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Leighton Baines this week insisted he didn’t deserve to be in the PFA’s team of the season.
Typical Bainesy, most said.
But while you will struggle to find a more humble, grounded footballer, this wasn’t self-deprication – he sincererly meant it.
The Everton and England defender is all of the above, but he is also brutally honest.
Honest about the team, honest about performances and, most certainly, honest with himself.
Last year he was undeniably English football’s premier left back. It simply wasn’t even a discussion.
This year, however, he doesn’t think that has been the case. Perhaps it hasn’t?
But Baines should take his inclusion in the PFA team as a far greater compliment than all of the head-scratching that accompanied his glaring omission 12 months ago.
His selection for the 2011/12 team isn’t tokenism for last year’s baffling oversight – perhaps it even comes for the very same reason as he was previously overlooked.
The 2010/11 campaign was the best of Baines’ career. He was (again) into double figures for assists, scored goals (some of them priceless winners), netted some of the most eye-catching free-kicks in recent memory, enhanced his reputation as the best crosser of the ball in English football and, all the while, kept up a phenomenal level of general play – both in attack and defence.
He shouldn’t have just been troubling the team of the year – he should have been in the running for player of the year.
Yet when the winners were announced, he’d done neither.
Again the perceived ‘big boys’ reigned supreme, conventional wisdom remained omnipotent and Ashley Cole was rewarded for a thoroughly mediocre season with his customary annual berth on the left of the all-star defence.
Cole has been magnificent for more than a decade. He has rightfully been considered the best left-back since Stuart Pearce. Baines is his biggest fan.
But his selection ahead of Everton’s finest was scandalous.
Yet maybe, just maybe, Baines’ inclusion this time around is evidence – in the eyes of his peers at least – that the tide is turning.
That his inclusion, following a very good but perhaps not great season, is symptomatic of a gradually-changing perception.
When assessing overall performance, most find it near-impossible to extricate reputation from a judgement that should essentially be form-based.
Previously, Baines' standing belied his brilliance. Previously, Cole's reputation rendered him untouchable.
Maybe now Baines' ever-increasing stature is starting to tip the equation in his favour. Maybe now when quantifying long-term excellence, he is edging ahead at the front of the queue.
Perhaps, slowly but surely, he is usurping the man he has looked up to and consistently labelled the best.
In 2011/12, the stats probably do Baines an injustice, but maybe they are why he doesn’t feel he belongs in the exulted company of the PFA team.
Crunch the numbers and you’ll see he is still the finest crosser of a ball in the league.
But what you’ll also uncover is a dearth of assists. Where for the past three seasons he has got into double figures, this year he has just two to his name.
The truth is probably that, pre-Jelavic, there hasn’t been anyone able to fully capitalise on his ingenuity and next season, with the Croatian striker on board from day one, the numbers game will once again prove kinder to Baines.
But even minus his usually formidable number of assists, the 27-year-old's creativity shouldn’t only be measured by the currency of final balls. Rarely when Everton open up an opponent is he far away – his overlapping or intelligent link-up so often absolutely key.
And while John Heitinga is currently leading the fans’ vote for player of the season, you can be sure Baines is a frontrunner for players’ player.
Cole has had a much better season for Chelsea this time around, while Manchester City’s Gael Clichy has also enjoyed a fine campaign.
Last year the little man from Kirkby was head and shoulders above the competition. This season he is among an elite group.
After questioning his own inclusion in the PFA team, Baines said he was happy to take it. He certainly should feel that way – it is evidence of his ever-growing stature, his now richly-deserved reputation as a top, top player.
It is evidence that his fellow players realise what Evertonians have known for some time – that Baines is one of the best footballers in the Premier League.
He has the Euros to look forward to. Yes, he is likely to start on the bench, but Cole is 32 this year. Baines is unrivalled as his successor. How long it takes him to fully supercede the Chelsea man remains to be seen.
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