Why Winning Trophies Doesn’t Mean You’re a Better Player

Published: Sep 8, 2022  |  

Freelance sports writer

I saw a post on Facebook the other day which irritated me way more than it should have done. (Read that last sentence back—perhaps that should become Facebook’s next strapline. At least it would accurately represent its users’ experiences.)

The post showed a picture of Andy Robertson and Harry Maguire both in Hull City kits on the day they signed for the club. Robertson has, of course, since gone on to establish himself at Liverpool, while Maguire moved to Leicester City and is now Manchester United’s (bench-warming) captain.

The photo itself wasn’t in itself frustrating. It was the caption that irked me. “One cost Liverpool just £8 million and has won EVERYTHING and the other cost Manchester United £85 million and won well absolutely NOTHING,” it read, completed with three of those ghastly new side-facing laughter emojis.

In terms of factual accuracy, I have absolutely no complaints. Every competition Liverpool could have won at least once since Robertson joined, they have done. And every trophy United could have lifted since signing Maguire, they’ve failed to.

But to imply—as the post did—that one is clearly a greatly better player than the other simply because of his trophy count is to oversimplify and to totally misunderstand how the quality of a player should be judged. It is to submit to the Twitter Wars.

One player in particular is a victim of their low trophy count on social media more than any other. So often, Harry Kane’s career total of zero trophies is picked up, dusted off, and repurposed as evidence of his supposed lack of quality as a player during Twitter anti-debates. Kane is the England captain and on track to beat the great Alan Shearer to become the Premier League’s all-time leading scorer.

People do not have to view Kane as the greatest footballer in the world. I certainly don’t. But they ought to stop saying things like “0 trophies though” and “What’s he won exactly?” as if they’ve won the argument with such comments. Football is a team sport, and sometimes we like comparing its individuals to each other (see the never-ending Messi v. Ronaldo debate) rather than its teams.

But Kane’s tally of no career trophies does very little to decipher how good he is as a player. Indeed, the very fact his trophy tally is mentioned as often as it is goes to show that it is clearly an anomaly. No one speaks about how a random player from Sheffield United or Leyton Orient has no trophies. Why? Because—no offence to whoever he is—it’s to be expected! Or at least, it’s not unthinkable. But a player as comfortably world-class as Kane having won nothing is clearly a rare sighting. So people mention it. A lot.

I wonder whether those who Tweet memes about his empty trophy cabinet quite understand the irony of what they’re doing. By addressing it, they’re admitting they too can see it’s a peculiar statistical anomaly. It’s news because it’s Kane.

What determines whether Kane is good should include his goals tallies, his assists tallies, his completed passes percentage, the percentage of his shots which hit the target, and the number of Golden Boots he’s won—not how many trophies he has or hasn’t won with England or Tottenham. Why? Because he might have excelled for both but fallen short on the trophy front due to the on-field shortcomings of teammates. That then wouldn’t be his fault. Indeed, that’s exactly what happens. You’d be hard pushed to find someone who argues Kane is the reason Tottenham and England have won nothing during his time with both.

Compare Kane to Sergi Roberto of Barcelona. The 30-year-old Barça defender cannot really claim to have played much of a leading part in any of the trophies he has won as a Barcelona player. Yet he’s won six league titles, 11 cup competitions, and in 2011 and 2015 the Champions League. A star whose quality and ability knock Kane’s out the park? Most certainly not. But a decorated footballer because of how good his club is, not because of how good he is.

“But don’t trophies matter in football?” someone might ask. Of course they matter! They matter a great deal. Phrases like “golden moment” and “years of hurt” wouldn’t exist if the ultimate goal of football were not to win trophies. But football is a team sport, and trophies are about team success. When comparing individuals, better comparative metrics exist, no matter how much fun it might be to pillory Harry Kane for his barren mantelpiece.

A player’s personal medal collection is not illuminating with regard to how good they are. It is a by-product of largely external factors. The problem, of course, is that such a sentiment wouldn’t get many likes on Twitter. A photo of an empty trophy cabinet, on the other hand, would. Therein lies the problem.

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