Room for improvement?

30 Jan

Some people love a good cry, don’t they?  There was a young fan on television a few years back, bawling his eyes out because Spurs had been knocked out of the Carling Cup third round.  I remember thinking to myself, if the third round of the League Cup is enough to set him off, the lad was going to be in a world of trouble when he’s old enough to understand the concept of affordable housing.

The whimpering young Tottenham-ite is not alone, though.  Many of us seemingly need to let it all out on a weekly basis.  Whether it be on a Saturday evening, watching Simon Cowell and his band of vocal moderators dash another young person’s hope of becoming a singer.  Or blubbing along to “The Biggest Loser”, a show in which the tears flow by the gallon when an out-of-work Texan truck driver briefly dips below the 300 pound mark.

Football could be doing a lot more to make people cry.  Clearly, some folks aren’t able to have fun unless they’re getting their money’s worth from a hanky at the same time.  So let’s give them something to well up over. 

Thankfully, our emotive brothers from across the pond are way ahead of us on this one.  The Doodle Dandies have long since introduced an award into their sporting spheres that is guaranteed to have us all bawling like a mum at a wedding.  The Most Improved Player award.


There’s an obvious pitfall that the Most Improved Player award ought to try to avoid.  It needs to swerve becoming a back-handed compliment along the lines of “I see you’re not quite as rubbish as you used to be”.  At my first Sunday League club, there was always a prize at the end-of-season gala called “The Clubman Award”.  With damning inevitably, this award bore an annual route into the feckless hands of whoever had been the most unused substitute that year.  The keen-spirited sap who, on the rare occasions of being called into service, was often required to do so sporting the indignity of the wrong coloured shorts; or a “closely-approximating” civilian t-shirt.  Sadly, the nearest this pocket Pele usually got to the action was being roped into running one of the lines.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to what the Clubman Award amounted to.  It was a crushing blow for any parent daring to dream they might be fostering the next Gary Lineker.  It was a plaque-based tribute to lousy genetics; insisting on pride of place on the mantelpiece.


Care must be taken not to let the MIP be seen as the low-hanging fruit of the awards ceremony.  Like the Clubman Award before it, it mustn’t become some sort of homage to mediocrity.  And, of course, it needn’t be.  Arguably, for instance, Gareth Bale could have been a two-time MIP winner based on the monumental leaps he made to his game in 2010/2011 and then again in 2012/13. 

But the winner doesn’t have to be a world-beater, either.  That’s the beauty of it.  Last season also saw the culmination of a journey for Rickie Lambert that went from stuffing beetroot to stuffing Scotsmen.  He was another strong candidate for the 2012/13 award.

Properly calibrated, the award should operate independently of a player’s ability and look only to the improvements made.  The aim being to perform a standardised test of actual improvement over and above expected improvement (thus normalising the gains one would assume a younger player will achieve from season to season, without unnecessarily discounting them from the award).  In theory, then, the award is just as likely to be won by the best or the worst footballer in the league, and everyone in between.  With that in mind, let’s have a look at who is in the running for the 2013/14 MIP.


Jordan Henderson has to be a contender.  Henderson could be forgiven for wondering how much of a Liverpool career he was actually going to have in the summer.  The ground beneath him was beginning to splinter, and few would have been surprised if Brendan Rogers packed Henderson into the same crate marked “For shipping” as those other gurning parochial oddities who failed to light up the centre of the Anfield park, Jonjo Shelvey and Jay Spearing. 

Six months on and he’s almost undroppable.  He still gallops around the pitch like a zebra who’s just taken a well-meaning syringe to the buttocks from the park ranger.  But he’s now complementing his very considerable lungs with a generous dollop of panache.  His passing has come on a treat and some of his final balls into (usually) Luis Suarez have been first class.  Six premier league assists for the ever-present Merseyside Mackem demonstrates how his technical side has progressed.  If Henderson continues with the good work and wins the Most Improved Player accolade, then perhaps author and former Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, can present him with the award.


Aaron Ramsey must be another MIP hopeful.  If people really do want tears weaving their way down cheeks like a mazy Chris Waddle dribble, then Aaron’s your man.  There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house if Ramsey won the award.  Many players wouldn’t have recovered at all from the sort of injury Ramsey cruelly suffered at the Britannia Stadium in 2010 and yet look at the season he’s having.

