Voting opened this week for the Player of the Season and the Young Player, and I can’t recall a more unpredictable year for either trophy. It’s a natural consequence of a season which has lacked stability that no obvious candidates have emerged. Furthermore, when a campaign has split itself into such diverse segments, it’s difficult to work out who to reward.
The players Dean Keates brought in during January have clearly made a massive impact on the side, but can you select a player who has played less than half our games? On the other hand, should a long sequence of mediocrity trump a shorter, more positive impact?
The new signings who need to be considered are Russell Penn and James Jennings. Both have brought leadership and character: Penn’s anchoring of the midfield diamond brings shape to the side as he tidies up in front of the back four, and he gets attacks started with his intelligent use of the ball.
Jennings could be the first Wrexham player to succeed his brother as Player of the season, He is pleasingly solid defensively, and buccaneering going forward. He has brought solidity to a back four which looked leaky before he arrived, and being able to rely on his work up and down the flank has enabled Keates to deploy a diamond without having to worry about the wings getting exposed.
Whether Penn and Jennings are contenders for the trophy or not, they certainly should be priorities for new contracts!
Curtis Tilt might have been a contender, but I’d assume his departure has removed him from the running in most people’s minds. Both goalkeepers have had good seasons, but the fact that injuries have meant that Shwan Jalal and Chris Dunn have split games fairly equally between them probably means they’ll split the vote too.
Mark Carrington, essentially, is Mark Carrington. He’s solid and reliable, and in the context of such a tumultuous season he’s a good candidate, as he has ploughed on without allowing his personal standards to drop.
Martin Riley is another serious contender. The first portion of the season went badly for him, which perhaps was understandable considering how last season unfolded, as injuries hampered his ability to get a proper rhythm going. Keates deserves a lot of credit for helping Riley to reach the standard he is now setting, as clearly he has been helped by a more consistent training regime.
The consequence is that Riley has emerged as the mainstay of the defence. His ability on the cover helped Tilt to look more consistent, and it is rare to see a centre forward get the better of their personal battle. For that reason, he’d be my pick.
When it comes to the Young Player of the Season, the upheaval of the season is reflected once more. This trophy can be a mixed bag: some seasons hardly any youngsters get a chance, but Keates and Andy Davies have shown an admirable desire to give the youthful products of Colliers Park an opportunity. They have been rewarded by the emergence of some genuinely exciting prospects.
The Young Player has to have been under 21 on the first day of the season. Eligible players who have played in the first team this season are Mitchell Lund, Jordan Evans, Olly Marx, Leo Smith, Ollie Shenton, Callum Powell, Khaellem Bailey-Ncholls, Gerry McDonagh, Brad Reid, Ntumba Massanka, Brandon Burrows, Rekeil Pike and George Harry.
Leo Smith’s confidence on the ball, his upright style of play, always playing with his head up, looking for a pass, make him an exciting prospect. His smooth movement on the ball is reminiscent of Bryan Hughes as he made his way into the side, and he will no doubt soon start to add goals to his creativity.
The headline point on George Harry, of course, is that he had the composure to successfully take a penalty in his first start. That’s coincidental though: more importantly, he has quick feet, pace and the confidence to use those attributes to take on his man. It will be interesting to see whether he’ll develop into a central striker or be used in a wider position, but he clearly has a lot of potential.
Olly Marx has made an encouraging start too, showing real character against Tranmere by recovering from that unfortunate own goal to put in a good performance, although his first team chance has probably come too late to be a real contender for the award. However, Keates’ intelligent use of the loan market means there are a couple of impressive Premier League youngsters getting a regular game at The Racecourse.
Ollie Shenton is clearly a very good technical player, and he shows real energy when pressing too. You can see why Stoke rate him highly. His impressive showings when forced to play at left back have not just shown versatility: with a little more space at full back, his quality on the ball has been emphasised in that unfamiliar position.
Ntumba Massanka has also exhilarated in flashes, and clearly has a big future. His spectacular goal against Guiseley catches the eye, of course, but in many ways it was his cameo off the bench against Torquay which impressed me most. His pace caused problems, which was no surprise, but he showed a real maturity when deciding when to release the ball. Plenty of young lads use their pace to burst beyond defenders, but nothing comes of it; Massanka teed up three great chances in the closing stages of that match with his judicious use of the ball.
For me, it has to be Leo Smith though: my lad tricked me on April Fools Day into thinking he was on his way out of The Racecourse. The sense of disappointment I felt at not seeing him develop under Keates, until he revealed how gullible I am, simply emphasised to me how well he’s done this season.
You can vote for the Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year here.
Here‘s a history of the trophy, with a full list of winners.
And here‘s the history and winners of the Young Player Award.
This is my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.