As we reach the end of the year and pass into the next, the transition is often fuelled by alcohol induced errors in judgement that lead to unwanted romantic entanglement and horrific renditions of Auld Lang Syne that would have Robert Burns shaking the walls of his mausoleum as he turned in his grave. However, as far as the blogging and wider writing world seems to be concerned the only way to end the year is with a top 10. Or a top 100, or a best of bla-de-bla. So not being one to ever stray too far from the flock I thought I’d do my own top 10, but hopefully with a slightly different entertaining slant on the whole shebang.
Lionel Messi won the Ballon D’or again. Quelle surprise! It’s not his first hat-trick and it won’t be his last. He’s currently sat right at the top of just about every football run down of the best players. Nobody would dare to disagree, he’s a phenomenon – (do-do-do-do-do) he can do everything you dreamt of being able to do with a football when you were a kid, pass, dribble, shoot and score; on top of which, he is still the same size you were when you were a kid.
But I want to get away from the generic run down of who is better than whom, these lists, however well put together, rarely change anyone’s opinion of a player. Mostly because every player on the list is already well regarded and chances are you’ve already made up your mind about them. I’d much rather do a list that meant something to me, so how about the top 10 players I most enjoyed watching in 2011
It’s difficult, because naturally I could pick the tried and tested Norwich starting 11 and be quite happy, but that would spoil the fun. Who are the players I really enjoyed watching during 2011? Who entertained me, not just perhaps because of their footballing ability but also their character, the way they played the game. I have put together this completely subjective and not at all thorough list to sum up 2011’s footballing entertainers.
I mainly feast on the Premier League, it’s the bread and butter of my football diet. I sprinkle a bit of lower league action on top, for example any Championship game involving Norwich from 2011 obviously got eaten up. Sometimes for dessert, I like to go for some Spanish flavour. Although the Spanish pudding is technically accomplished I find that it rarely leaves me feeling full. Baring this in mind, it shouldn’t come as a shock to know that every player in my list played in the Premier League in 2011.
A special mention must go out to Jordan Rhodes. He didn’t feature in the Premier League in 2011, but I’ll be amazed if he doesn’t in 2012. Every time I watched him play in 2011, he scored. Also worth a mention is Xabi Alonso. He holds the title of “player that I most miss playing in the Premier League”. I love watching him pass the football, but unlike many of his Spanish contemporaries, he seems entirely sensible, not prone to theatrics. He generally seems like quite a nice guy. When I watch him play, I hope he does well, he seems like one of the good guys. Of course it’s easy to be wrong about such things, many a similar line had been dedicated to Ryan Giggs and look how that turned out. Anyway, I digress – to the list!
It may surprise you to learn that Charlie Adam is probably not the ugliest man on the list. Like every armchair fan up and down the country I very much enjoyed Blackpool’s stint in the Premier League. It was refreshing to see an unfancied side have a go and nearly, so so nearly pull off the seemingly impossible task of survival. Charlie Adam was a huge part of this, his game was actually a microcosm of Blackpool’s. When it worked, it was spectacular, when it didn’t it was terrible and that was Blackpool in the Premier League. There were goals, really lots of goals and of real quality too. There were also many many misplaced passes, shocking tackles and yellow cards. Regardless, Adam was a leader on the pitch who tried his hardest to keep his team in the league, despite starting the year amid huge speculation that he was leaving the club in the January transfer window. He didn’t leave and better yet seemed spurred on rather than becoming unsettled by the transfer speculation. Here was a player who had been a joke at Rangers proving he could carry a side in the Premier League and when he joined Liverpool the move felt well deserved. Yet again he was slated and written off but Adam has proved a key part to Liverpool’s new look midfield and has continued where he left off with Blackpool, with a fantastic range of passing and the odd spectacular goal.
I like it when Martin Tyler shouts his name, it’s a proper strikers name and sounds best when screamed out in excitement just before a goal. DEMBA BAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!! Brilliant. He was going to sign for Stoke, then he failed a medical. Newcastle got him for free. He was in the West Ham side that got relegated. These are a few facts about Demba Ba. But did he really fail a medical at Stoke? Is his knee about to fall to pieces at any moment? I hope not, because I love watching him play. Ba started 2011 with West Ham. I’m happy to say that despite scoring 7 goals in 12 league games he was unable to keep them up. I don’t like West Ham, I couldn’t possibly have a lower opinion of their owners and for as long as they are at the club I wish them nothing but misery and failure. They made the truly pants on head retarded mistake of sacking Gianfranco Zola and appointing the worst manager I’ve seen since Glenn Roeder, Avram Grant. What makes the story of Ba even sweater is that he left on a free, kicking West Ham in the balls in the process. I don’t really care for Alan Pardew as a manager, but his use of the Ba has been expert. Much like he did at West Ham with Zamora and Ashton, he’s built a team that can get the best out of big strikers and Ba has been a revelation. He’s scored all sorts of wonderful goals and is fast taking over the mantel of “biggest handful” in the Premier League from Didier Drogba. The only downside about the Ba is that his signing allows Mike Ashley to feel smug, which shouldn’t be allowed. However this is quickly forgotten as on the pitch, Ba is a joy to watch as he destroys defenders with power and skill.
