By Chris Wright
This is it people, the end is in sight. May is crowning on the horizon and the Premier League season is so very nearly finito. Granted, there’s still a lot of hoo-doo and wiff-waff to sort out, but we thought we’d give a timely doff of the cap to those who have defied the soccer odds this season, those playing beyond their means, the over-achievers, the surprise packages – in short, the kind of people that Phil Collins was singing about when he first laid down a demo for ‘Against All Odds’…
10. Brad Friedel – Older than the Gobi Desert, the general consensus was that Friedel was bought in to see out his footballing days at Tottenham as a reliable back-up. Then we all remembered who was inexplicably first-choice at White Hart Lane and suddenly roping in the Bankrupt Yank on a free seemed like the best transfer ever tendered. For the record, he’s also been pretty decent since, racking up 11 clean sheets in 30 games amid a plethora of knee-creaking saves.
9. James McClean – While we’re still not as overly enamoured with McClean as the rest of the nation appears to be, we’re willing to admit that he’s done the business for Sunderland since getting promoted to the first string by Martin O’Neil in December. Plucked from relative obscurity in the summer, the 22-year old winger’s direct, relentless, propulsion-based ‘leg it/cross it’ style has been a significant factor in his side’s upturn in fortunes during the second-half of the season. Four goals in 12 starts ain’t half bad for a wideman either, and going from pootling around in the League of Ireland to a likely inclusion at the European Championships in the space of 11 months is nothing to be sniffed at.
8. Martin Skrtel – A bit of a klutz in his first few 100 outings for Liverpool, Skrtel has finally begun playing in a manner befitting his appearance – a berserk Gulag escapee. The Slovakian centre-half has been nigh-on impenetrable this season alongside Dan Agger, a reliable, concrete partnership which has finally allowed Jamie Carragher to start stepping aside two years later than scheduled.
7. Yakubu – The Yak has snaffled 14 goals in 21 starts for Blackburn so far this season, which is impressive enough as of and in itself. However, when you factor in that Steve Kean’s side have been besieged by protests, calls for the manager’s head, been largely pap and mired in the bottom three for the vast majority of the campaign, his goals are given an added element of lustre. A much, much better, more technically adept player than he’s given credit for.
6. Arsenal - Hands up, we, like many other non-interested parties, backed the Gunners to falter this season and, up until November time, it looked like we were going to be proven right – with a slew of flimsy recruits failing to bed particularly well. Three months down the line, they’re now riding side-saddle on the back of an seven-game unbeaten run that has seen them maraud into the top three.
5. Robin van Persie – While we’re talking Arsenal, it’d be remiss not to mention Van Persie who, endless avalanche of goals aside, is yet to sustain a proper injury this campaign. Seems that horse placenta really did do the trick.
4. Swansea – Nine years ago, Swansea were at the very bottom of the entire English Football League, 24th in League Two. As we speak, they are occupying the 10th rung of the Premier League ladder. Brendan Rogers has facilitated a style befitting the gradual phasing out of blood-and-thunder football in lieu of a more delicate, possession-based approach and it’s worked wonders – chiefly due to his personnel.
Leon Britton (90-odd% pass rate!), Danny Graham (12 goals in his debut Premier League season) , Joe Allen (tiny, Welsh and brilliant), Scott Sinclair (designated penalty taker!) Sigurdsson (5 goals in a month and a bit), Williams (highest block rate in the division), Vorm (super sweeper ‘keeper) – they’ve all been wonderful to watch in their respective capacities. When even your goalkeeper has a higher pass-completion rate than Joey Barton, you know you must be playing some good stuff.
Swansea’s maiden outing in the top flight has largely been an utter joy to behold for those who favour the triangle (*ahem*), though – without wishing to put a downer on things – we all felt the same way about Ipswich, Hull and Blackpool not so very long ago. Just saying.
3. Grant Holt - In a Norwich side that have matched Swansea in the points stakes with an altogether less fashionable ethic, one man still manages to stand out by virtue of his scoring feats – though, what we admire the most about Holt is the fact that he’s been almost unilaterally written-off at every level he’s ever played at.
Workington, Halifax, Sorrento (in Western Australia), Barrow, Sengkang Marine, Barrow, Sheffield Wednesday, Rochdale, Forest (played on left wing), Blackpool, Shrewsbury and now an impressive 12-goal (and counting) haul for a newly-promoted Premier League side – with fervent, mainly partisan and not to mention a little optimistic calls for an England call-up to boot.
Hell, if Jay Bothroyd’s good enough…
2. Newcastle – Sixth, level on points with fifth-place Chelsea, back chasing European football and playing ‘champagne football’ with a squad chock-full of exciting, ebullient players assembled at a cost of next to nothing. That relegation was the best thing that ever happened to them.
(There was a Demba Ba-related paragraph here until some dumbass with flailing fingers deleted it by mistake. It was so good, I just couldn’t face rewriting it. Apologies to those affected – Chris)
1. Steve Kean – Despite every universal force having been trained on removing him from his post from the offset, Kean the Glaswegian limpet has hung in there and is still employed. In March! It’s a minor miracle.
Rightfully so, we’d venture, as nothing he has done over the course of the past six months has actually merited a sacking – so much so in fact, that he is no longer the focus of the revolting fans’ ire. That esteemed honour now lies with the fowl merchants up in the boardroom, which probably tells you all you need to know about the crass, mis-guided nature of fan protests and the inherent lack of understanding that tends to underpin them all.
Here’s hoping Kean keeps Blackburn up after the gruelling siege of a season he’s endured.
Agree/disagree? Tell us all about it…