Grant Holt, Darren Huckerby, Martin Peters, Chris Sutton… Gary Doherty. You can tell a lot about a Norwich season by its recipient of the Barry Butler Memorial Trophy. Zoë Whitford celebrates the Player of the Season award, and all that it means
There is nothing that can bring a Premier League football club back down to earth more than the practicalities of the pre-match Player of the Season presentation. Until the stadium has been fitted with lasers capable of turning a pleasant afternoon full-on-Pink Floyd, the ceremony will have to remain decidedly amateur. It’s one of the best bits of the season, without fail.
Admin staff, delighted to have been granted pitch access for the first time ever, appear with a trestle table (sourced no doubt from a dark and damp storage area known as The Death Pit, not to be confused with Ryan Bennett’s Murder Hole). It hasn’t been used since this time last year, so they’ve had to wipe it down with a damp sponge, a process which has had no impact on the table whatsoever. No matter! The wind has mercifully kept away, so the table can be covered by a highly starched tablecloth which is definitely going to add some class to the ceremony.
Speaking of class, here come the three trophies, carried with all the pomp imaginable by people wearing white gloves ordered from Amazon in a panic just two days previously. Never mind that a footballer who’s just been warming up is about to get his sweaty mitts all over it; what matters is that the trophy was print-free before the PA system fired up. We’re ready to crown the champion.
The Player of the Year presentation, no matter how shoddy, provides a stabilising centre of gravity; allows us to take stock and think about the Bigger Picture. For it symbolises the end of the season, and whether the team has been largely terrible, largely average or surprisingly quite good; it’s a reminder that the chance to go to the football won’t be around for the next few months, and that we’re going to miss it, actually. The Player of the Year is not bound by squad weaknesses or referees or relegation or promotion, it is supporters saying ‘whatever happens, we love this club, and this year we loved you the most’.
Of course, looking at the list of past winners of the Barry Butler Memorial Trophy, it’s clear that some seasons offered slim pickings. Lee Croft was apparently given the trophy in the ill-fated 2008-09 season for scoring against Ipswich and then having top banter with the crowd about it. Presumably Gary Doherty’s 2006 win was either the result of an internet campaign that Unexpectedly Gained Traction or the club showing great-but-instantly-regrettable support to the Make a Wish Foundation.
Some victories look strange on paper but in reality were based on a totting-up (a bit like when you get booked for your third foul despite it not being an actual rule) of several solid if at the time unspectacular seasons – step forward Craig Fleming, Gary Holt and Adam Drury. Dion Dublin’s name was, I expect, engraved on the trophy as soon as he announced his retirement in 2008. Fans probably thought they’d have eternity to give it to Darren Huckerby again and again, so Dion could have it just this once for being Dion, and for embarking on a farewell tour not dissimilar to that recently undertaken by Kobe Bryant.
Interestingly, especially given all seasons in living memory, more defenders have won the BBMT (17!) than any other position since it started in 1967. Perhaps we are more easily impressed by mere adequacy in this area than anywhere else. Another suggestion is that this reflects the sincerity with which Norwich fans approach their Player of the Season voting. It is not always the flashiest player, or the one who scores goals. Consistency, pride, commitment, impact: that’s what counts. Either that or having an unfeasibly large head, like Robert Snodgrass.
Aside from the anomalies there are winners of the BBMT who make eyes mist with nostalgic glee. Grant Holt winning three times, especially in years of great success, will continue to grow as an achievement with the benefit of a decade or so hindsight. There’s Huckerby, who could have been the only player on the pitch, such was the volume of eyes glued on him. The presence of Darren Eadie and Chris Sutton invoke different feelings of what might have been – one career cut cruelly short and one that blossomed away from Carrow Road.
Martin Peters, Kevin Keelan, Steve Bruce, Bryan Gunn, Dave Stringer, Chris Woods. Names that must trip off a City fan’s tongue, however old you are. To understand the history of the club, there are few better places to start than with what’s etched on the side of the Barry Butler.
Whatever the outcome of this season, it would be a shame to see the winner of this year’s trophy collect the award behind-closed-doors, like Sébastien Bassong in 2013. So what if this has not been a year of marvelling at Bradley Johnson’s muscular neck and passionate roars fuelled by sheer masculinity?
Every season counts for something - a learning experience, disappointment that makes the next round of celebration so special, one player who’s always given it all, despite everyone else. A name will be added to the list of past winners, and people in the future will look back and say ‘how the hell did he win it’ or (if we’re lucky) ‘remember that season we stayed up AGAINST ALL ODDS?’ And the memories of the dusty old trestle table, and the trophies glistening in the early-May sunshine, will return.
You can follow Zoë Whitford on Twitter at @zvfm2
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