Published 24/04/19, The Times
Last night Virgil Van Dijk, the Liverpool defender, was crowned the 46th PFA Players’ Player of the Year. The Dutchman joined a select group of winners: just five of the previous 45 players to have won — Norman Hunter, Colin Todd, Gary Pallister, Paul McGrath and John Terry — were defenders. The Times spoke to them all to hear what winning the award means to the often-overlooked men at the back…
(Leeds United) 1973-74
“Don Revie said to me, ‘You’ll win it,’ ” recalls Norman Hunter, the first winner of the award. “I don’t know whether he knew or not.” Hunter was less confident than the Leeds United manager. There were reputations to consider: “Dirty Leeds”, Hunter’s “Bites Yer Legs” moniker, owing to his snap in the tackle and a banner unfurled during Leeds’s 1972 FA Cup final win against Arsenal.
Memories of the awards night are hazy but Hunter, dressed in a dark blue dinner suit and bow tie, had prepared a speech — not long — just in case. “When I got up on stage I was told, ‘We’re running a bit late, cut it short.’ So the speech wasn’t what it could have been,” Hunter says during a treat of an hour in his home in Horsforth, five miles Northwest of Leeds. “I thanked my team-mates, and Don Revie, especially, because I played in a great Leeds side. It was so enjoyable to train every day with those lads.”
For a decade Hunter and Jack Charlton buttressed the defence of a Leeds side who, after promotion to the top flight in 1964, won two League titles and the FA Cup, and finished in the top four for ten consecutive seasons. At the start of the 1973-74 title-winning campaign, Revie addressed his players. “He said, ‘Right, we’re going to win the league, and we won’t lose a game,’ ” Hunter, 75, says. “We all looked at each other and thought … but we nearly did. We went 29 games unbeaten. We got beat at Stoke. They beat us 3-2. But we only lost a few more.”
Despite his reputation, Hunter, who would undoubtedly have won more than 28 England caps were it not for Charlton and Bobby Moore, could play. “I played 700-odd games for Leeds, so you can’t just be somebody who runs around and gets stuck into people,” he says. “In some respects our reputation was deserved, but if you look at the game then it was a very, very physical contest. There were no handbags at 40 paces like there is now.
“The one thing in the modern game that I detest is when two players come together, there’s hardly any contact, and somebody ends up on the floor rolling around as if they’ve been poleaxed. Skill-wise, fitness-wise, it’s wonderful. You watch the top boys in the Premier League and it’s played at such a pace.
“When Liverpool paid £75 million for Van Dijk there were a few eyebrows raised. But I tell you what, different class. He’s got an air of composure. He’s good in the air. And all of a sudden Liverpool are challenging. A lot of top teams have got to get better central defenders. The way the game’s played now, full backs pushed on, you’re exposed. You need to be good or you could get yourself in all sorts of trouble.”
Hunter’s PFA trophy has just been returned after five years in the National Football Museum in Manchester. “It did not come back in the condition we’re used to, did it Sue?” Hunter says to his wife of almost 51 years. “No, it did not,” she replies with the same hint of mischief. “It’s not as clean as I’d have kept it…”
Still, it is among Hunter’s proudest achievements. “It’s got to be up there, when you think of the battles we had,” he says. “Within the game, players and clubs respected Leeds United. They knew how good a team we were. And I was part of that. I just couldn’t quite believe it that they’d voted for me.”
(Derby County) 1974-75
Colin Todd often finds his mind drifting back over a garlanded playing career — two First Division titles, European adventures, 27 England caps. Invariably, though, his thoughts return to that night in April 1975 at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. “Often when I’m out walking or I’m on my own my mind wanders into games,” Todd, 70, says. “And then I think of that occasion on the Sunday, what it meant. I can see my mates — my team-mates — their faces, what it meant to them. I see the pleasure that Dave Mackay [the manager] got, and Des Anderson [the assistant manager], to have someone from a small club like Derby County winning that award. It was something unique, something special.”
Todd’s wife, Jennifer, had received numerous calls from the PFA in the weeks before the ceremony to make sure the Derby defender travelled to London. “I had the trophy presented by Harold Wilson, who was the prime minister,” Todd recalls. “I was a Labour man, and he was the Labour prime minister, which was an outstanding moment.
“I had a message from Brian Clough, and you can imagine what he said … ‘This is all down to me,’ ” Todd says, roaring with laughter. Clough had paid Sunderland a British-record £175,000 transfer fee for Todd in 1971, but left in the summer of 1974 to replace Don Revie in what proved to be an ill-fated 44-day tenure as Leeds United manager.
