PFAI Awards 2011 - EZ tops Players’ Poll

Andrea Buckley of TISSOT, with Eamon Zayed, right, Derry City, winner of the TISSOT PFAI Player of the Year, and Alan Kelly, Republic of Ireland goalkeeping coach at the TISSOT PFAI Player of the Year Awards 2011. Burlington Hotel, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Andrea Buckley of TISSOT, with Eamon Zayed, right, Derry City, winner of the TISSOT PFAI Player of the Year, and Alan Kelly, Republic of Ireland goalkeeping coach at the TISSOT PFAI Player of the Year Awards 2011. Burlington Hotel, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

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EAMON ZAYED’S career at the Brandywell couldn’t have got off to a worse start. After all, it was he who missed that penalty against Sligo Rovers in the opening game, the only fixture the “Candy Stripes” lost at home last season!

ARTHUR DUFFY reports

Yet the 28-year-old Dubliner battled his way through that disappointment - in the company of quite a few young players - to be crowned the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland “Players’ Player of the Year” in the Burlington Hotel last Saturday night.

Secured as an eleventh hour signing by Brandywell boss, Stephen Kenny, last January, Zayed’s 22 Premier Division goals (25 in all competitions) was recognised as a major feat by his fellow professionals and it was an award which he will certainly cherish.

Many of those on the terraces at the Lone Moor Road venue would suggest that the well travelled striker could and, maybe even should, have netted more goals and, indeed, smash Glen Crowe’s League of Ireland record of 26 in a season, but the end of season stats don’t lie and the player was a deserving winner of what is a much coveted award.

Indeed, he now joins the list of ex-City players who have won that title including Paul Doolin, Liam Coyle, Donal O’Brien, Peter Hutton and Mark Farren.

“Chuffed,” as he described it to have been nominated in the first place, Zayed did admit that it was always going to be tough to win it, but he did believe that he was in with a “shout.”

He said: “When my name was mentioned, it did come as a bit of a shock that I had won the award and there’s no doubt that having scored more goals than anyone else was a major factor in me winning.

“Twenty-two league goals was a decent return but I would agree that I could have scored more and, then again, I also could have scored less but for the quality of possession which was presented to me by my team-mates,” insisted the striker.

“Obviously, I was delighted to have won it as it caps a great season for me and, equally, for Derry City given that we have qualified for both the Europa League and the Setanta Cup next season,” he noted.

He was the first to admit that the endless supply coming from wingers James McClean, Gareth McGlynn plus Patrick McEleney was pivotal in his high scoring statistics.

“I would certainly have taken 22 goals had I been offered that total at the start of the season and after our opening match against Sligo at the Brandywell - when I missed that first half penalty - I would never have anticipated such a return.

“So the supply had a lot to do with it and I certainly wouldn’t have won the award if it had not been for the rest of my team-mates who have been superb throughout the season. The award is not just for me, it’s for the team as a whole.”

Zayed also highlighted his frustration that not one Derry player won any of the “Player of the Month” awards throughout the 2011 campaign.

“Winning the Players’ Player of the Year was all the more welcome given that not one of us managed to win any of the ‘Player of the Month’ awards, despite having produced some top drawer performances and victories during the campaign.

“James McClean was having an exeptional season when he returned from injury, yet he failed to get an award which was frustrating. Danny Lafferty just seemed to get better and better after every match having made the left-back berth his own, yet he wasn’t considered which also baffled me.

“And, on a personal note, there was one month during the season when I scored seven or eight goals, yet I wasn’t considered for the award during that particular month, so I found that a bit disappointing,” continued Eamon.

“Yes, I could and probably should have scored more goals, but I’m very happy with the return as I always strive to look for improvement in my play. I’m very self criticial at times, but I really do believe that Derry City had an exceptional season and for me it was a great season, one which I thoroughly enjoyed.”

