‘Underrated’ is a term used so frequently in the beautiful game it’s beginning to lose all meaning. Take James Milner for example – the apparent king of unadulterated underration. He plays for the reigning Premier League champions, Manchester City, is paid around £90k per-week, was once purchased for £28.5million and has represented England on 53 occasions, yet the extremities of his talents are allegedly unappreciated by the footballing world.
Manuel Pellegrini seems to rate him, Roy Hodgson seems to rate him and so do Liverpool, Arsenal and Roma, all of whom are reportedly attempting to prize him away from the Eithad in January. So unless Sky Sports and MOTD cameramen – not to mention hundreds of thousands of eyewitnesses – have somehow missed Hamez Milner impersonating Zinedine Zidane for his last 13 seasons in the Premier League, I’d suggest he’s rated pretty accurately in England, barring the inevitable, illogical hater here and there.
Yet, if there’s a rare few underrated players left in the Premier League still deserving of that overused title, somehow overlooked by the Godfather of the interactive whiteboard Gary Neville and yet-to-be anointed as an anti-establishment, hipster champion by the young and trendy, online stats mob, West Ham goalkeeper Adrian firmly belongs in that category.
He arrived at Upton Park in fittingly underwhelming circumstances – picked up on a free transfer in summer 2013 to serve as understudy to long-serving Sam Allardyce crony, Jussi Jaaskelainen. To the naked eye, a cut-price journeyman for a largely insignificant role, assuming your first-choice goalkeeper isn’t the type to shatter his kneecap on the first day of training.
The footballing world is littered with goalies earning livings as second or third picks – Stuart Taylor for example, has plied his trade with Arsenal, Aston Villa, Manchester City, Reading and Leeds United, but never made more than 18 league appearances for a single club – and Adrian certainly gave that velour, having registered just 32 first team outings over the space of a single season for former club Real Betis.
Appearances however, or as Sam Allardyce argued last December, transfer fees, can often be deceptive. Adrian was the bedrock of the West Ham side that clawed their way back to mid-table from the depths of a relegation battle last season, after swapping roles with Jaaskelainen in December, earning him the affectionate moniker ‘Adrian’s Wall’ and second spot, only losing out to Mark Noble, in the Hammer of the Year award.
In total, he kept six clean sheets and made 69 saves from 20 Premier League appearances last season, despite the East Londoners being on the end of several high-scoring drubbings with him between the sticks, averaging out at 0.3 and 3.45 respectively per match – a significant increase on the rate of the Premier League’s most coveted shot-stopper and Manchester United’s 2013/14 Player of the Year, David De Gea, at 2.24.
Fast forward to the current campaign, and it’s been one of ‘no passengers’ for the East Londoners. Some fantastic recruitment during the summer has seen the Hammers’ depth miraculously enhance and every player is now kept on their toes by healthy competition for places. A few pedestrian performances and you’ll quickly find yourself on reserve duty – or in summer signing Mauro Zarate’s case, set to confirm his loan move to QPR, on the first tube to the other side of London.
One might expect the 28 year-old to wilt in such a contested climate, or at least – as with many Premier League bargain arrivals – struggle to replicate the form of his inaugural campaign, but if anything, his performances this year have reached an even higher, almost heroic level. Only QPR’s Robert Green and Swansea’s Lukasz Fabianski have bettered his 53 saves this term, two of which, against Arsenal on Boxing Day, would be more commonly associated with compatriot De Gea, but such efforts of athletic aesthetics and world-class quality are quickly becoming synonymous with the Hammers No.1 too.
Of course, good form hardly equates to under-appreciation, but the manner in which Adrian’s performances over the last year have gone unnoticed verges upon conspiratorial. This is a free signing virtually nobody in England had previously heard of, after all – even amongst Real Betis fans, he was the antithesis of a household name – now outperforming the likes of Joe Hart and Wojceich Szczesny to name a few, two goalkeepers considered to be bona fide members of the European elite.
Indeed, if you think £28.5million-rated, half-centenary England international James Milner doesn’t receive the positive press his performances deserve, I implore you to watch Adrian in action. Enner Valencia, Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Alex Song and co may be drawing all the plaudits at Upton Park this season, but his performances will be of even greater vitality if the Hammers qualify for the Champions League come May-time.