The partisan nature of football must be one reason why the EFL decides most of its annual awards by committee rather than a public poll. Stand Chris Wood, Dwight Gayle and Anthony Knockaert in front of a crowd and objectivity wanes.
The Championship’s player of the year is chosen on the basis of which club’s supporters can mobilise their votes most effectively.
The EFL’s pick will be announced in London on Sunday and a coin-toss is necessary to separate the three of them. The humble opinion of this writer sways towards Wood but with the benefit of seeing every one of his appearances. Gayle’s strike rate is phenomenal and Knockaert’s influence in a difference position is more varied and creative than either of theirs. It amounts to a credible shortlist and what can be agreed is that the Championship has had its share of class this season.
The same can be said of Leeds United and closer to home there is an argument to be had about who amongst several candidates is most deserving of the club’s player-of-the-year award. This is a rare occasion where opinion will be nuanced. For four or five seasons the recipient has been predictable for the wrong reasons: so often a lone light in a gloomy term.
There was little in the way of a challenge to Charlie Taylor last year or Alex Mowatt 12 months earlier. Ross McCormack’s nomination in 2014 did not even require a show of hands. This season a case could be made for as many as four players.
If charisma tips the balance then Pontus Jansson will win it, notwithstanding the muddy waters he strayed into with Garry Monk before the international break. There are two strands to Jansson’s impact at Leeds: the quality of a centre-back who reads the game brilliantly and fronts up to every striker he plays against and the showmanship of a character who is in his element at Elland Road.
Leeds are at their worst when the bridge between the club’s squad and the terraces is burned. Jansson’s form of introduction to the crowd in September – a big hit on the touchline and a collaborative punch towards the Kop – was the start of the process of repairing a relationship which seven months on could not be better.
He plays as the typical supporter would play but with the ability and poise they don’t have. Leeds needed that connection and so did Monk, even if the by-product of it has been multiple yellow cards and recent questions about Jansson’s discipline. On the basis that he was unheard of in England before August, he goes down as Leeds’ most skilful piece of recruitment.
Yet quietly, to the right of him, there is no disparity in the performance of Kyle Bartley. People at the club joke about Bartley and Luke Ayling (one-time Arsenal trainees and housemates for a while in Leeds) being joined at the hip but as Bartley said: “I’m basically Pontus with a tan, a beard and better tattoos.”
Inside that joke is a meaningful point about the make-up of Leeds’ defence. The back four at its strongest is like-minded, on a comparable level of talent and loaded with enough personality for the crowd to sing about it. It will, Wood aside, be the story of the season when the season ends next month.
What is often under-estimated with Bartley is his stint as captain in the build-up to Christmas, while Liam Bridcutt was recovering from a broken bone in his foot. Leeds were goalless at home to Blackburn when Bridcutt left the field, 49 minutes into a game which had the potential to earn Monk the sack.
Receiving the armband was something of a hospital pass and it is easy now to think of Leeds as a steamroller; to forget the horrible corner they were in with six games played or the pressure that weighed on the older members of Monk’s squad.
It was Bartley’s header that saw off Blackburn five minutes from time and his header that nicked a win against Brentford before Christmas, with 60 seconds to play. It was leadership when Leeds needed it. Monk said after the Brentford game that in all the years he had known Bartley, the centre-back had never played like he was playing this season.
It appears from the outside that the form of Monk’s defenders is interlinked. Bartley has been so effective because he has Jansson alongside him. Jansson’s calibre has shown itself because he has a disciplined Bartley on his shoulder. Either side of them are highly proficient full-backs: Taylor, Gaetano Berardi and Luke Ayling.
Ayling, at less than £1m, has proved the value buy of both transfer windows. Add in Rob Green and it becomes difficult to determine which among them is holding the house of cards together.
Which brings us back to Wood: a lone striker with meagre cover and a starting point in August which was not at all enviable.
Thirteen goals last season did little to convince anyone that the forward would score enough this year and when you revisit Wood’s comments from July – “I can do better. I know I can be the leading striker here” – you forget that back then the matter was in dispute.
“Easily,” he replied when he was asked if he’d score 20 goals. We’ll see, many of us thought. Time moves quickly and suddenly it seems that retaining Wood will be hugely problematic if promotion gets away from Leeds.
With Wood, it is hard to get away from that night against Fulham when his overhead kick provoked such a pointed gesture towards the Kop.
A splendid finish so soon after an unflattering miss – a header from a few yards out, driven into the turf and over Fulham’s crossbar – accentuated the fact that Wood’s personal fight outweighed that of any other player in United’s squad.
Nothing that needs to be said about 27 goals in one season.
Every other striker in the division is eating his dust. What genuinely marks Wood out at Elland Road is the huge swing in his reputation and the colossal shift in appreciation of his talent.
There is no possibility that Leeds would have made the play-offs without him and, in the context of Wood’s longer-term ambition, this season should be the making of him.
Prolific, reliable, irrepressible and very much Leeds United’s player of the year.