The calendar has now moved to late April and if this was a normal year, now would be the time when the shortlists for the PFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards were announced. Of course this isn’t a normal year. It’s a (the?) COVID-19 year. Instead of award shortlists we have loneliness, anxiety, and a yearning for things to just go back to normal.
If this was a normal year, Marcus Rashford would be headlining the shortlist for the PFA Young Player of the Year award. He might have even snuck into the Player of the Year shortlist if the six man list had any room among all the Liverpool and City players that would fill it out.
At the Young Player of the Year award Rashford would be duking it out with Tammy Abraham and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Rashford’s injury may hurt his case, and it’s not unfair to assume that had games been going on Abraham and Alexander-Arnold would likely have built on their 13 goals (Abraham) and 12 assists (TAA) totals. Per 90 totals (Rashford 0.86 goal involvements per 90, Abraham 0.67) and importance to the team should be factored in to that decision.
Alexander-Arnold would make a pretty strong case but the award would probably go to Rashford because, well that’s how the award works. It’s stupid.
Make no mistake. This isn’t to disparage Rashford’s resume and say he doesn’t deserve to win. By letter of the law he’s the deserving winner.
That’s the problem. The letter of the law.
The “Young Player of the Year” award is open to any player aged 23 or younger at the start of the Premier League season. Let’s hold off on that “at the start of” part for a second because that is a whole other level of ridiculousness and just focus on the overall qualification and the intent of the award.
The idea behind a “Young Player of the Year” award is to highlight exactly that: young players, the stars of tomorrow. The winner is meant to be a youngster who broke out this season and is letting everyone know he’s going to be a top player for years to come.
How do you define “young?” Well the PFA defined it as someone 23 or younger. That’s fine, sort of. You can’t make it too young because most players don’t break in to the first team until they’re 21 or 22, so it seems to make sense.
Except, it doesn’t. Twenty-three is a completely arbitrary number in a world where more and more the best players — the ones who will go on to become stars — are breaking through when they’re teenagers. To leave the qualification at just “be 23 or under” opens the door for the award to veer far off the path from its original intention, which is exactly where we are now.
Last year the award was won by Raheem Sterling, who turned 24 less than halfway through the season. Sterling won it on the back of a 17 goal 12 assist season. That’s a great total for anyone and it’s certainly worthy of an award.
There are just a few problems here. The campaign before he finished with 18 goals and 15 assists IN 184 FEWER MINUTES. It was by far a better season but he lost out on the award to teammate Leroy Sane and his 10 goal 15 assist season — that wasn’t good enough to make Germany’s World Cup team. (It wasn’t a crazy snub; Sane was 21, it was his second season in England, and he only had five goals two assists the year before. This was a big jump.)
But this was also Sterling’s seventh season in the Premier League. He’s a player that had already moved from one top club to another in a £50 million transfer. By no means was he an ‘up and coming’ player.
That’s not lost on anyone. The PFA knew that too but Sterling won the award basically because he had never won the award before.
And that’s what the award has basically become. A chance to recognize all the great young players and make sure they all get a trophy. Did we miss your best year? That’s fine, you still have some years of eligibility left so we’ll make sure you get it.
Take a look at the last seven winners of this award.
Gareth Bale was 23 in 2012-13. He broke into the Tottenham team as a left-back five years earlier. In 2010-11 he was torching Brazilian right back Maicon in the Champions League. Once you’ve done that, you’re no longer in the “watch out for this kid” zone, you’ve very much arrived.
As a 22-year-old in 2011-12 Bale scored 10 goals and added 11 assists. He was pipped to the award by teammate Kyle Walker, probably because Walker was a young “up-and-coming” player who deserved the award. The following year Bale broke out with 21 goals and four assists. He took home the PFA Player of the Year award and for some reason also got the Young Player of the Year award (21-year-old Christian Benteke — 19 goals four assists in his first season in England — or 19-year-old Romelu Lukaku — 17 goals five assists — may have deserved a shout).
It was almost as if the PFA said “whoops, this should have been yours last year so we’ll give it to you this year.” Maybe they were showering him with awards so he wouldn’t leave England for La Liga.
Another player who Bale beat out for the award that year was 21-year-old Eden Hazard in his first year at Chelsea. He’d win it the next year. He did have a much better season, but it was also his fifth season in top flight football.
The big standout from that list should be Dele Alli, who became the fourth player to win the award twice (Ryan Giggs, Robbie Fowler, Wayne Rooney). Oh yeah, you can win this award twice. In fact there’s no rule that limits how many times you can win the award at all.
That means that Wayne Rooney, who broke into the league at 16 in 2002-03, could have won this award eight times. In 2009-10, four years after he had last won the award, Rooney’s 26 goal, three assist season lost out to James Milner’s seven goal 12 assist campaign (for an award that Rooney was actually still nominated for). Who had the better season? I don’t know, you tell me.
(To help you answer that question: Rooney took home the Player of the Year award that year).
Why didn’t Rooney win it? Probably for the same reason no one has ever won it three times. It’s not the intent of the award!
The award is intended to honor up and coming stars. Players like Bale, Hazard, Sterling (in the years they won it), and Rashford (this season) aren’t the future, they’re very much the present. Sometimes the PFA seems to forget this and their goal becomes to anoint as many different stars as “the next big thing” so they can say “oh we knew he’d be a star all along.”
Doing it this way means they could avoid giving the award in 2012-13 to Christian Benteke only to watch his career become... well exactly what Christian Benteke’s career has become.
This has to stop. If we’re going to continue to give out this award, we may as well do it right. Does that mean we’ll swing and miss on a few? Of course. That’s okay.
How do we do that? In football it’s really hard to designate players who are “new to the scene,” so to speak. Players appear here and there in the cups. They may get a good run of games as a substitute and even make big contributions, but that doesn’t mean they’re “emerging” in the league.
In American sports, qualification for the Rookie of the Year award is pretty easy. In the NFL and NBA, you’re a rookie in your first year and then you’re not. The NHL and MLB are a bit more complicated where players can pop up from the minor leagues one year and still be considered a “rookie” a year or even two years later.
Those leagues have a simple solution: a games limit. Once you’ve played in a certain number of games you’re no longer considered a rookie.
Football needs to follow suit. Put in an appearance limit in addition to the age limit. I’d say set it at 50 appearances (we can tie it to minutes played as well) or starts (I’d say 20 league starts). As long as you’re under 50 appearances (or 20 starts) and aged 23 or younger at the start of the season, you’re eligible.
Under those guidelines, Scott McTominay, who is basically in his third year with the first team, would still be eligible. That makes sense as this has been the first year where McTominay has been a first choice player. Trent Alexander-Arnold, who everyone knew would be a star by the start of last season, would have remained eligible (and thus won the award) for last season as he only played 19 times the year before.
Then once you’ve won it, you’re done. It’s on to the next player.
This eligibility requirement goes for any appearances made in the top flight of any league — though I’m willing to be flexible on this. If you’ve played too many first team matches in another country, but are aged 21 and under, you can still be eligible.
Does that mean it’s tough luck on players like Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial, who would have become ineligible for the award before really having their breakthrough as emerging stars? Yes, it is. But that’s okay. Not everyone needs to win a trophy.
So Rashford will probably win the award this year (again — he should) and that’s dumb. It has nothing to do with him, but the award needs to change.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some more clouds to go yell at.