I was running late on Wednesday, so I had to catch the opening moments of the Champions League semi final between Manchester United and Arsenal on the computer. There is one match tracker in particular that I enjoy using when I can’t get to the TV on time, but my estimation of that service dropped significantly in the flash of one comment. After reading the starting line-ups, the following passage popped on the screen: “Fret ye not United fans, the PFA Player of the Year is on the bench. Fitting really, seeing as that is where he’s spent most of the season.”
The comment itself is equal measures clever and asinine. There is little doubt that Giggs shoud not have been player of the year. Judging by a lack of articles supporting his award win, there’s also little doubt that most people feel Giggs shouldn’t have been in the team of the year either. But there are also two facts that also can’t be ignored: Giggs didn’t vote for himself, and none of his United teammates voted for him either. Unfortunately, the follow up to one of the prouder personal moments in Giggs’ illustrious career is his status as the target of snide and disparaging remarks.
To illustrate the point, a couple of comments about the PFA Player of the Year voting, then an assessment of its prestige from a long-time pro and “union man”.
Firstly, The rules of PFA voting are pretty concrete and simple: You cannot vote for anyone on your team, including yourself. That means that Giggsy’s biggest fans were not allowed to vote for him.
Secondly, everyone must vote. If a club’s PFA player rep does not return the appropriate number of votes and signatures on the registration sheet, no player on that team is eligible for an award. In other words, United players couldn’t passively help Giggs out by refusing to vote and help out a rival candidate.
Like every previous PFA Player of the Year, this award was given to Ryan Giggs by everyone but his own club.
Much has been made about Fergie’s charm offensive putting Giggs over the top, but really, it’s highly debatable just how effectively the Man. Utd. manager can sell his preferred candidate. Unlike the press, whom he could boycott if they didn’t acquiesce to his wishes, Fergie holds no sway over professional footballers from other clubs, particularly in a secret ballot situation.
It’s also worth noting that players possess many of the same biases as fans when it comes to polls and popularity contests. There’s a long established (though only whispered) history of teams block voting, guys voting for friends and players they like or, just as often, refusing to vote for players (or anyone on a certain team) they don’t like. Can you imagine Gary Neville ever voting for any Liverpool player, regardless of the circumstances? Would Robbie Fowler be caught dead with a ballot showing an “X” next to the name of a player from Manchester United? Just how many fans does Fergie have among opposing players? Considering the misery he’s heaped on them over the years, not too many!
Over 10 years ago, former Manchester United star and PFA rep Brian McClair wrote that the only reason he could get players to vote was because of the aforementioned rule where nobody at your club could win unless everyone on the team participated. McClair commented that guys treated it as an irritating, trivial matter that they did so the union rep would finally stop hounding them.
All of this then ties back to the perceived “prestige” of the award. The PFA is quick to throw out the line that this selection is “by the players” and therefore, a deeper honor. Fans generally buy into this propaganda, and that nugget of information often resurfaces when footy fans and pundits debate the merits of Giggs’ selection; when someone dismisses the relevance of any individual award in a team sport, or point out that players are just as fallible as anyone else, adversaries are quick to pipe up with the mantra, “But this is by the players, for the players.”
But you also have to realize that the PFA has a vested interest in making this particular gong seem more important than it really is. This is one of the relatively few positive press releases that come out of PFA offices. More often than not, supporters hear of the PFA because they are releasing a statement of support for, or in defense of, the latest yob whose recklessness, or malice almost ended the career of a fellow professional. With all of the eye rolling that meets the hapless task of defending the indefensible, the PFA amp up the rhetoric to squeeze as much good publicity out of this award as possible.
This time it seems to have backfired, and besmirched the reputation of the most decorated British footballer ever. Perhaps even more impressive than his trophy cabinet is his ability to lay claim to the title of most respected footballer of the last two decades, despite playing for one of the most polarizing clubs in the world. It’s not uncommon to hear a compliment paid to the Welsh wizard that starts with, “I’ hate Manchester United, but…”
Selecting Ryan Giggs as the PFA Player of the Year was a mistake. An obvious mistake. But the only bigger blunder out there is allowing the negative comments to drift from slagging the decision to slagging the man. While he clearly didn’t deserve the award, the most definitely does not deserve abuse for a decision made by others.