As the world’s most notoriously demanding league reaches its concluding stages, the 46 game marathon that is the Championship is beginning to enter its exhilarating climax. While Rotherham have paid the price for their honest endeavours but lack in quality to become the first team relegated in the football league, the rest of the table is beginning to cement itself after another season of excitement, enthrallment, and unexpected results.
Huddersfield were the league’s surprise early front runners, bursting out of the blocks under David Wagner and capturing the footballing neutrals with their high octane and full throttle approach. Fulham under Slaviša Jokanović have produced arguably the most aesthetically pleasing and easy on the eye football in the league so far, while Leeds have emerged as a serious play-off contender for the first time in many a year under Gary Monk.
At the other end of the table, previous Premier League stalwarts Aston Villa have surprisingly slumped badly in a league they looked sure to challenge for honours in, looking woefully under equipped and badly mismanaged despite spending heavily. While they look certain of a rejuvenated push for promotion next season under the experienced stewardship of promotion specialist Steve Bruce, it will come as little consolation for long suffering Villa fans, who will have to regroup and consolidate with another season in England’s second tier.
Norwich City, who were fast becoming the Premier League’s yo-yo side, looked good for at least a play-off position but have seen their season falter spectacularly, failing to recover after their 4-3 defeat to Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle United, culminating in Alex Neil’s slow demise. Despite a recent 7-1 thrashing of likewise promotion hopefuls Reading, they look to be another hoping for a change of fortunes next season.
But while the rest of the league has offered up so many eye-catching results, unexpected promotion chasing candidates and surprise flops, there is arguably nothing unfamiliar about the state of things at the top of the table.
After promotion heartache last season, in which they lost agonizingly to Sheffield Wednesday after missing out on an automatic promotion spot by just two goals, Chris Hughton has once again inspired Brighton to an astonishingly consistent and remarkable season to currently sit top on 86 points.
Just below, having just lost to the same Sheffield Wednesday side in question, are Newcastle on 84 points. After a slow start, which saw the Magpies suffer successive defeats to Huddersfield and Fulham, Newcastle went on an impressive nine game winning run before injury to top scorer Dwight Gayle saw their momentum wane. Remaining functional rather than spectacular, they continue to push the Seagulls hard for the Championship title.
So while it is no surprise to see arguably both the league’s biggest club, and the league’s most consistent club currently sprinting towards automatic promotion with five games to go, it should also have come as no surprise to see two of their most influential players nominated for Player of the Year.
Newcastle’s Dwight Gayle, currently with 22 league goals, has proven himself an indispensable member of Benitez’s side, a shrewd £10m signing from Crystal Palace. With an impressive 96 minutes per goal, he sits second on the league’s goal scoring charts, two behind the final nomination for Player of the Year, Leeds United’s Chris Wood.
However, it is Brighton’s own Anthony Knockaert who has risen through the league to claim the mantle of Champions Player of the Year.
While he may not be leading the goal scoring charts like his two counterparts, he is however no less influential, or impressive, for the current league leaders with 13 goals of his own and a plethora of sparkling displays cementing the French winger as an outstanding candidate in his own right. But what has been the catalyst for the Frenchman’s meteoric rise?
How has a player, deemed superfluous by last season’s Premier League title winners Leicester City, been able to re-forge a career for himself and reignite his undoubted potential to become the Championship’s Player of the Year?
To answer that question, one must look as much at Knockaert’s struggles off the field as on it. While the future looks bright now for the man in blue and white, it hasn’t always been so promising. It’s been a journey of hard work, heartache and sacrifice for the Frenchman, both personal and professional. So while it has arguably taken longer for his potential to shine through, his achievements should come as no surprise to those familiar with his talents.
Indeed, it has been a case of overcoming disappointing for the winger so far in his burgeoning career, and it is the player’s mental strength that shines through as one of his overriding qualities, let alone the skills he possesses once on the field itself.
Having endured promotion disappointment last season as the Seagulls agonizingly missed out on promotion via the play-offs after surviving in the top two almost all season, Knockaert and his side have come back stronger. With the experience of topping the table virtually all season only to fall short at the last hurdle, they were determined not to suffer the same fate again. Chris Hughton’s men will have learnt from their disappointments, and now have a year’s worth of experience to call upon this time.
