Evergreen Dublin is a worthy contender

DAVID CUFFLEY As this is the one day of the year when millions who seldom venture anywhere near a bookmakers are tempted to have a flutter, it's time to place your bets in the Norwich City player of the year stakes.


As this is the one day of the year when millions who seldom venture anywhere near a bookmakers are tempted to have a flutter, it's time to place your bets in the Norwich City player of the year stakes.

The fact that this season's hot favourite fell halfway round the course should have left the race wide open for his team-mates from January onwards, but with 11 days left until the voting closes, the field appears to have narrowed to the point where there is one clear front-runner.

With 17 goals up to and including New Year's Day, striker Robert Earnshaw was arguably romping away with the award until he suffered serious groin damage in training two days before the disastrous home game against Plymouth.

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In his absence, Darren Huckerby has delivered a storming run of performances and is the man tipped by most pundits to collect the Barry Butler Memorial Trophy before the final home game of the season against Southampton in a fortnight's time.

If Huckerby takes the award for the second time in three seasons, he will become the seventh player to pick up the trophy twice in the 41 seasons since it was introduced by the late club chairman and president, Geoffrey Watling.

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Ken Foggo, Kevin Keelan, Martin Peters, Kevin Drinkell, Bryan Gunn and Iwan Roberts are the previous double winners, and 30-year-old Huckerby would well deserve to be in such elevated company.

There were times in the weeks after Peter Grant's arrival as City boss when Huckerby came in for criticism for a lack of end product.

The fact that he failed to score in his first 15 matches under Grant probably did not help and, although Huckerby signed a new contract, questions were asked over whether the two men saw eye to eye.

There was an awkward exchange at the annual meeting in January when Grant responded to a shareholder's praise of Huckerby by asking: “How many goals has he scored this year? How many goals has he created this year? He's a major player and a major threat but we have to get more out of him in the final third, whether it's scoring goals or creating chances.”

Since then, though, Huckerby has answered those questions with knobs on and capped some great performances with a series of vintage goals in victories over Leeds, Blackpool, Barnsley, Birmingham and Stoke.

Grant's verdict after the Good Friday victory at Hull was effusive.

He admitted he had been critical of his star forward but said: “That brilliance he's got in certain moments - nobody can match that in the division. He's very, very difficult to cope with. There are a hell of a lot of good players in this division but Darren's up there with the best of them.”

The award is not completely a one-horse race, however. Jason Shackell has not, I believe, had the credit he deserves for being a model of consistency in defence, and I would venture to make a case for another outstanding candidate - Dion Dublin.

There were a few raised eyebrows and caustic comments when the 37-year-old became what proved to be Nigel Worthington's last signing as City boss in September, though one or two correspondents - and modesty forbids me to name names - did suggest it might just be a shrewd move.

Dublin, who was originally at Norwich as a 19-year-old when he played a dozen matches in the reserves, took a few games to get back into his stride but has proved to be an excellent recruit, on and off the field.

From the moment he produced a towering display at centre-half in City's 1-0 home win over Sunderland in November, he became a firm favourite. It is in the back four that he has probably had his best games, but his enduring ability to operate in defence or attack - at the same time combining the enthusiasm of a teenager with all the experience of a decade in the Premiership - has been a major plus for Grant at the start of his reign as manager.

Dublin will be 38 next Sunday, when the Canaries take on Ipswich at Carrow Road, and his immediate future has still to be made clear.

But whether or not his stay is extended, Dublin has been a great competitor and a steadying influence in a difficult season and is a worthy contender for the honour of becoming the oldest winner of City's player of the season award.

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