Arsene Wenger, perhaps trying a little reverse psychology in the build-up to next month’s FA Cup final, named Steve Bruce as one of his two candidates for the Premier League manager of the season award this week.
Wenger deems Bruce’s accomplishment in steering Hull City towards top-flight stability and a Wembley date with his own Arsenal next month, as being up there with anything any other manager can match in what has been one of the more enthralling Premier League campaigns.
The Frenchman’s other nominee is Tony Pulis, whose Crystal Palace ensured Premier League survival on Wednesday night with a fourth successive win that dented Everton’s own hopes of overhauling the Gunners in the race for a top-four finish.
Wenger might have an agenda in his two candidates, given the vested interest he has in their current form, but the man who has won the award three times in English football, makes a refreshing point.
For the honour of Premier League manager of the season is one too often bestowed upon the man who guides his team to the title – 17 times in 20 seasons to be exact. Besting the rest over a 38-game season is deemed sufficient enough to be lauded as the best manager in the land – and it is difficult to argue against such black and white criteria.
But football is rarely so simple an equation. The Premier League champions ordinarily have the best resources, the strongest platform on which to build a sustained challenge and a manager with credit in the bank when it comes to awards season.
Sir Alex Ferguson won the award 11 times, Wenger three times, Jose Mourinho twice and Kenny Dalglish once – each man collecting the trophy after his side had won the title.
Creditable as those achievements are, those managers did not exceed expectation in both the League and the Cup while the future name of the club was up for debate in a public forum, as Bruce has managed.
Nor did they come into a promoted club devoid of confidence and quality and inject such life and fight into them that they defied their recent history by at last surviving in the Premier League and with four games to spare – as Pulis has achieved at Palace.
When the award has gone to none title-winning managers in the past, European qualification has been the defining accomplishment. George Burley was the first to buck the trend in 2000-01, for guiding unheralded Ipswich Town to a fifth-place finish and a UEFA Cup campaign in their first season back in the top flight.
Harry Redknapp got the accolade four years ago for leading Tottenham Hotspur into the Champions League, and two years later, Alan Pardew received the award for guiding Newcastle United back onto the continent.
This year’s award could well come down to the man who lifts the title again. Few would argue Mourinho is undeserving if Chelsea win the title and reach another Champions League final.
And there will be no more worthy a recipient than Brendan Rogers for transforming Liverpool from fallen giants into title favourites. But how refreshing would it be for the glamourous names to be overlooked in favour of the expectation-defying accomplishments on blue-collar budgets of either Bruce or Pulis?