And it is Anthony Knockaert who has been one of the main beneficiaries of that, having bounced back from the initial disappointment of failing to win promotion from the Championship last year, to now being named in the Team of the Year as well as being rightfully crowned Player of the Year this campaign, with an impressive seven Man of the Match displays.
In the footballing world, the landscape is littered with players who have all the potential in the world, but lack desire, focus, mental strength and simply the work ethic to fulfill their promise. There are also players who survive comfortably, wringing out every last drop of ability they have, working hard to make the most of the talents at their disposal. Then there are the players whom posses both the quality and the mindset to thrive.
And with 13 goals, eight assists, a place in the Team of the Year, the crown of Player of the Year and an influential role in surely guiding his side to the promised land of Premier League riches next season, it is safe to say Knockaert resides firmly as part of the latter.
And the numbers behind his impressive season so far speak for themselves. With an average pass completion rate of 81.1%, 2.5 shots per game, and an average player rating of 7.64 to date according to Whoscored.com, few could argue with those solid statistics coming from a player performing in what most could reasonably regard as the most demanding league in world football.
But despite his impressive season to date, and the commonly held assumption that he is one of the finest talents in England plying his trade outside the Premier League, the Frenchman still remains curiously underrated by many; up until his rise to prominence this season.
While this has served as a blessing in disguise in the pragmatic sense that it has allowed the winger to go about his business both privately and professionally, allowing his genuine improvement and good form to flourish quite naturally, it has also helped serve the collective team spirit that has been fostered at Brighton. Boasting one of the most cohesive and united squads in the league has helped the Seagulls maintain such impressive momentum and form.
The ability to unite a squad into a tight knit, family unit is a trait that has fast become one of Chris Hughton’s strongest and most impressive managerial skills.
Indeed, this was most evident earlier this season, when Knockaert’s father passed away on the 3rd November, just a few weeks before Knockaert’s 25th birthday. The club rallied behind their star performer, displaying his shirt on the pitch in tribute to their teammate, and a select few even attended the funeral in France as a show of solidarity with their colleague and friend.
Such a show of professional and personal togetherness rightly gained much adulation and praise, not least from Knockaert himself who publicly thanked and commended his teammates and club.
Speaking to BBC Sussex he said:
“I can just thank the club so much and all my teammates and everything to have helped me like they did. I think if I’m here in this position to try to be player of the season in the Championship, it’s because of them, I owe them everything. Obviously it was tough – I’m not going to lie, it was really tough. But I still thought every morning when I woke up, I was just thinking about my dad and thinking I just need to fight for him and that’s maybe the reason I’m here.”
It goes without saying that personal circumstances often play a large part in a player’s well-being, but Brighton’s dedication and support for their French winger is testament to how highly they regard him as both the player, and the man. And it comes as no surprise therefore that such a show of loyalty has been one reason the player has not been prized away from the Seagulls in light of his impressive turn of form.
The Frenchman was linked strongly with a move to promotion rivals Newcastle United at both the start of the season and again in January, but while on a professional level Brighton were always highly unlikely to part with such an influential member of their squad, on a personal level the player himself remained committed to those who had shown him such undiluted support in his time of need and was consequently loyal to a fault.
Having also lost his elder brother in 2011, Knockaert has suffered personal tragedy on a scale most of his professional peers cannot relate to. But it is these personal setbacks that have arguably served as his greatest motivation to improve, and have given him the inner steel and determination to become the player he is today. They are circumstances that put all other trivial footballing disappointments into perspective.
Knockaert himself has spoken openly of his desire to play in his brother’s memory. Speaking to The Argus newspaper in 2016, he said:
“I am always thinking about him. I was 17 when he passed away and it was at the time of my first professional game. It was a shock for me and all of my family. I am very happy for him now and I think about him all the time. He was a great footballer as well but he passed away when he was 28 years old. It was a sad time for me but I always believe I can make him proud. Every game I play for him. I always do my best for him.”
Certainly, these tribulations in his personal life have served to give the Frenchman a certain perspective that has proven beneficial in his professional life too.