“Obviously, Brian brought me to the club, we won the Championship under him [in 1972],” Todd says. “He made Derby County Derby County. It was a unique atmosphere, a treat to be playing for that guy.
“Given how difficult it was for Dave [Mackay] to take over from Cloughie, though, he built a very good side. Charlie George, Franny Lee, Bruce Rioch, Archie Gemmill was still there. Brian always said, ‘Keep a clean sheet and you’ll win games of football,’ whereas Dave liked to win 5-4.” Winning the award that season, after winning the championship again, was something absolutely wonderful.
The art of defending, Todd says, is being slowly eroded. “People make excuses and say you can’t tackle nowadays. You have to use your brain. You have to read the game, not commit yourself, not get too tight. Let people turn, then take the ball off them. One of my strengths was making interceptions, reading the game, breaking up attacks, but I don’t see many players doing that.”
Van Dijk, though, has “had an exceptional season”, Todd adds. “His positional play is good. He doesn’t get ruffled. He’s got authority. And he has that composure.
“All the accolades do go to forwards, so it speaks volumes when defenders win awards. They have to be exceptional.”
(Manchester United) 1991-92
Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, or Dolly and Daisy as the imposing Manchester United defensive pairing were affectionately known, spent the night before the 1992 PFA awards ceremony sampling a night at the theatre in London’s West End.
Pallister thinks Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager, already knew he had won. “He usually found out everything,” Pallister says. “Whether he found out we were out on the razz on the Saturday night or not, I don’t know. We went to see Phantom of the Opera with the girls. It was my first time at the theatre and I absolutely love it now. Not exactly what big hairy-arsed centre halves are supposed to be doing, I know. . .”
Given that 17 years had passed since a defender had last won the award, it is fair to say that neither Pallister nor Bruce, who were both nominated, expected to win. In fact, with a title chase with Leeds United to contend with, Brian McClair, the former United forward and PFA rep, had to insist they attend the ceremony.
When the duo arrived and surveyed the room, though, they soon realised that, of the six nominees, they were the only two present. “We kind of realised that one of us had won it,” Pallister says. “Crikey, I was as nervous as a kitten. I couldn’t eat my dinner thinking I might have to do a speech. Although I won, it could quite as easily have been Steve. He was terrific.
“I remember Brian Clough presenting it to me. As I got up on to the stage, he gave me the trophy, then he stood on my toe and went, ‘Now don’t get too big for your boots, son.’ It was a classic little touch.
“I was a gibbering bloody wreck. I forgot to thank my mam and dad. I thanked my team-mates; you owe so much to your team-mates that you almost feel embarrassed you’ve won an individual award. But to think that my peers who I’d played against voted for me is something that, when I look back on it, fills me with immense pride. These are the guys who know how difficult it is to play professional football, what’s required at that level. So it’s the best individual award you can receive.”
Three defeats in United’s final four games would painfully surrender the title to Leeds, against whom Pallister’s performances during three battles in league and cups at the turn of the year, he believes, helped secure the PFA award.
Eric Cantona’s arrival at Old Trafford the following season was “the missing piece of the jigsaw,” Pallister says and the same, he believes, is true of Van Dijk’s arrival at Liverpool. “You can’t argue with what Van Dijk’s done this season,” Pallister, 53, now a United ambassador, says. “They had a weakness at the back and he’s shored it up. He’s physical, he’s quick, he’s decent on the ball, and he seems to be a leader in that pack as well. He’d be a deserving winner.”
(Aston Villa) 1992-93
Paul McGrath knew there was “something afoot” when Gordon Taylor picked up the phone. “You really do have to come to the awards, Paul,” he recalls the PFA chief executive, who knew the Villa defender’s aversion to public appearances, saying.
Four years earlier, Taylor had been on hand when — incredibly, with hindsight — Manchester United, McGrath’s former club, had suggested that the best solution to his chronic knee troubles was retirement and an insurance payout.
In McGrath’s autobiography, Back From the Brink, the Irishman describes the best season of his career, 1992-93, as an “enduring mystery”. McGrath’s battle with alcoholism was at its most destructive. His marriage was falling apart. His “knees were fairly shot at that stage”, he says, which meant he never trained. Yet the 33-year-old was a colossus as Villa came agonisingly close to lifting the inaugural Premier League title. “I look back on it now and think, ‘You shouldn’t have been able to do that,’ ” McGrath, 59, admits. “But I was lucky to have a physio, Jim Walker, who kept me halfway fit, and Ron [Atkinson, the manager] who understood me as a person. He agreed if I showed up on a Saturday in a reasonable state of health, then I could play and hopefully do him and the club proud.”