Taking the title of ugliest man in my list away from Charlie Adam it’s Luis Suarez. To say that he’s a figure of controversy is an understatement. I’ve lost a lot of respect for Liverpool football club over the handling of the Suarez Evra affair and the way some of their fans behaved, especially on twitter is deplorable in the strongest possible terms. Before the ugly race related drama took place however, when I thought about Suarez it put a smile on my face. He’s undeniably great fun to watch. I’ve never seen a player attempt so many nutmegs in a game before and often pull them off successfully. When he joined Liverpool he was inventive and full of tricks with great movement. His energy and enthusiasm on the pitch were infectious and he made Liverpool good to watch. His quality may flatter to deceive as his goal return isn’t as hefty as you might expect for a player of his incredible talent, perhaps often because he tries to score a special goal rather than a clinical one. The true nature of his character is certainly in question, how he comes back from his ban will speak volumes about him as both a person and a professional. I don’t believe his defence of the Evra allegations for a moment. Like so many other hugely talented people it seems he’s got some pretty big flaws too, sadly I don’t think I’ll ever really enjoy watching him play again.
Rafael van der Vaart has lovely tekkers. I love watching him play for a number of reasons. Firstly, he’s got great technique, everything he does on a football pitch looks good. He makes the game look easy, he never seems to be trying that hard, it’s effortless (although obviously it isn’t) which is the beauty of his game. Even when he’s sprinting to get on the end of a chance it always appears that he’s holding something back, like if he really wanted to he could get to the ball easily but he’d rather do it expending the least amount of effort and I respect that. Secondly, he scores goals. I do love a goal scoring midfielder, it’s great to watch a player find space, pop up in the box and then tuck away a chance and the way Van der Vaart takes his chances is always good to watch. He could direct an orchestra with his left foot, paint a masterpiece or write a great work of literature, but thankfully he hasn’t wasted his talent and has instead decided to use his wonderful left peg to play football, so thanks for that Rafa.
Jack Wilshere is the kind of player they said England couldn’t produce. So it’s not much of a shock that he came through the ranks at Arsenal where the usual English traits are often rejected in favour of a more technically minded style favoured abroad. He’s short, he’s small but he’s great on the ball and that’s what counts in the modern game. The days of hulking great midfield stoppers are gone, with the changes to the offside law and teams defending deeper, it’s opened up the midfield for smaller, nimble players to get hold of the ball and dance around the pitch making oafish donkeys out of the previous generation. I love watching Wilshere because I love what he represents, he’s an English player who is admired for his ability on the ball, not because he’s “strong in the tackle” or has that “bulldog spirit”. He does have those attributes, but those aren’t the main traits to his character as a footballer, they come after his appreciation of the football. Watch him pass the ball, find angles, change the point of attack, shift it, move, get it back, change feet, dribble round a player then play a defence splitting through ball, it’s majestic; although sadly his year was ended prematurely by injury. If England are ever going to accomplish anything again at international level we need more Jack Wilshere’s and less Gareth Barry’s.
David Silva could be a magician. Every time I watch him play I sit there saying “how did he do that?”. He’s the king of the reverse pass, he puts the ball into gaps that simply aren’t there. You can tell his ability is having an effect on the players around him, because now even James Milner seems to have picked up on Silva’s style and is looking for the clever pass. Some footballers are all about power, passion and guts. David Silva is about guile and cunning and skill. He’s the size of a small child, playing against massive central defenders who look like they could eat him, yet he glides around the football pitch tempting them over and over again to kick him. This is worthy of respect. Then when they attempt to kick him, he glides past them and makes them look stupid. So sometimes the big defender engages his brain and thinks fine, I won’t try to kick you, I’ll hold my position and we’ll keep our shape and we’ll sit deep on the edge of our own box and then we’ll see what you can do you clever little shit. Fine says Silva, as he threads a through ball into a non-existent gap, setting up yet another Manchester City goal, you do that. I cannot put it any more plainly than this: if you don’t like watching David Silva play, you don’t understand football. Here’s hoping Jack Wilshere is watching him too and taking notes.