Zayed, who agreed that he had been very unhappy during his two years with the now defunct Sporting Fingal, was involved with the PFAI “out of contract players” during the close season last year before Stephen Kenny came calling in January.

“I had been in discussions with a team from Malta and I was also thinking about my international future with Libya at the time when Stephen made contact.

“I must admit it was a bit of a surprise, but a welcome approach given that I didn’t know what the future held for me.

“Once we agreed terms, I think it took a while for me to settle into a new team with so many young players involved and, I would also admit, I wasn’t sure how they would cope with the Premier Division as so many of them had never played at that level.

“It took a few games to get acquainted with the rest of the lads but once we settled and I got to see how we could play, my confidence in the ability of the players around me started to change dramatically.

“I was brought to the Brandywell to score goals and with players such as James and Gareth providing me with the ball, it made life so much easier as they helped create chance after chance.”

Zayed was also disappointed that neither James (McClean) nor Danny (Lafferty) won the “Young Player of the Year” Award.

“I think if James had not gone to Sunderland he would have been a nailed on certainty to win it as he was probably our best player. So talented and ultra fit, I’ve no doubt that he has what it takes to compete in the Premiership and given that he’s already been consistently on the subs’ bench, his time will come,” insisted Eamon.

“I honestly felt that Danny, who has improved more than anyone last year, deserved to win the Young Player Award. Yes, the winner Enda Stevens, is also a top player having secured a move to Aston Villa, but Danny scored in the region of nine goals and for a full-back, that’s a significant contribution to the team,” noted Zayed.

“Danny created so much from the left and, like the rest of the lads, we felt he should have won that award and I’m disappointed he didn’t get it.”

Support Following Racist Abuse

Looking back, Zayed agreed that his first season with the “Candy Stripes” had been one of the most enjoyable in his career to date and having enjoyed such happiness, he didn’t wish to leave the club.

“I had a one year contract and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in Derry. I can’t fault anything. I was involved with a great bunch of lads in a united dressing room; I got on really well with the manager, who I have the highest respect for and the backroom team.

“In fact, Stewart (Greacan) and myself were the two ‘outsiders’ in the team, yet we were both made feel at home having signed for the club and that was down to everyone.

“My view is, if I’m happy playing football and I certainly have been, then why leave? But, that’s up to others to decide and, if I’m to be totally honest, I really hope Stephen makes contact with me sooner rather than later as I’ve already told him how I feel,” said Zayed.

“As you will remember, I was at the victim of a racist remark during one game last season - probably the only low point of the campaign - yet the support for me at Derry City was incredible.

“I opted not to speak publicly about it, but the support of my team-mates, the Derry City supporters, the manager and both Philip O’Doherty and Sean Barrett, in particular, was outstanding.

“They didn’t leave me to deal with the situation on my own and backed me on the stance I took. I was involved with an excellent football club and I’ll always remember that valued support,” declared the player.

“Yes, I would like to come back, there’s no point in me saying anything different given how much I enjoyed the experience and the camaraderie.

“But as an out of contract player it’s important that I discuss any offers open to me and I’ve had a few - mainly from football agents representing League One clubs from England. But before I make any decision on my future, I would hope to speak with Stephen.

“Qualifying for Europe was a big thing for the players last season and while Derry certainly have the potential with so many talented young players at the club, I still believe experience is vital if the club is to continue to make progress.

“Competition for players is a priority, so it’s important to have other players ready and willing to take their chances, that’s my own personal view. Those who played last season can only get better with the first year under the belts and I would be very hopeful that Derry City will continue to challenge for the top honour, the league title.”

Zayed felt Derry could actually have won the league had McClean not been purchased by Sunderland, but he felt his replacement, Stephen McLaughlin, would become a ‘big player’ in 2012.

“I think our failure to win the league comes down to those matches against Drogheda and Bray at the Brandywell, we didn’t manage to win them and that cost us dearly.

“I believe that if James had been involved, then things would have been different against those teams but it didn’t happen and we have to get on with it and continue to improve.”