During his time with the Foxes, the young winger rightfully drew comparisons with teammate Riyad Mahrez. However, when difficulties arose at his former club, Knockaert showed the courage and presence of mind to move to a new club on his own volition, rather than waste time sitting on the bench. The Frenchman it seems was destined to follow a different path in his search for success, and a new found outlook on life helped serve as the catalyst to achieve it.
While Mahrez has gone onto enjoy astounding success at Leicester City, Knockaert was forced to look elsewhere to continue his development, moving to Standard Liege in 2015 – but not before he already wrote a small chapter of history of his own with the Foxes.
In his first season in 2012-13 he was named their young player of the year, but in the same season he also missed a vital last-minute penalty in the play-off semi-final against Watford. Watford immediately went up the other end and scored the winner, in a desperately heart wrenching moment for the youngster.
In the next campaign, he was again one of Leicester’s best players as they won the Championship, before embarking on the journey that would eventually lead them to the Premier League crown.
However, the Frenchman would not be part of the fairytale. During their famous escape from relegation in the 2014/15 season, Knockaert played only nine times and not once after January. Evidently former manager Nigel Pearson did not believe in his former charge with the same conviction as current manager Chris Hughton. So, with a lack of belief from his manager, and a lack of playing time for his development, Knockaert was forced to move on and despite the offer of a new four-year deal, he opted to join Standard Liege instead.
The player however once again showed a maturity that belies his age and has openly said he holds no grudges, despite the apparently unfair treatment. Speaking to Sportsmail in 2016, he said:
“I loved it there but I didn’t deserve to be treated how I was last season in terms of playing games. I thought I deserved better. That is why I wanted to leave. I had a very good relationship with the manager but it was hard last season. I think I was better than what I had. What I showed in Championship the year before should have meant more games to me last year. I thought I had the quality to play. But he (Pearson) didn’t give me three games or four games (in a row) to show what I can show. Sometimes 15 minutes in a game, sometimes 10 minutes. But this is football. At my age it is important to be playing.”
Thankfully, the move paid dividends. After an impressive half season in Belgium, his good form quickly attracted suitors and in the following January, the Frenchman joined Brighton, where his current journey began. Once again the winger is relishing the challenge of helping one of the Championship’s biggest clubs reach the next level.
Indeed, Knockaert has been at this point twice before. But disappointment in the past has given rise to inner steel that will be needed to ensure success in the future. Speaking of past heartache in the race for promotion, the Frenchman’s mental strength and maturity shines through. He said:
“In 2013, the play-off against Watford, the last minute was a nightmare for me,” he said. “You can miss a penalty, that happens, but they scored just a second later. That is what hurt me. After a week I was already thinking about the next season.”
From a purely footballing perspective, Knockaert has all the tools to thrive. A wonderfully balanced player, he has a fabulous skill set that is absolutely suited to the fluid attacking culture in modern football, where a player must be eclectic, intelligent, tactically flexible and technically proficient. A creative player with an eye for a pass and a fabulous delivery, he can be a huge asset for any club, and promotion would be a belated reward for all his personal tribulations; the definitive proof that after so much heartache, he has the quality to belong in the top flight.
His crown as Championship Player of the Year is testament to that.
But the rise of Anthony Knockaert is about more than just professional development and the late blooming of a talented young man with huge potential.
His emergence as rightfully one of the players of the season is a wonderful story of courage and bravery, and a shining example of how one can turn the inevitable setbacks in life into the driving force for positive change to achieve one’s goals and aspirations. It is about personal evolution and improvement, and his individual awards this season are recognition for his huge courage in overcoming every challenge he has faced on and off the field.
Prior to his award, Knockaert spoke of his father and what it would mean to win. He said:
“For what happened with my dad this season I know he would be very proud of me if I win. I hope I will win it and it would be a great comeback for me from what happened for me this season. I didn’t expect this when it happened, I was expecting myself to be out for a long time, I mean mentally.”
Certainly then it hasn’t been the most straight forward journey for the little winger, but personal tragedy and the determination and willingness to move abroad in search of the playing time he needed to flourish has shown a willingness to improve and a mental strength to succeed.
He now has the opportunity to achieve the promotion he personally craves and professionally deserves after coming so close before. And certainly now that it is a question of when rather than if, he will be able to fulfill his enormous potential and improve still further in the glory and global showcase that is the Premier League. For a player who has been through so much, he certainly deserves nothing less.