As part of the annual Football League Awards hosted in March, this year containing 17 categories ranging from PFA Player in the Community Award, contested by Portsmouth’s Joel Ward, Noel Hunt of Reading and Millwall’s Tamika Mkandawire, to Best Matchday Programme, the three-man shortlist for the npower Championship Player of the Year Award has been put together.
Last year’s winner, Adel Taarabt, who was crowned on the back of Kevin Nolan’s 2010 successes and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake’s triumphant 2009, thanked voters – last year compromised of firstly fans voting online and then narrowed down to the top three and eventual winner by a select panel of judges: “I am really happy to be named the top player in the npower Championship. I had a difficult time at Spurs and going to QPR was a risk for me, but things have gone very well and hopefully, I will be back in the Premier League next season.”
With the winner being announced in March, Q.P.R’s fate was not yet confirmed: however, as Taarabt was wishing, Q.P.R won promotion, finishing as Champions, and the talented Moroccan is part of Mark Hughes’ plans to avoid relegation, having been inconsistently used by Neil Warnock prior to his dismissal.
This year, all three nominees will have similar expectations to those of Adel Taarabt. Shortlisted for the prestigious award, is: Cardiff City’s Peter Whittingham, Southampton’s Rickie Lambert and his Saints teammate Adam Lallana.
Cardiff City play in their second domestic cup final in four years on Sunday, having lost to Portsmouth in the F.A Cup Final in 2008: coincidentally the year in which Rickie Lambert finished top scorer in the competition. They take on Liverpool in the Carling Cup Final and the nomination of their hugely talented midfielder for the Award is a credit to their campaign. In Malky Mackay’s first season in charge of The Bluebirds, Cardiff have reached the Carling Cup Final and are still chasing promotion from where they currently sit at 5th, six points off of automatic promotion with 14 games left.
The achievements of Southampton under an ever-positive Nigel Adkins are equally admirable: coming up in second from the npower League One, Southampton quietly went about their summer transfer dealings, overshadowed by pseudo-rivals Brighton capturing League One’s top scorer Craig Mackail-Smith and Valencia’s Vicente, yet quickly established themselves at the top of the pack. To date, Southampton are yet to be positioned anywhere but the top two and led the pack for the majority of the campaign. Nominees, Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana, will be hoping their strong performances can continue and ensure Premier League status next season.
However, who will win the npower Championship Player of the Year Award 2012?
In League One, Rickie Lambert had all the plaudits: they were as plentiful and as vast as his goal-scoring portfolio. However, when Southampton made the step back up into the second tier of English football, many suddenly left the Scouser’s side. The Southampton faithful didn’t, though, and after many a lazy comparison to Grant Holt, Saints fans were left wondering if they were the only ones knowing just how good Rickie Lambert was, as he seemingly continued to go unnoticed in the Championship.
Yet, Rickie Lambert’s recognition, all the more valued as it is coming from opposition managers rather than the previous system of fan votes, which was easy to rig, is full confirmation – if currently being the league’s top scorer with sixteen and second in the assists chart with nine wasn’t – that Southampton’s no.7 has made the step up.
What is much-covered in the media is Rickie Lambert’s transition from a chunky League One target man to a much trimmer “Saints fit” centre forward: however, this understates just how talented Rickie Lambert is technically as well as physically. His hold-up play is noted, his ability to drop off his man and play the quick one-two is not; his aerial ability is credited, but his wing play and succulent deliveries are not; and whilst his free-kick’s and penalties are often lauded, his creativity and vision is not. At 6’2, Rickie Lambert is the not so subtle underdog.
theseventytwo rating: 19th best player in the league
Unlike last year, the voting system is open to only the votes of the 24 managers in the Championship. The three-man shortlist is a reflection of the most voted for players in each manager’s five-man submittal. Peter Whittingham’s inclusion in the final cut for the trophy pays homage to a season in which he has helped his team towards a League Cup Final, contributing with two goals, one of which became the decisive third penalty in a 3-1 semi-final penalty shootout win against Crystal Palace.
However, it is in the league where Whittingham, who made his debut for Cardiff City in 2007, since becoming a permanent fixture for The Bluebirds under Dave Jones and then Malky Mackay, has made the biggest impact: the midfielder has featured in all of Cardiff’s 32 league games so far this season and his return of nine goals means that the former England -21 international leads the scoring charts for Cardiff – along with Kenny Miller – a feat he carried out until the end of the season during the 09/10 campaign, securing the Championship Golden Boot with 22 goals. Add to that that Whittingham has the most assists in the league, and the case for Cardiff creator is strong.
The npower Championship Player of the Year Award isn’t the only gong the Cardiff City hit man is up for either: due to his audacious attempt from 25-yards, caught on the volley, the free-scoring midfield maestro finds himself up against Darren Ambrose, Peter Leven, Kári Árnason and Paul Coutts for the Mitre Goal of the Year, something Barnsley ‘keeper Luke Steele wouldn’t begrudge him.
theseventytwo rating: 4th best player in the league
“For me he is the best player in the league,” said Nigel Adkins, “Lallana oozes class; it’s as simple as that.” For anyone that has seen this prodigious talent twist and turn opposition defenders inside out, his ability in undoubted: his feinting hips and dipping shoulders left John Paintsil on his bum when Saints suffered their first defeat of the season at the King Power Stadium. Now, as the final fourteen games approach, Adam Lallana has hit his brilliant best once more.
His performance against Derby, his second faultless home display on the trot, was scintillating. In the early stages of the season, David Connolly had provided the class on par with Lallana to enable an unstoppable partnership to form, but his dip in performances has seen the aging Irishman feature less, as competition for attacking places increases and on Saturday, it was January Japanese signing Tadanari Lee that made Adam Lallana spark even brighter once more. The relationship was telepathic and the one touch passing between the two was the catalyst for Southampton’s third goal, which was beautifully finished on the volley from Adam Lallana himself.
With five assists, Southampton’s 5th highest assister, and eight goals, Adam Lallana has proved himself as one of many sources of goals in a freely-attacking Saints side. However, the 23-year old one-club man is all about the team, “It’s obviously nice to get recognised but we just want to achieve promotion now because that’s our main goal for the season. If we get promoted then it’ll be brilliant.” Saints fans will be hoping the momentum gathered between now and the final run-in will be gathered at pace and such an award could only spur on their best player.
theseventytwo rating: the best in the league