Player of the Year Ponderings
As tempting as it would be to launch into a full-scale rant about the latest farcical episode of Scottish football governance that played out earlier this week, the underlying events have very little to do with Hearts and there are far more positive developments closer to home that are more deserving of attention.
With the season drawing to a close and awards season descending upon us, few would be surprised to see Hearts so well-represented among the nominees for Championship Player of the Year. Earlier in the week it was announced that Morgaro Gomis, Alim Ozturk and Jamie Walker had joined Hibs midfielder Scott Allan on the shortlist, prompting much debate as to which of the Edinburgh-based quartet was most worthy of the award.
The long shot
Last minute 40-yard equaliser puns aside, the unfortunate truth of the matter is that Alim Ozturk is the least likely of the four to be crowned Player of the Year. That isn’t to say he is unworthy of the recognition this nomination brings.
After starting the season on a slightly shaky note, with a few near-catastrophic lapses in concentration in the opening games, the Dutchman went on to form a reliable centre back partnership with Danny Wilson, which has been the bedrock of Hearts’ defensive solidity in a season where, so far, only 23 goals have been shipped in 34 games. With Wilson on his way out of the club at the end of the season, however, the general consensus among supporters appears to be that we have retained the stronger of the two for next year.
Although some may have only reached this conclusion out of petty bitterness towards Wilson for his supposed “lack of loyalty”, it is also hard to argue with the assessment that Ozturk has finished the season looking the stronger and more experienced of the two. On that basis, it can be easy to forget that he is still only 22 years old, such is the mature and composed manner in which he has played this season.
With Robbie Neilson looking to recruit two new centre backs over the pre-season break, there is no reason to doubt that Ozturk will remain the first choice centre back in next season’s Premiership campaign. While he is unlikely to finish the season by securing this particular accolade, given the competition he faces, Ozturk will undoubtedly continue to play important role in the club’s on-field revival, where further rewards (some are tipping him as a future club captain) and even further long-range screamers will surely follow.
The early (season) favourite
The first signing of the club’s new era, Morgaro Gomis set an early benchmark for the calibre of player Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson were looking to bring in: respectable professionals who would lead by example in a comparatively young, inexperienced dressing room. As well as being the archetypal character to fit the club’s new ethos, Gomis brought with him a wealth of experience and the technical ability that had been badly missing from Hearts’ midfield ranks during the previous season. And he also brought along his best buddy Prince Buaben, which worked out rather well for everyone.
The near-telepathic midfield partnership between Gomis and Buaben (honed during their earlier spell together at Dundee United) was a breath of fresh air for supporters who had begun to wonder if there was anything beyond the drudgery of watching Jamie Hamill on a weekly basis. Unlike Hamill, however, Gomis has demonstrated on a regular basis how to boss a midfield without resorting to hatchet man tactics. With seemingly assiduous energy and ice-cool composure, the Senegalese midfielder was an influential component in the opening months of the season, as Hearts swept teams aside in dominant fashion.
Unluckily for Gomis, injuries to Buaben and suspensions incurred by both players had a somewhat disruptive effect on their midfield chemistry as the season progressed. While his individual performance levels never dropped dramatically as a result, there was a noticeable difference in the effectiveness of the central midfield whenever the two were apart. Since Buaben was ruled out for the rest of the season with a toe injury, the partnership of Gomis with Miguel Pallardo has come under increasing scrutiny, with many regarding the pair as too defensively-minded to cause any kind of attacking threat.
If the award was based on the first half of the season alone, the Senegalese would be a shoe-in. Unfortunately, as Gomis’ impact has tailed off slightly towards the season’s conclusion, so too (I predict) have his chances of scooping the prize.
The late entrant
One player to have benefited immeasurably from the new regime is undoubtedly Jamie Walker, whose individual Championship campaign represented somewhat of a ‘coming of age’ for the youngster. In previous seasons, Walker had the tendency to come across as a bit of a “luxury player”, who clearly had the natural ability to produce occasional moments of brilliance but often lacked the application to contribute consistently for a full ninety minutes. Thankfully, any fears that Walker would develop into this type of player have been swiftly alleviated.
With his first child arriving during the season, the responsibility and maturity of fatherhood appears to have had a positive effect on Walker, something that has shone through his performances on the pitch, particularly in the latter half of the season when he made the number ten position his own. Not only has he produced frequent assists in this Championship campaign and a more dogged enthusiasm to track back and defend when chasing possession, his impressive contribution to Hearts’ goal-scoring threat has also seen him hit double figures for the first time in his fledgling career.
The all-round improvement in Walker’s game has not gone unnoticed and reports are currently circulating about interest from south of the border and further afield, with Birmingham City and Real Betis among the alleged suitors. In light of potential big money moves, Walker’s outlook has been as professional as his performances on the pitch, refusing to get carried away with the speculation and insisting that he wants to stay and achieve greater success with his boyhood club.
Still only 21 years old, Walker has come into his own at a vital stage in his development, especially after suffering relegation at the end of a morale-sapping season, an experience that would ruin players of a weaker character. Walker has avoided such a personal fate and bounced back in extraordinary fashion which, in this writer’s opinion, makes him a worthier Player of the Year than his colleague Gomis, an established professional who essentially took a step down to play at this level.
As far as Scott Allan is concerned, the title of outsider is perhaps only relevant on the basis that he is the sole nominee who does not play for Hearts. However, in terms of his chances of winning the award, Allan is a strong favourite.
Like many other players in recent years, a premature and ill-advised move down south from Dundee United proved unsuccessful for Allan, who returned north of the border last summer, a move that has benefited both Hibs and the player himself. As Hibs’ most impressive performer throughout the season, Allan has shaken off the stuttering effect of his spell at West Bromwich Albion to resurrect his career at Easter Road and put himself back in the spotlight. Although he may not have contributed many goals of his own in the Championship, his effectiveness in the middle of the park has been evident throughout, particularly in derby matches where the normally resolute Hearts midfield has struggled to cope with him. I cannot profess to have seen much of him other than in those games, but if the media love-in is anything to go by, Allan has shown similar ability against other teams, which has ultimately been reflected in a Player of the Year nomination from his peers.
While the semi-final defeat to Falkirk effectively ended Allan’s chances of collective success with his current team, it would take the most partisan of Hearts supporters to argue that Allan is not a strong contender for individual recognition.
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on April 25, 2015.