Off the top of my head, I can tell you who won the World Cup in 1986. I can tell you who won the First Division, the FA Cup, the European Cup and the UEFA Cup too. What I can’t tell you is who won the PFA Player of the Year, partly because it’s quite a long time ago but mainly because I don’t care. I could Google it but I don’t want to because, truth be told, it doesn’t really matter.
The day before the winner was announced the press were reporting that Premier League odds had Gareth Bale as nailed on favourite. So the toy-and-pram-based reaction from football fans to the announcement that Bale had won both the PFA Player and Young Player of the Year awards was as predictable as it was breathlessly theatrical. Not because there’s anything particularly wrong with the PFA’s selection (he wouldn’t have been my choice but it’s hard to build a strong argument against him) but because, historical specifics aside, it’s been the same every year since Normandy Rovers’ William T. Conqueror beat Hastings Athletic’s Harold King to the award after the latter’s season was cut short by a terrible eye injury.
This year, if Liverpool fans desperately looking for another peg to hang their ever-increasing collection of persecution hats on are to be believed, a shadowy cabal of Alex Ferguson, the FA and Baron Greenback rigged the vote in an attempt to persuade Luis Suarez that Liverpool’s annual hysteria-march towards seventh place is not worth the relentless oppression he suffers in England and that Champions League football somewhere off of this sceptred isle might not be the worst thing in the world. Either that or the country’s professionals seized this rarest of opportunities to vent their jealous spleens at the boundlessly talented matinee idol who plays up front for Liverpool when he’s not busy curing the common cold.
While they were typically histrionic in their outrage, they weren’t alone in it. Malcontents the world over were quick to point out, for example, that Bale had scored fewer goals than Suarez or Robin van Persie as if the presence of Michael Carrick in the top six weren’t evidence enough that this award isn’t about who scored the most goals. There’s already an award for that (doubtlessly complete with Ferguson-backed conspiracy to prevent Suarez from winning it), it’s called the Golden Boot and anyone with any interest in football betting would not be putting their money on Bale! Others pointed to the number of times the respective candidates had been booked, presumably mystified that Gary Lineker only ever won the award once.
What all of this fuss ignores, however, is that asking footballers to vote for the season’s best player (or anyone to vote for anything, for that matter) is an inherently subjective exercise – and it’s supposed to be. Voting, by definition, is an expression of opinion. The PFA awards are a reflection of who professional footballers think (or as close to thinking as your average footballer gets) has been the best player over the course of the year. It might not be scientific but if the results were intended to be based on statistics, there’d be no need to vote in the first place.
What’s more, it’s pretty much common knowledge that footballers tend not to take the voting for these awards very seriously. They don’t sit at home on a Saturday night watching Match of the Day, taking notes to refer back to when the voting time comes around, and they don’t spend their Monday mornings studying heat-maps or passing charts. Most of them probably don’t even know who Michael Cox is. And why should they? They’ve got expensive cars to crash, hair to be cut into ludicrous fashions and scantily clad orange ladies to have emotionally vacant sex with. If you think they spend one minute of their copious free time analyzing spreadsheets of who’s made the most successful forward diagonal passes in the final third of away games on Tuesdays when there’s an ‘R’ in the month when they could be having solid gold Bentleys tattooed on their armpits, you’re sorely mistaken.
Many don’t even bother to vote themselves, leaving it to the club’s PFA rep to fill in the ballot for them. The vast majority of those who do probably just vote for their mates or for the first name that pops into their heads, eager to get the paper out from under their noses and get back to texting pictures of their man-parcels to cocktail waitresses.
There’s something intrinsically futile about individual awards in team sports, even more so when it’s being decided by people who give it approximately half as much thought as they give ordering at Nando’s. The real question to ask after Sunday’s bash is not ‘how did Gareth Bale win both awards?’ but ‘why do you really care?’.