As the season enters its final weeks, the race for this season’s Manager of the Year award has become nearly as competitive as the battle for the Premier League title itself.
Crystal Palace manager Tony Pulis and Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers are the leading contenders and would both be worthy winners of the League Managers Association award this season.
At the start of the season, no one expected Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool to even mount a title challenge, never mind actually win the Premier League.
They finished a distant seventh last season, 28 points behind the champions Manchester United, and even talk about getting into the top four this season seemed fanciful.
But now with just three games remaining, Liverpool are five points clear at the top of the table and the overwhelming favourites to win their first league title for 24 years.
It is unprecedented for any team in the Premier League era to finish seventh and then win the title the following season.
The last time it happened in the top flight was three decades ago when Everton recovered from a seventh-place finish in 1983/84 to win the title the following season.
It would be a remarkable achievement for Rodgers if he were to outflank the immense wealth of Chelsea and Manchester City, and the reigning champions Manchester United.
Despite failing to bring in any major new signings and having an overall net spend of just £16 million last summer, Rodgers’ Liverpool have been a joy to watch this season.
Rodgers has moulded the attacking talents of Daniel Sturridge, Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho, Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson into an irresistible force that has so far scored 96 goals in 35 league games this season.
This Liverpool side deserves its success for the bravado and attacking intent Rodgers has instilled in it, especially in recent weeks.
Liverpool have not taken a step back, and as Rodgers recently told the Daily Mail:
We’ve dealt with pressure all season by working to get on the ball, to play. Every week we seem to have the question put to us: ‘This is the real test’. But we’ve always passed the tests, City at home, Arsenal at home, Man United at Old Trafford. If it doesn't happen for us this year, it’ll be due to bad luck or a mistake. It won't be because we’re lacking in nerve.
And yet for all Rodgers’ undoubted brilliance, I actually tend to believe the Manager of the Year award should be destined for south-east London rather than Liverpool.
The salvage job Tony Pulis has performed at Crystal Palace this season has simply defied belief.
When the former Stoke manager arrived at Selhurst Park in November to succeed Ian Holloway, Palace were doomed.
They were in the relegation zone with only four points and had lost nine of their first 10 games in the Premier League.
I saw them lose 2-0 to Swansea at Selhurst Park in late September, and they were a rabble, Championship players dangerously out of their depth who played like a collection of strangers.
The club had no culture of staying in the Premier League either, having previously been relegated four times from it after a single season. A fifth relegation appeared inevitable.
When Pulis arrived, Palace harboured no realistic thoughts of staying up. Indeed their only hope seemed to be that they might surpass Derby Country’s unwanted record of winning just 11 points in the 2007/08 season, the lowest-ever Premier League points total.
Now, Crystal Palace are 11th in the table with 43 points and looking forward to a second successive season in the Premier League for the first time in their history.
There will be no drama, no last-day nerves. With three games remaining, they are safe and could feasibly finish in the top half of the table a place behind Manchester United.
This has been a triumph for the art of coaching, for improving players and for all the work Pulis has put in at Crystal Palace’s Beckenham training ground.
Pulis worked to his strengths and made certain Palace became very difficult to score against.
A defensive unit including the hitherto unheralded talents of Julian Speroni, Damien Delaney, Adrian Mariappa, Scott Dann, Daniel Gabbidon and Joel Ward has been the foundation of Palace’s survival and helped secure an impressive 10 clean sheets from 23 games.
Despite their woeful start to the season, Palace can now boast the fifth-best defensive record in the Premier League, better than even league leaders Liverpool or Arsenal.
It might not have been pretty, but it has been incredibly effective.
If Brendan Rodgers brings the Premier League title to Anfield, he deserves to be Manager of the Year, but before that happens, my vote goes to Pulis, as he has already accomplished his aim by achieving the almost impossible and keeping Crystal Palace in the top flight for another season.
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