He’s managed an incredible goal every other game from midfield and has been committing defender after defender with wonderful flair on the ball.  Jack Wilshere has almost become an after-thought at the Emirates; forced out to the graveyard slot of left-midfield in order to accommodate the brilliance of Ramsey and Özil in the middle.  But, on their own, Ramsay’s performances don’t tell the full story…

Before the start of this season, Ramsey’s career looked destined to be played out in the shadow of an imaginary career that he would have had but for that Ryan Shawcross tackle.  He was his own nearly man.  It was grimacing to watch as the haunting spectre of an entire career never to be fulfilled was laid out in front of him.  And yet, now, going in to February, Ramsey is probably only the width of one Uruguayan’s brilliance away from the main Player of the Year award.  It’s fantastic to see.  Here’s to a dream turnaround continuing and I hope he puts four past Stoke in March.


While we’re at the Emirates, what about Mathieu Flamini?  A man who, in August, was effectively valued at zero when Arsene Wenger went down to the footballing equivalent of Battersea Dog’s Home and saw a familiar face drooling through the protective wire.  No prominent league position could have been maintained without the snarling Gallic warrior poet doing the lion’s share of the nasty stuff that Arsenal have lacked in recent years.  If the Gunners look sturdier this year, it is noteworthy that his addition, free of charge, is the only change in the defensive half of Arsenal’s pitch.


When Phil Bardsley was photographed last May lying down in a casino covered in £50 notes, Paolo Di Canio was not in the least bit amused. He declared that Bardsley would never play for Sunderland again.   For a manager who went on to sign 14 unproven players in the summer, fell out with all of them, and then had a “heated discussion” with 5,000 travelling Sunderland fans in front of live TV cameras, you might be forgiven for thinking that Di Canio would have had sympathy for man who likes a bit of a gamble.  But it wasn’t so.  The right-back was out on his ear.  Some way short of assuming the role of peace-maker, Bardsely took to social media to poke fun at Sunderland’s opening day loss.  Having been unable to find a new club over the summer – further hindered by breaking his foot during pre-season – it would be fair to say that Bardsley’s career was not in the ascendancy.

Bardsley is what you might affectionately call the unreconstituted type.  His game is based on those classic British qualities of grit, determination and an ability to put the willies up foreign wingers.  Helpfully, he has the physical characteristics to play this role to a tee.  Such is his heavy brow and Neanderthal features, you wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point in his life, Bardsley had lost a family member to a swooping pterodactyl.  And having outlasted the woolly mammoth, the dodo and the fragmentation of Pangaea, Bardsley wasn’t about to let an emotional Roman with a questionable temperament consign him to extinction.

Bardsley was straight back into the team on Gus Poyet’s arrival and has been indispensable ever since.  With a solitary point to their name, Sunderland were dead and buried when Di Canio exited.  Bardsley’s uncompromising defending has helped them into a position where they now have a fighting chance of survival.  What’s more, this “traditional” full-back has been doing it at both ends of the pitch.  A derby win against the Toon was followed up with a victory over Manchester City, with Bardsley scoring the only goal of the game.  In the League Cup Semi-Final, First Leg against Manchester United (his alma mater), Bardsely forced Ryan Giggs into an own goal that had the Black Cats dreaming of Wembley.  As an encore, Super Phil then scored the critical goal in the Second Leg.  Sunderland now look forward to a first cup final appearance in 22 years. 

Despite being written off as prehistoric, Bardsley has shown a Darwinian ability to adapt that is key to any premiership footballer’s survival.  Strong MIP material in anyone’s book.


Sport is one of mankind’s most noble pursuits.  It manifests a desire of people to improve; whether it be against the clock or against others.  Which is why, for me, the Olympic motto cuts far more powerfully than any medal ceremony.  Faster, Higher, Stronger.  Despite sounding unerringly like a Viagra advert, these words remind us that the only real failure is not making betterment itself your aim. 

Most sportsmen and women will, by the nature of things, never be the best at their sport.  However, there is a lot to be said for recognising those who have made the greatest strides towards reaching that pinnacle, whatever their start position.  Expect to therefore see a “Most Improved of the English Game” trinket being handed out at the Too Good awards ceremony in May.

Hankies at the ready.

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button at the bottom-right corner of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).


A man who knew a thing or two about improvement.

A man who knew a thing or two about improvement.

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