Adam Bate explains why Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah got his vote for the FWA Footballer of the Year award.
This season marks 70 years since Sir Stanley Matthews was named the first Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year. According to Charles Buchan, one of the founding fathers of the FWA, the award sho,uld go to ‘the professional player who by precept and example is considered by a ballot of members to be the footballer of the year’.
There is always an inclination to select the best player in the best team in the land. Mere excellence does not feel enough. An individual should put his talents towards achieving something tangible for his team, as has been the case with the each of the last three winners of the award – Eden Hazard in 2015, Jamie Vardy in 2016 and N’Golo Kante in 2017.
Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne would have been a worthy winner.
But just sometimes an individual produces performances so extraordinary that it demands looking beyond the champions of England. Salah has had such a season and then some.
He has already scored 43 goals in all competitions for Liverpool this season, just four short of Ian Rush’s club record. He has equalled the best total of 31 for a 38-game Premier League season and if he can somehow conjure another four goals in the remaining two games, Salah will become the top scorer in an English top-flight season in 50 years.
Those individual accolades are within reach but there is a bigger prize that awaits. Liverpool could yet become the champions of Europe. Undoubtedly, it is problematic to vote before knowing the outcome of that Champions League adventure, but it says much for Salah that Jurgen Klopp’s side can even countenance such an accomplishment.
For all De Bruyne’s brilliance, Manchester City may well have won the Premier League title without him, such is the quality elsewhere in the side and the lead over their rivals. It is unthinkable that Liverpool could find themselves on the verge of Champions League glory without Salah. He has elevated his team to a level few had anticipated.
What is more, in doing so, he has been a joy to watch. While the curled efforts into the far corner, most recently exemplified by the opener against Roma, have become his trademark, there have been all sorts of goals. The lob against Manchester City in Liverpool’s 4-3 win stands out. As does the twisting and turning before his goal against Tottenham at Anfield.
In the Premier League, there have been five with his right foot and even a couple of headers. At times, such as the passed finish low into the corner against Arsenal, Salah has made it look easy. At others, such as the stumbling, stabbed strike against Watford, it has looked so hard as to defy belief. Either way, the ball has still ended up in the net.
Comparing any player to Lionel Messi is to court ridicule. But in Salah’s case it would be negligent not to when it is there in the numbers. The pair are tied on 43 goals. Salah is not even close to having a Messi career but he is having a Messi season. And it is not just about the numbers, the sight of Salah in full flow is undeniably reminiscent of the great man.
There is the low centre of gravity. The left foot, of course. The ability to dribble at pace while keeping the ball under control, beating opponents on the inside and outside. More recently, as shown by Salah’s goals at Porto and Crystal Palace, there is a growing sense of calm in front of goal. The confidence to take that extra touch and slow everything down.
Will such form continue? Salah had never scored 20 goals in a season before this one and, as Gary Neville noted on Monday Night Football, there will be no player as intriguing to watch next season. The world will want to know whether he can follow up this extraordinary campaign. Was this his annus mirabilis or is he capable of joining the all-time greats?
If this is just a freak season, a mere man suddenly transforming into an Egyptian king still deserves recognition. But if this is the start of something special, the emergence of a generational talent rarely seen before in this country, then it surely demands it. For that, and 43 reasons more, Mohamed Salah is the Footballer of the Year.