Norwich City’s Player of the Season Award has rarely been a tight contest.
In recent seasons, James Maddison and Bradley Johnson had it wrapped up by mid-December, Wes Hoolahan and Jonny Howson unsurprisingly won amid weak competition, and Robert Snodgrass battled off a strong late challenge from Carlo Nash to rightly scoop the prize.
Even between 2009 and 2012, when Paul Lambert led a team, worth far more than the sum of its parts, to two promotions and Premier League survival, Grant Holt was our player of the season in all three years – likely by a landslide.
Of course, the winner won’t be quite so obvious this year. Several fans have even suggested giving the award to the whole team but, with any luck, every player will have a medal around their neck by the season’s end anyway.
The Barry Butler Trophy is a proud Norwich City tradition, and the winner will be one of the most deserved we’ve ever awarded – so we should definitely crown one. But, with such a list of worthy winners, how could anyone decide who to vote for? Well, let me help you pick your way through the field:
What’s that saying about a rich man having less chance of entering heaven than a camel does passing through the eye of a needle? If Buendia was slipping the camel through to Teemu Pukki on the edge of the box, no needle could stop him. And Norwich would’ve scored, again.
I have to keep telling myself, and anyone that doesn’t support Norwich, that Buendia is only 22. He already looks like the complete footballer for this level; his first touch, passing range, deftness of movement, defensive work rate – and now his ferocious shot – all add up to form a future Champions League player.
Buendia has nine assists and seven goals this season but that isn’t a fair reflection on his importance to the team. The Argentine is integral to everything City do offensively, which is probably why we’re yet to win a game he hasn’t started, with two exceptions – Forest away, for which he came on and assisted the winning goal, and Preston at home, when he came on with the game scoreless.
The goal machine
24 Championship goals with eight games to go would win Pukki the Barry Butler Trophy in any normal year – Grant Holt scored just 21 league goals when winning in 2011. Besides, the Finnish GOAT has as many assists – nine – as the plucky Argentine trying to steal what is rightfully his on stats alone.
It’s not Pukki’s stats that have most impressed me this season, though. It’s the fact that he takes to the field seemingly with a protractor and compass to hand.
Take his goal at home to Sheffield United as the prime example. With his back to goal, Pukki takes three (yes, three) looks behind him before receiving the ball, then strikes it on the turn, deliberately looping it over the onrushing defenders and into the only part of the goal the ‘keeper can’t reach.
How about his first goal at Bolton, too? He knew he wasn’t going to score immediately from such a tight angle, so pulls the ball back to take the defender out of the equation and strikes the ball from a much better position.
His two goals against Ipswich: For the first, Pukki has the precision of Ronnie O’Sullivan, chasing after the ball while calculating, in barely a second, the exact angle needed to score. For his second, the Finnish Terminator quickly calculates that he can’t go through Bartozs Bialkowski, and he certainly can’t go over or round him – so he’ll have to slide the ball under him.
Watch any Teemu Pukki goal this season and you’ll notice his mind working in overdrive to figure out exactly what needs to happen for the ball to end up in the net. He’s a mathematician on a football pitch and a worthy winner.
The young pretenders
Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis
Have Norwich City had a better full-back pairing in the last 20 years? Adam Drury’s partnership with Marc Edworthy runs it close, but Aarons and Lewis will move on to greater things than either (and Norwich fans know how underrated Drury was, considering he was often left by Darren Huckerby to defend an entire side of the pitch by himself).
Lewis, 21, and Aarons, 19, have started a combined 67 games this season (34 for Lewis and 33 for Aarons) and their meteoric rise to prominence could not have been better timed.
Norwich may have reinforced their full-back reserves had the two lads from Luton never emerged but take a moment and imagine where City would be in the table with Ivo Pinto and James Husband as starting regulars – that’s how much of a difference the Championship’s best full-backs have made. Aarons, in particular, is a serious contender.
The dark horses
Marco Stiepermann and Christoph Zimmermann
Here’s one for you: would Norwich be better off right now with James Maddison playing behind the striker, rather than Stiepermann? It’s testament to the German that the question is even being asked, considering Maddison has created more goal-scoring chances this season than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues.
And yet, how much more could Maddison, last season’s player of the year, have realistically done? He may have scored more, but Stiepermann’s value to the team comes from the telepathic connection he has with the players around him – not just in terms of their link-up play but the way they press so effectively as a unit. Stiepermann regularly wins the ball back high up the pitch and it is this, as much as his attacking quality, which makes him so valuable.
Christoph Zimmermann was playing in the German fourth division two years ago. Today, he captains the team top of the English second tier while marshalling a defence that, without Zimmermann, is just 20.3 years old on average. I’m 25 and can’t even draw a straight defensive line – imagine the leadership qualities required to take two 21-year-olds and a 19-year-old to the top of the Championship. I hope Zimm and Tim Krul at least get a thank-you in the Ballon D’Or acceptance speeches of those three – they’re the most unsung of heroes, both of them.
The long shot
Ironic for a player who has one of the worst long shots I’ve ever seen (this was written before the ‘Boro game…) but Hernandez’s efforts have slipped under the radar a bit this season.
The Cuban is oddly consistent for a winger. Onel always tries to stamp his authority on a game, and his speed and physicality are always noticeably absent when he’s not playing. He’s popped up with crucial goals too – his two at Birmingham, two against Forest and the opener in the Derby are five of the most morale-boosting goals Norwich have scored this season. His strike on Teeside will be one of the most important too.
Every player deserves some sort of mention, but the most honourable of mentions go to Timm Klose, Mario Vrancic and Mo Leitner who, were it not for injury, would all be big contenders (Leitner in particular, in my opinion).
Do leave a comment if I’ve missed someone you think should win it!