I’ve always guessed that as a pro footballer the most coveted accolade any player can receive at the end of a season is the one ‘from the lads…’
The Players’ Player of the Year. That’s the one that actually counts; that’s the one that the boys give to those that they deem special… not the Press, not the manager, not the supporters. But the players.
Which one of us down here in the trenches has gone that extra mile; put the big shifts in; week in, week out.
If you were to ask that question of the Canary dressing room this week, I suspect I know the answer – Andrew Crofts.
Players always say good things about eachother; it’s the rules of the dressing room game. You don’t ‘diss’ the boys; everyone has a stormer; or else ‘We were all poor, today…’
That’s the language they employ; very rarely does anyone stand out in the crowd.
But speaking to Elliott Ward after Saturday’s 2-2 thriller with Burnley, the language changed when it came to the luckless Crofts. In particular that one line: ‘He’s the heart-beat of the team…’
That was interesting; and telling.
Here are the lines in question; prompted by the fact that his second yellow card of the game was going to see him sit out last night’s trip to Millwall.
“He’s going to be a big miss – he has been the heart-beat of the team,” said Ward, swift to justify such an accolade.
“He breaks it up; he passes the ball; he scores goals. And that’s what you want from a midfielder.
“And he probably doesn’t get enough credit from people outside the club, but since he’s come here [from Brighton] he’s stepped up and he’s been brilliant.”
It is a word that has crossed the lips of City boss Paul Lambert before; brilliant.
And, by many an account, minus Crofts at the New Den last night, Norwich lacked a certain bite and purpose at the heart of their midfield. Certainly in the opening 45 minutes before Lambert sprinkled his usual magic dust at the interval.
The 26-year-old Welsh international certainly appears to have stepped up a level with ease and – if the reported £300,000 fee is anywhere near correct – looks a snip at that price.
What marks him out is what Ward remarked upon; the way that he is jack of all trades – maybe not master of any one in particular, but very good at the three in question…. ie breaking it up, passing the ball and scoring goals.
So, for example, you look at Gary Holt – another real players’ player. He was a class aprt when it came to breaking play up in that title-winning side. He’d run all day; cover every blade of grass. A great passer of the ball? Probably not. Goals were few and far between.
And you can run through midfielder after midfielder working out which box they ticked; what would each get out of ten for breaking it up, scoring goals and passing the ball. And when it came to the latter, you’d start at a ten out of ten for Ian Crook and work your way down.
What he never did was break the play up; that was Gossy’s job. As both players would attest to this day.
Likewise, Crofts has the frame and the build to run that space in a way that a Phil Mulryne or a Mark Fotheringham never had. It is rare to see Crofts brushed off the ball; you don’t get beyond him easily.
If you do, then there’s one of either Ward or his big pal ‘Barney’ [Barnett] to mop up behind him. Together the three have made a fairly formidable defensive unit; that, in turn, has under-pinned Norwich’s prominence in the play-off positions.
They have that solid air to them.
It is, to my mind, telling that Crofts has been skipper at Gillingham; skipper at Brighton. Usually – though not always – that is a sign of character and respect.
Watching him go to work, he appears to be one of those that leads by example, rather than pointed instruction. There are few dramas; few signs of shouting the odds at those about him.
He gets on with his job; week in, week out. He is, as Ward puts it, the ‘heart-beat’ of the team.
Stand back for a moment and ponder why Norwich are where they are and it is in part down to the influence of the likes of a Crofts, but over and above that, it is Lambert’s nous in the transfer market that shines.
Be it him, Ian Culverhouse or whoever, someone inside that Colney HQ is getting more players right than they are getting wrong.
Clangers are few and far between; characters are arriving that bring both substance and steel to the party.
And long may that continue. For given the tight-rope the club continues to walk financially, the Canaries can ill-afford to spend their money ill-advisedly.
In Crofts, they would appear to have picked out a genuine gem.