That he did, marshalling the second-meanest defence that season alongside Shaun Teale, as Villa went toe-to-toe with United until stalling in April. “At Villa we just used to go out and have fun,” McGrath, who now lives a “quiet life” in Wexford, Ireland, says. “We had so many good players. Dean Saunders, Dalian Atkinson, Ray Houghton. And then keeping clean sheets became a kind of mantra for us. If one goal went in then we’d feel disappointed after the game. We built up a reputation as a very mean defence. We relied on each other.
“The art of defending was something that I was proud of, but I was in awe of some of the people I played against, so it was a shock that any defender could win the award, let alone someone like myself, who didn’t do too much work off the pitch.”
When McGrath’s name was announced at the ceremony, though, “I just remember Ron [Atkinson] nearly broke my back by slapping me,” he says. “I was so proud. It was one of those things you never think is going to happen in your life. And to have Sir Bobby Charlton presenting the award too, it was just a magical night. Of all the trophies I won, that’s got to be the biggest, the most memorable, simply because it’s voted for by your peers.”
McGrath has been an admirer of Van Dijk since his time at Celtic. “He’s commanding. He’s cool. He’s calm. He oozes class. At a time when there are so many great strikers around, if he does win the award I’d be delighted for him.”
John Terry was just delighted to be among the nominees; he never considered that he could actually win it. “Naturally with these kinds of awards nights it’s mainly the strikers and midfielders, the guys scoring goals and making headlines, that generally go on to win it so I wasn’t overly confident,” he recalls. “But I knew I’d had a good season, I’d scored a lot of goals that year and Chelsea were top of the league.
“It’s the strikers who tend to get all the headlines as they’re usually the match-winners. As a defender, you can do all the right things in a game but it doesn’t get shown on Match of the Day or Sky Sports News. It’s all about the goals, the crosses and the assists. There is a lot of great defending that goes into keeping the ball out of the net but it’s not the side that people really want to see. It’s an art in itself and I actually think the PFA should create an award for each individual position — the best goalkeeper, the best defender, the best midfielder and the best striker as well as an overall player and young player award. Uefa do that and it just gives everyone a fair chance. Obviously, with the prestige of the award, being one of six defenders to win it is a great honour.”
Van Dijk, Terry says, would “100 per cent” be a worthy winner. “He’s been immense,” Terry says. “I was on Monday Night Football with Jamie Carragher when he had just signed and there were questions over the fee being too much for a defender. I’ve been a big fan of his over the years anyway and at the time I thought it was good value and now it looks like a snip because he’s been immense in a very strong, consistent Liverpool team.
“The thing I love most about him is that he takes no risks. Week after week it’s just good, solid defending. There are probably a lot of people that would say Raheem Sterling would probably deserve it more because of the goals and the assists. They’ve both been incredible, though you can’t split them. Both Man City and Liverpool have been the best in the league by far and, individually, they’ve been the best players in the best two teams in the Premier League this year. Whoever goes on to win it will be a worthy winner for sure.”
The six defenders to have claimed the prize
Norman Hunter, Leeds United (1973-74)
Finishing position: 1st
Clean sheets: 23
Top scorer: Mick Channon (Southampton) 21
Colin Todd, Derby County (1974-75)
Finishing position: 1st
Clean sheets: 14
Top scorer: Malcolm Macdonald (Newcastle) 21
Gary Pallister, Manchester United (1991-92)
Finishing position: 2nd
Who won the title? Leeds United
Clean sheets: 18*
Top scorer: Ian Wright (Crystal Palace/Arsenal) 29
Paul McGrath, Aston Villa (1992-93)
Finishing position: 2nd
Who won the title? Manchester United
Clean sheets: 15
Top scorer: Teddy Sheringham (Forest/Tottenham) 22
John Terry, Chelsea (2004-05)
Finishing position: 1st
Clean sheets: 25
Top scorer: Thierry Henry (Arsenal) 25
Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool (2018-19)
Finishing position: 1st/2nd
Who won the title? Manchester City or Liverpool
Clean sheets: 19
Top Scorer: Sergio Aguero (Man City), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal), Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) 19