At this time of the year, the forward-thinking amongst us tend to devote their attention to the rumoured activities of the forthcoming transfer window, desperately trying to predict which players will be seeking pastures new. The more reflective however, like yours truly, choose to look back upon the successes and failures of the previous campaign. The PFA Team of the Season didn’t really spring any surprises (although if I hear another Chelsea fan bemoan the omission of Frank Lampard I will throttle someone), predictably selecting the leading lights of the teams found within the upper echelons of the Premier League table. The entirely subjective nature of such selections will forever provoke debate, so instead of throwing my two cents into that argument I have decided to put together an alternative XI.
Whilst the following eleven players seldom receive the plaudits and column inches afforded to some of their more esteemed colleagues and counterparts, they can nevertheless be relied upon as a model of consistency. For the sake of fairness I have tried to avoid selecting more than two players from the same club. These eleven players have been left out of most “team of the season” lists you’ll find on the internet, exemplifying how they tend to avoid the radar of the average football fan. However each one of the following collection of ‘Steady Eddies’, ‘misfits-come-good’ and cult heroes are all worthy of place in my Unsung XI of the season.
Eschewing the expected 4-4-2 line-up of teams of this nature, I have opted to use a 4-5-1 formation, given that it seems to be the flavour of the month amongst most top teams at the moment. So without further ado…
Goalkeeper – Marcus Hahnemann (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
Newly-promoted, managed by Mick McCarthy, a squad lacking proven Premier League players – how many of you honestly thought that Wolves wouldn’t go straight back down to the Championship? Whilst the Molineux outfit’s admirable 15th place finish is attributable to a wealth of factors (most notably how dire the teams below them were), the installation of the heavy metal-loving American between the sticks a third of the way into the season was an inspired decision.
Initially brought in as back-up, Hahnemann managed to usurp the shaky Wayne Hennessey and hasn’t looked back since. Since then the 38-year-old has enjoyed an Indian summer akin to that of team-mate Jody Craddock, ending up as Opta’s goalkeeper of the season, with statistics showing that he made more saves per game than any other regular goalkeeper (4.4 and had the highest saves-to-shots ratio of any regular custodian (79.7%), as well as an impressive catch success rate (96%). Statistics aside, Hahnemann has impressed many with his shot-stopping feats at the Premier League’s lowest-scoring club, with the American proving to be a great ‘catch’ for Mick McCarthy (I’ll grab my coat…).
Right back – Stephen Carr
Carr’s turnaround in fortunes within the last 18 months has been nothing short of ridiculous. Released by Newcastle United in the summer of 2008, Carr’s failure to find a new club led to the player announcing his retirement in December of that year. However, the former Republic of Ireland international was brought to then promotion-chasing Birmingham City in February 2009, initially on a one-month contract, and has gone on to establish himself as fixture of Alex McLeish’s side.
Installed as captain at St. Andrews following promotion to the Premier League, the former Spurs man has been an integral part of the Blues’ strong backline, with his impressive performances contributing greatly to the side’s 9th place finish. Described by manager Alex McLeish as “absolutely awesome”, Carr’s combative and determined displays have made him a firm favourite with the St. Andrews faithful.
In addition to his inclusion within my Unsung XI of the season, Carr also wins the annual “Gary Neville passion award for making gestures at fans of fiercest rivals” following rude gestures he made to Aston Villa fans during the ‘Second City Derby’ at Villa Park last season.
Centre back – Aaron Hughes
The recent media/neutral love-in of Fulham of late has been enough to make me sick, but I suppose kudos must be given to a team who have gone from escaping relegation on the last day of the season to Europa League finalists within two years. A survivor of Gok Wan-lookalike Lawrie Sanchez’s ‘Norn Iron brigade’, the consistency of former Newcastle United man Aaron Hughes has been key to the shoring up of Fulham’s once-porous defence.
Whilst plaudits have been heaped upon Norwegian Brede Hangeland over the last 12 months, Hughes has quietly and efficiently gone about his job, with his intelligent and composed style of play often masking the deficiencies of his more illustrious central defensive partner. Solid yet unspectacular, Hughes typifies the consistent ‘7/10’ nature of this Unsung XI.
Centre back – Robert Huth
The defender with a style of play as brutal as his name played a big part in Stoke City’s successful bid to avoid ‘second season syndrome’. A typically rugged and combative old-fashioned centre-half, the German international has justified manager Tony Pulis’ £5 million outlay and then some. Like Aaron Hughes, Huth also plays alongside a more illustrious central defensive partner in Ryan Shawcross.
The former Middlesbrough man has also made an impact at the other end of the pitch, scoring three times in the Premier League, most memorably a 90th minute equaliser against Liverpool at the Britannia Stadium back at January. Tipped for big things as a young player at Chelsea, it seems as though Huth is finally fulfilling his early promise.
Left back – Nadir Belhadj
I’ll admit that I found left back the hardest position to fill in this team. Few candidates had sufficiently convinced me that they were deserving of a place in this side, and the one notable unsung left-back I had thought of (Leighton Baines) somehow found his way into a colleague of mine’s actual team of the season. Aside from his impressive cameo in last weekend’s FA Cup Final and the fact that he managed to score TWICE against my beloved Liverpool over the course of last season, I opted to select Portsmouth’s Nadir Belhadj to fill the vacant berth within my XI.
The Algeria international has greatly impressed me since his arrival in England during the summer of 2008. Astonishingly linked with a move to the all-conquering Barcelona earlier this season, Belhadj has sometimes managed to light up Portsmouth’s annus horribilis with his tenacious and ambitious displays down Pompey’s left flank. Equally comfortable at left back and left midfield, Belhadj’s creativity, technique and commitment have made him a firm favourite with fans of the relegated side.
