THE players have spoken. The PFA team of the year is in. And let’s be honest – it’s pretty hard to argue with any of their selections.
But that isn’t going to stop me trying. Over the course of the last ten months I’ve watched every side in the Championship at every ground from Pride Park to Portman Road.
And in that time I’ve seen some wonderful performances although, admittedly, not at Charlton v Millwall back in early September. If you were there and paid money to get in, I can only offer my deepest sympathy.
Anyway, here is my pick for the team of the year, craftily arranged into a fashionable 4-3-3:
ROBERT GREEN – QPR
OK, so Kasper Schmeichel is flashier. Nobody does spectacular like the Dane, and you certainly won’t see Green scoring many last-minute goals.
But what Green brings is something more subtle – a sense of safety and calm, that no matter what else happens, the keeper is unlike- ly to chuck one in. He always catches the crosses, always makes the saves he should.
When it comes to clean sheets, the ex-England man is fourth behind Schmeichel, Burnley’s Tom Heaton and Brighton’s Tomasz Kuzszcak. But when you consider he played behind two centre-halves with a combined age of 70 and had far more to do, his tally of 17 is pretty impressive.
KIERAN TRIPPIER – BURNLEY
HUGELY unfortunate to be overlooked for a Championship player of the year nomination – isn’t it always the way for a defender? – Trippier has been every bit as integral to Burnley’s success as Sam Vokes and Danny Ings.
Once the quintessential Bubble Car full-back (ie no reverse gear), the former Man City trainee has made huge strides defensively under the tutelage of Sean Dyche and is now one of the toughest men to beat in the division.
Even so, there are few finer sights in the Championship than the 23-year-old screaming past his winger and, with 12 assists, there is plenty of substance to go with the style. The Premier League should present no problem and with Glen Johnson pushing 30, the door to international honours is wide open.
MATTHEW UPSON – BRIGHTON
BURNLEY may have conceded the fewest goals, but it was Brighton who kept the most clean sheets – an incredible 20 in 46 games.
And the man marshalling the back four for every single one of them was Upson, whose England days may be over but whose top-flight class remains. As with Wayne Bridge last season, watching Upson go about his business in the Championship is like watching that fella from Man vs Food tackle a stick of celery – a cakewalk of the highest order.
At 35 the pace he never had is now entirely absent but the organisation and positional sense means Upson never looks in danger. Unfortunately, that was too often the case for Brighton’s opponents too.
JASON SHACKELL- BURNLEY
LIKE team-mate Trippier, Shackell made the official team of the year. And like Trippier, it’s impossible to leave him out of this one.
For the last four years – at Barnsley, Derby and now Burnley – Shackell has been one of the most consistent centre-halves in the division. He isn’t spectacular; if you want last-ditch tackles and goal-line heroics, look elsewhere.
But if you want to see a guy who is always in the right place and fills everybody in his side with calm assurance, look no further. A class act who is finally getting his reward for years of graft.
AARON CRESSWELL- IPSWICH
OR the left-sided Trippier. Largely unheralded in a side which only ever flirted with the play-offs, Cresswell will surely be the subject of some hefty offers after a breakthrough season which saw him directly assist almost a quarter of his side’s 60 goals.
Quick and aggressive with immaculate delivery from open play or dead balls, he was also part of the division’s eighth-best defensive unit. It’s taken a while, but at 24 the left-back looks ready for the step up.
JOEY BARTON – QPR
TWELVE months ago, most QPR fans would rather have gouged their own eyes out than see Barton pull on a Rangers shirt again.
Sent off in disgrace on the final day of 2011-12 season, the 31-year-old spent a year on loan at Marseille, declaring his time at Loftus Road over.
“Some strange people think that I’ll be playing in the Championship next season,” tweeted Barton in April 2013. “Good one! QPR might, I won’t!”
Three months later, he shuffled back for pre-season and what was expected to be a brief stay. Instead, he has become the fulcrum of the side, the only player capable of injecting aggression and urgency into an otherwise pedestrian bunch of has-beens.
When he plays, QPR look menacing. When he doesn’t, they are toothless. For once, Barton is the player setting the example.
DANNY DRINKWATER – LEICESTER
THE rise of Danny Drinkwater could hardly be called meteoric. A trainee at Man United, he spent years out on loan, tootling round the likes of Huddersfield, Cardiff, Watford and Barnsely to little acclaim.
Even a permanent move to Leicester in 2012 did little to dispel the notion that the 24-year-old was much more than a competent workhorse. But under the guidance of Nigel Pearson, Drinkwater has become the Championship’s ultimate box-to-boxer, the division’s answer to Yaya Toure.
“For me, he is the best midfielder in the division,” said Brighton boss and former Barcelona star Oscar Garcia. “He can do everything – get in to the box, create chances, defend – the quality and ability to do everything you need from a midfielder.”
The driving force behind Leicester’s promotion, Drinkwater is a reminder that top class players aren’t all born brilliant.
CRAIG BRYSON – DERBY
LOOKING at Bryson, you’d think he was a marathon runner, not the division’s deadliest midfielder. With the exception of team-mate Will Hughes, there can’t be many footballers with less meat on their bones.
But what the Scot lacks in bulk he makes up for in balance, technique and timing, his pacy, powerful bursts into the box reminiscent of Frank Lampard in his Chelsea heyday.
Not many strikers – let alone midfielders – can match his tally of 14 goals and, at 27, Bryson is at his peak.
DANNY INGS – BURNLEY
THOUGH hardly a left-field choice, Ings has been too good to ignore. Two years of injury and frustration meant most Clarets fans had forgotten what the 21-year-old looked like, let alone why Eddie Howe shelled out £1m for his services.
Now, that looks like the snip of the century. It isn’t just the 20 goals, or the wonderful understanding with Sam Vokes that sets Ings apart, it’s the combination of pace and technique, an ability to run as quickly with the ball as he does without it, and to produce a strike of quality even when the lungs are screaming.
Can he do it in the top flight? The sight of Southampton’s defenders chasing his shadow during January’s FA Cup clash suggests Ings will flourish.
CHRIS MARTIN – DERBY
IN a year when an incredible seven players broke the 20-goal barrier, you need to find something else to separate them. Which is why, for me at least, Martin comes out on top.
Like his mentor Grant Holt, the 25-year-old is so much more than a striker. He can defend corners, hold up play in the air or on the deck, win free-kicks to give his side a breather, beat centre-halves with pace or power. Almost every Derby attack goes through the former Norwich man, which explains why he finished the season with eight assists to go with his 24 goals.
And let’s not forget bravery – nobody in the entire Championship has been fouled as many times as Martin, nor dished out as much punishment to opponents. Holt would be proud.
JAMIE VARDY – LEICESTER
WITH 22 goals and 13 assists, David Nugent wins Leicester City’s stats war hands down. But what the figures don’t show is that ten of those goals were penalties and that 60 per cent of them were won by the scuttling, scampering, high-velocity menace that is Jamie Vardy.
This time last year, the 27-year-old was being written off as a £1m gamble that backfired, a Non-League player who found the leap too great. A bit of experience and a summer in the gym later, he is the man every Championship defender fears most.
Though 16 goals is hardly earth-shattering, Vardy’s electric pace and tireless harrying have run the legs off countless centre-halves, opening gaps, starting counter attacks and forcing sides to sit deeper than a fat man on a beanbag. Without question the most improved player in the Championship.