seriously considered a Young Footballer of the Year or a manager’s award. The FWA have one award and the belief is that adds to the prestige of the Footballer of the Year.

The FWA had 42 members when Sir Stanley Matthews was chosen as the first recipient in 1948. Around eight times that total will be involved in deciding who will receive the trophy from chairman Andy Dunn at the Lancaster London hotel two days before the FA Cup final with more than 700 guests present – a far cry from the first dinner which was held in the Hungaria Restaurant in Mayfair, though the restaurant at Waterloo Station was also discussed.

Maybe, just maybe, there will be a second dead-heat following the historic tie between Tony Book and Dave Mackay in 1969 when the votes were cast by post. Two votes arrived in the second post (those were the days) but missed the deadline. They were both cast for the same player yet it remains an FWA secret who might have won had the letters arrived earlier.

This season the vote will be all electronic, opening on April 25 and closing on May 2, the winner announced at 7am the following day. There have been suggestions of the voting being too early, but only three Barclays Premier League fixtures remain after the votes are counted.

Members take their vote seriously with some typically strong views held when the topic is brought up. While the FWA usually get the vote just about right, the list of winners has a few notable absentees, mainly those from Manchester United in the last 15 years when the club have been a victim of their own success. I was chairman in 1999 when United won the Treble and presented the trophy to David Ginola. “You were culpable,” Sir Alex Ferguson told me in a friendly hairdryer manner, bemused that none of his history-making side was chosen.

In fact, the United vote was, not for the first time, split between four or five players, enabling the Tottenham winger to win more votes than any individual Treble winner.

Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Peter Schmeichel are among those with valid claims to have deserved to join Cantona, Roy Keane, Teddy Sheringham, Ronaldo and Rooney as United players to have been elected during the Premier League era and it will be little consolation that the league leaders have won the award more times than any other club in the last 20 years.

No South American has ever won the award; no one has ever won back-to-back awards with different clubs so perhaps history will be made this year.

Football writers I have spoken to in the past week have yet to make up their mind which way their vote will go and indications are it will be a photo-finish…unlike the Barclays Premier League title race.

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