Russell Martin would get on the list purely for his pants, but he offers so much more than that. His raiding runs down the right from fullback will live long in the memory. His desire to drive the team forward, his fantastic character and his goals, goals, GOALS have already made him a Norwich City legend. I’m a Norwich fan, this much is clear, but I’d like to think even the most cynical football fan would have a soft spot for Russell Martin. A former football manager of mine liked to use the phrase “how much do you want it?” I never really understood the true meaning of this until I saw Russell Martin play, he really wants it. Half the time I’m not even sure what it is, but Russell doesn’t seem to care, he’s all in, his chips are in the middle and he’s going to go for it. The goals against QPR, the goal against Ipswich, the goal against Swansea, so often he comes up with a massive contribution. Everything is done with enthusiasm, with purpose and with a smile on his face. He’s left out of the team? We’ve got a new right back? Fine, I’ll play centre back instead and prove I can play there and do it with the same commitment and style that I did at right back showing another side to my game you didn’t know I had. Was that a goal line clearance? No, it was a Russell Martin. Underestimate this man are your peril, Scotland would be wise to include him as much as possible. He’s amazing.
In some ways Wes Hoolahan has a lot in common with Rafael van der Vaart. They both have lovely technique, they are both left-footed and they both play in midfield. But whereas I like watching van der Vaart because he makes things look so easy, I love watching Wes because he makes things look so hard. This is not a criticism, but some players glide serenely through a game and others seem to be working incredibly hard. Wes takes hard work to another level. He always seems to be doing everything at light speed, barely comprehensible to the naked eye. He twists, he turns, lays the ball off and gets it back all the while buzzing around like some incredible red-faced glowing human-insect-hybrid. Don’t let the insect reference fool you, he’s not some ugly little bug, that’s purely to illustrate the speed at which he seems to do things. Like Russell Martin his role in the team has changed since promotion, he’s gone from being the often clichéd luxury creative player to all round midfield hero. He wins the ball far more than you’d think and he’s better with it than any other Norwich player. Would I love watching him so much if he didn’t play for Norwich? Perhaps not, but it’s my list and when watching Norwich I don’t care that we can’t afford players like Juan Mata because we’ve got Wes Hoolahan!
When Mario Balotelli scored with his shoulder against Norwich I wanted to be angry. I wanted to hate him. I wanted to say “look how unprofessional that is, that shows a complete lack of respect for his fellow professionals, what a tosser.” In fact I did say most of those things, but I didn’t mean any of them. Secretly I was loving it, I was laughing away to myself on the inside. What a character, just to have the balls to try something like that is worthy of praise. I’m never quite sure what will happen when Balotelli steps on to the football pitch and neither is he, that’s why he’s so fantastic to watch. He’s a genius on a football pitch, not because he has more ability than other players (although he is obviously fantastically talented) but because he lacks that fear that can hold back so many, that feeling of anxiety that stops you doing what you would really like to do. I want to see players expressing themselves, I want to see them try things, to do the unexpected, the unusual, the unpredictable, because that is what makes football special, that is what makes it beautiful. When we have stupid rules that stop players celebrating, you need players like Balotelli who will say “to hell with it” and do something funny, players who will take risks and chances in order to entertain. Balotelli does all of this, but he isn’t a freak show, he’s a brilliant footballer and his ability to combine his technical ability with his disregard for the rules so often makes him a joy to behold.
If you didn’t know Grant Holt was going to be number one before you started reading this then I’ll assume it’s because we haven’t met. I love Grant Holt. He’s number 9 but he’s always number 1, that is the power of Grant Holt. I actually pity the fans of other teams because he doesn’t play for them. He is without doubt the best captain for the club I have ever seen and is a true hero and legend of Norwich City. Holt and Balotelli would be my ideal front two, can you imagine the sheer carnage that they could create? As mentioned in a previous blog Grant Holt likes to finish his dinner. But this is just a tiny part of what goes into making him such a hero. Rarely do you find a link between players and fans like the Norwich fans have with Holt. It’s like he’s one of us, out there on the pitch, giving it plenty. Making a joke when a joke is needed, giving a bollocking when it’s due and time and again coming up with a goal to send the fans into delirium. He’s Roy of the Rovers, expect this is all too real. His back story would make many a Hollywood film look far fetched and this only adds to his legend. When you’re watching a player who obviously enjoys and values the opportunity he’s been given so much it is always going to endear him to you. From Workington to the Premier League via Sengkang Marine, he plays every game like it might be his last. His power, his commitment, his determination and his bravery are all unmatched but coupled with this he has a natural talent for scoring goals and that’s what I really love to see. 2011 was the year when everything came good for Grant Holt and I couldn’t be more pleased for him and for Norwich City. I absolutely loved watching every single moment of it. I can only dare to dream that 2012 can once again be the year of the Holt.