Why Hoolahan will get my vote for the Barry Butler silver
Whatever happens over the final eight days of this enthralling Championship season – and for the two clubs involved in the Wembley play-off final there is still a month to go – one piece of silverware will be on show at Norwich City’s home game against Coventry City.
The Barry Butler Memorial Trophy, first presented in 1967, will be handed over to the man voted player of the year by Canaries supporters.
Voting closes on Tuesday at noon and, just as last season, there is no shortage of candidates.
A quick poll during our Pink ’Un question and answer session a couple of weeks ago suggested skipper Grant Holt, winner in 2009-10, was well fancied to join the select band of seven former two-time winners by picking up the trophy once again as a reward for another tremendous campaign.
My vote would go to Wes Hoolahan because I can’t think of many players in this day and age I would pay very good money to see – not at today’s prices – but here is a prime example.
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More than one manager described him as the most gifted player in League One last season, but in the Championship he has been even better, a genius at work. I will even forgive him those two dodgy penalties – easier chances have been missed by others from closer range, after all.
Other contenders are likely to include Russell Martin, who has played every single minute of the Championship season and has weighed in with five goals from right-back, and midfielder Andrew Crofts, who has been a revelation and scored arguably the best goal of the season in the 2-0 win at Barnsley.
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But if individual excellence is to be celebrated, City’s success this season – and success it is, whether or not they are promoted – has been a classic team effort.
Manager Paul Lambert does not lightly hand out praise to individual players and is forever determined to emphasise the collective will that has taken the Canaries to the brink of back-to-back promotions. The importance of having a squad, not merely a team, all pulling in the same direction has been all too apparent in the second half of the season, which has thrown up one or two unlikely heroes.
Striker Simeon Jackson’s resurgence over the past few weeks has been the most obvious example, but Zak Whitbread’s emergence from an injury nightmare and David Fox’s cultured influence in midfield have been others. Lambert said Jackson’s run of eight goals in six matches had not surprised him.
“With Simeon I never had a problem. I just think the lad can score goals,” said Lambert yesterday. “He goes from League One and, unless I’m wrong, the goals certainly don’t shrink in size when you go up another level. The ball’s still the same shape. He just needed a bit of time.
“And the way he’s playing at the minute, his goalscoring form is excellent. I never had any worry. It was just a matter of time before he came good.”
Jackson’s additional pace has helped give City a different weapon in attack and taken some of the weight off Holt’s shoulders.
“I thought we needed that up top, a bit of speed up there, and he provides that,” said Lambert.
“If you look at the change in the squad from last year, a few lads have left and a few have come in. It takes time to adjust to another team, new surroundings, and you have to settle in.
“But you’ve got to try to hit the ground running, especially when you come to a club like this when the fans are expectant.
“I’m delighted for him. He’s never once let his head go down, he’s a great pro and that’s all you can ask.”
Fox started only two league games before the end of October but, after having to wait for his chance, has become a virtual fixture in midfield.
“I had no fear with that. I knew what Foxy was capable of,” said Lambert. “I knew exactly what the lad could do. He’s got that nasty habit of giving it to somebody in a yellow shirt, which is a rare thing.
“He is a brilliant passer of the ball, had a terrific background at Manchester United. So I knew he would be fine.”
Whitbread’s return after 18 months of very little football has been a welcome bonus in the wake of Leon Barnett’s misfortune and has fully justified Lambert’s faith in the former Millwall man.
“With Zak, it’s the same with Foxy and Simeon. I’d already seen him play a few times and always thought he was a good one. And he’s a rare breed, a left-footed centre back. There are not many around,” said his manager.
For all his success as a player in a career that brought a Champions League win, a UEFA Cup final appearance, 40 Scotland caps and numerous domestic honours, one senses Lambert finds management even more rewarding.
He said: “Being a player you can look after yourself. So when your game finishes you go home in your car. When you’re a manager you have to get not just 11 lads playing for you, you have to get 20 lads that want to enjoy it and want to do it and want to go with the same group that have been playing.
“The ones that don’t play are every bit as important as the ones that do play, because they keep the lads on their toes and keep them in the side. It’s not easy but it’s probably more satisfying that I’ve got a group of lads that I think will run through walls for me.”