A few weeks ago I took a glance at the main contenders for the PFA Player of the Year Award 2011/2012. Robin van Persie aside, there was a definite lack of stand-out performers jockeying for position in the shortlist of six, making my choices reasonably straight forward. The Young Player award, on the other hand, offers up quite a complex conundrum when one considers the wealth of talent populating the Premier League.
The nomination criteria states that the chosen player must be at most 23 years of age at the start of the current season. I have selected the six players according to this age bracket and decided to make it as much about impact and progression as sustained quality throughout an entire EPL campaign. Certain players like Gareth Bale, Juan Mata and Theo Walcott have been on the scene for some time, with the former two in the shake-up for ‘big daddy’ version of the award. Here is a chance to shine a light on those who have stepped up to the plate this year and shown they have the skill, the strength and the heart to be winner.
Building on his strong half-season at Aston Villa last year, Walker has returned to Tottenham and become a major part of their push for Champions League football. Redknapp had the faith in the young full back to send more experienced campaigners (Alan Hutton and Vedran Corluka) packing from White Hart Lane. His marauding performances down the right flank, reminiscent of Dani Alves, have forced him into the England reckoning. Defensively he may not be the finished article but his attacking prowess, speed and stamina provide a solid base from which to improve year on year.
Could he be the Michael Owen of 2011/12 and grab that last seat on the plane to Poland and the Ukraine, just as the injury-prone United bench sitter did way back in 1998? Though limited to a series of cameo performances, few can deny that he is the most exciting English talent since Wayne Rooney. His ability to combine the devastating pace of Theo Walcott with the technique, vision and quick feet of Jack Wilshere make him a tantalising prospect for all lovers of the beautiful game. In only his second full season as a professional, many pundits have consistently questioned whether he is ready, whether he can make the step up. Game after game, on any stage, ‘The Ox’ has dismissed the naysayers, mixing it with some of the best around. His performance for Arsenal against Milan at the Emirates was a joy to behold and a sign that England may have found her next superstar.
Despite only making his debut after the appointment of Martin O’Neil in December, the Irish winger has been one of the main reasons behind the Mackems resurgence in 2012. Five goals in nineteen appearances combined with a series of confident, strong, fearless displays against some of the league’s top defences, show him to be a player of real potential. Built in the mould of a traditional, barnstorming winger of yester-year, the former Derry City man is sure to make a big impact at Euro 2012 and have the big clubs sniffing around the Stadium of Light for his signature in the near future.
In what will be quite a controversial choice, the Manchester United centre-half has been the stand-out defender in a potentially title winning defence made up of much greater names and reputations. After a horror show against West Ham in last season’s League Cup and the arrival of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling many thought Evans would follow Brown and O’Shea out of Old Trafford. The Northern Irishman has responded manfully, appearing in 34 games and making the loss of Vidic much easier to bear for United fans. Evans has shown a growing maturity and self-belief with the increased responsibility placed on his shoulders. Ferguson may finally have found the long-term successor to Rio Ferdinand.
The Dutchman had to bide his time. Waiting in the wings behind Shay Given and Steve Harper, Krul finally pounced last year, making the No1 shirt at Newcastle his own. Pulling off fantastic reflex saves and commanding his area at the tender age of 23, he has become a true fan favourite and key reason behind the Toon’s solid defensive unit this season. Young goalkeepers are often accused of poor decision making and lacking in mental strength, criticisms that cannot be levied at Krul. A rock at the heart of Newcastle’s almost ever-present back five, his consistently high performances have been awarded with two caps for Holland and an assured place at Euro 2012.
The Chelsea wing-forward just made the shortlist ahead of his England teammate Danny Wellbeck. Both have had exceptional seasons at two of the EPL’s biggest clubs but Sturridge has succeeded in an environment not renowned for the fostering of young talent. In a team wherein the ‘Old Guard’ still rule the roost, Sturridge has made a commendable 33 appearances, becoming their top scorer so far with 11. Putting the heavyweights of Drogba and Torres in the shade, he has combined pace and trickery on the right-flank with an instinctive eye for goal. The former City man can still be accused of selfishness in possession and is far from the finished article. Being forced to play out-wide and retain his discipline will surely be of benefit to him when he converts back to the role of central striker in future seasons.
As ever, the toughest decisions were who to leave out. Honourable mentions must go to Wojciech Szczesny, Martin Kelly, Junior Hoilett, Aaron Ramsey, Victor Moses, Mario Ballotelli, Scott Sinclair, Adam Bogdan and many, many more. 2011/12 has been a positive year for young players and we have seen some of the bigger teams, as well as those further down the EPL, taking a chance on talent. With the introduction of financial fair play from the start of next season, I hope to see this trend continue as more teams look to their academies and the lower leagues for the next big thing.