by Chris Dunlavy
AS Patrick Bamford prepares to hand back his crown as the Football League’s player of the year, his successor must be hoping to avoid what is fast becoming a curse.
Since Rickie Lambert’s triumph in 2012, the award has radiated rotten luck. Matej Vydra won a move to West Brom, flopped like Dick Fosbury and is now toiling on loan at Reading.
Danny Ings took the Premier League by storm, only to see his big move to Liverpool sabotaged by a serious knee injury.
And Bamford? He’s spent the season impersonating the invisible man. Marooned on the bench at Palace, scarcely used at Norwich, Chelsea’s eternal loanee has taken a mighty step backward and looks further from the Stamford Bridge first team than ever.
So who will be the recipient of this year’s poisoned chalice? Historically, the three-man shortlist invariably consists of strikers and is pretty much always won by the top scorer.
Naturally, then, Burnley’s poacher supreme Andre Gray must start favourite. It is difficult to dismiss his claim.
A Non-League player at Luton just two years ago, the 24-year-old could have been crushed by the weight of his £6m transfer from Brentford.
Yet he has worn the expectation lightly, scoring 23 goals and making another seven. In the top four divisions, only Accrington striker Billy Kee, with 17 goals and 13 assists, can match that kind of contribution.
Gray is unmatched as a pure goalscorer. Put a ball in the box and he’ll snaffle it like a starving dog on a dropped steak.
But let’s not forget he is also playing for a good team. Gray can go about his business knowing that the chances will come. That if he skies one, Sam Vokes won’t. That the boys down the other end will keep the back door bolted shut.
Alan Judge enjoys no such luxuries. Brentford’s remodelled squad have struggled to maintain even mediocrity this season, yet the 27-year-old has – yet again – rarely fallen below his metronomic best.
Fourteen goals and 11 assists is some feat from midfield, where defensive duties nag at your mind like an iron you might have left on. Especially in a side that ships goals like the Bees.
Talking of shipping goals, you’ve got to feel for Ross McCormack. We often hear managers complain that a failure to score puts pressure on the back four.
At Craven Cottage, the opposite holds true. The Cottagers’ defence is so comically inept that the £11m Scot starts every game knowing he’s the only man standing between Fulham and a hammering.
Yet McCormack keeps fighting fire with fire; vital goals, spectacular strikes, assists by the hatful. Gray may help Burnley win the Championship, but if the Fulham striker single-handedly keeps his side in it, that is an altogether more impressive achievement.
What, also, of the players whose contribution cannot be measured by simple stats? Shorn of a leader when Jason Shackell returned to Derby, Sean Dyche ignored those who said Joey Barton would divide his dressing room and handed the 33-year-old a one-year deal.
In return, Barton has provided commitment, class and nary a hint of aggravation. Broken into component parts, his game is fairly simple – clattering tackles, niggly fouls, high-tempo pressing.
But the unbridled aggression, the motormouth cajoling, the relentless pursuit of victory at all costs – those less obvious qualities lift Burnley’s entire side on a weekly basis. If the Clarets boast the strongest jaw in the division, Barton is their iron core.
Nothing against Gray – he would be a worthy winner. But if the award were judged on talent and context, my winner would be chosen from Judge, McCormack and Barton.
And let’s face it – if the fate of the last few winners is anything to go by, the Burnley striker would do well to steer well clear.