Defensive midfield – Steven Nzonzi
Love him or hate him, Sam Allardyce clearly knows how to make a team hard to beat. In spite of his penchant for ugly football, ‘Big’ Sam is forging a reputation as an ‘English Arsene Wenger of the north’ and the inspired purchase of Steven Nzonzi does nothing to dispel this notion. Signed from relegated French side Amiens last summer for just £500,000, the 21-year-old has seamlessly adapted to life in the Premier League, with his impressive box-to-box displays in the heart of the Blackburn midfield leading him to receiving the fans’ player of the year award at Ewood Park. This form hasn’t gone unnoticed by his manager, with Allardyce stating that, “Nzonzi is my player of the year, no doubt about it. His resilience and endurance in his first season, coming from a relegated side in France, is a wonderful achievement for any player coming into the Premier League for the first time from abroad never mind one who was 20 when he arrived.”
Despite only scoring two goals during his maiden season at Ewood Park, Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard will attest to the fact that Nzonzi has a rifle of a shot on him following the 21-year-old’s blistering 30-yard strike against the Toffees earlier this season. Keeping more established and experienced players out of the Blackburn midfield, Nzonzi has drawn comparisons to Patrick Vieira, inevitably sparking suggestions that Arsene Wenger is looking to bring him to the Emirates.
Central midfield – Jamie O’Hara
Although O’Hara’s rise to prominence owes a lot to the reputation of his fiancée, his tireless displays on loan at Portsmouth led to him being named the club’s player of the year by no less than nine different fan groups. The 23-year-old thrived at Fratton Park, repaying the doomed club’s decision to provide him with first-team football by turning in a series of passionate and determined displays.
Having acquired the dreaded tag of ‘utility man’ at Tottenham, O’Hara undoubtedly established himself as a first-team Premier League player at Fratton Park, endearing himself to the club’s fans with his work-rate and commitment to the cause. The ultimate indictment of O’Hara’s dedication was his willingness to play in the FA Cup Final, despite genuine fears that it may have seriously aggravated a troublesome back problem that he had been nursing.
Central midfield – Lee Bowyer
A lot of the players in this team have undergone a rebirth or revival over the course of last season, with none doing so more than Lee Bowyer. Illustrating manager Alex McLeish’s proclivity for revitalising washed-up has-beens, the impressive form of Bowyer was almost as surprising as his side’s 9th place finish.
Tagged by many as a villain due to his aggressive, mouthy and destructive tendencies, Bowyer has managed to transform his persona into that of an assured, hard-working, law-abiding midfielder. Impressively bagging five goals and an assist over the course of last season, the former Leeds man was a bit of a Fantasy Football team must-buy at one stage in light of his cheap price and rediscovered clinical touch in front of goal.
Although he has yet to hit the heady heights of his Leeds days, Bowyer has been able to produce his best form since his time at Elland Road. Thanks to his solid displays Bowyer has managed to win over the St. Andrews faithful, with this scenario almost unforeseeable given that many Blues fans had breathed a massive collective sigh of disapproval upon his arrival in Birmingham.
Left wing – Matthew Etherington
For £2 million, the signing of everyone’s favourite left-footed gambling addict now looks like one of the best deals of the last few seasons. Playing for a team derided by many as boring, one-dimensional and unappealing on the eye, Etherington’s skilful displays down Stoke City’s left-wing have vigorously shown critics that his side can (at times) play aesthetically-pleasing football.
Having failed to display consistency at Tottenham and West Ham, it seems as though the former Peterborough man has found his ‘footballing home’ at the Britannia Stadium. Notching an impressive five goals and eight assists in 34 outings for the Potters last season, Etherington was rewarded for his form by completing a clean sweep at the club’s Player of the Year ceremony, with the winger bagging the Player of the Year, Players’ Player of the Year and the Red and Whites Player of the Year accolades.
Right wing – Damien Duff
In a year Britain’s palest footballer has gone from scoring the own goal that condemned Newcastle United to a year of fizzy pop football to appearing in a Europa League final. Along the way the Irishman has overcome the heartache of relegation and THAT Thierry Henry handball to turn in a string of mesmerising performances in Fulham’s midfield, rediscovering the form that seemed to have eluded him since the early days of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea Empire.
In addition to his European exploits, Duff managed to rack up six goals and three assists in 32 Premier League games for the Craven Cottage side. All in all, not a bad return to West London for a player whose career seemed to have stagnated at the northern wasteland that is St. James Park.
Centre forward – Darren Bent
Well, I cheated a little here. As this list is compiled primarily on the basis of league form, I have chosen to omit Bobby Zamora (only scored eight goals in the Premier League). Given that this team only uses one up-front I have also had to exclude hard-working yet ultimately goal-shy strikers such as Kevin Doyle and Kevin Davies.
Darren Bent has clearly received more media attention and acclaim than any of his other Unsung XI team-mates this season, but I still think that he has received insufficient credit for a man who has scored 24 league goals for a frequently mediocre Sunderland side (I wonder if Sandra Redknapp could’ve managed such a feat?).
Bent has emphatically managed to silence his doubters this season, scoring half (yes, half) of all league goals scored by his side. During Sunderland’s torrid 14-game stretch without a win last season, Bent was the only player who looked capable of turning the club’s fortunes around. The mutual appreciation between Bent and the Sunderland fans has been a joy to behold following the indifferent treatment he was subject to at White Hart Lane, and the former Ipswich man has been rewarded for his prolific form with a berth in Fabio Capello’s provisional 30-man squad for the World Cup.
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