WSC contributors give their best and worst moments in football from the past year
Best ~ The Blackburn Rovers Venky's advert. OK, it summed up everything that is wrong with how Premier League teams are seen by their owners nowadays. And it lacked dramatic verisimilitude – tch, like anyone could ever successfully steal food from David Dunn. But by gum was it funny.
Worst ~ Gary Neville getting a job on Sky and having the temerity to immediately become their only decent pundit. Insightful, fair and even-handed, the lack of any bias whatsoever in his analysis so far has been maddening for us Liverpool fans. It is like he's doing it deliberately.
Best ~ The Japan v USA final of the women's World Cup – and much of the tournament too – had many of the ingredients largely lacking in its male equivalent the year before. An unexpected winner, plenty of goals, positive tactics and a sense of enjoyment, sportsmanship and fair play chronically absent from the men's game.
Worst ~ Lincoln City's relegation to non-League football in spring wasn't the sudden, unexpected shock of 1987, rather a weeks-long inevitability as they slipped slowly but inexorably down the table, with the drip-drip of dropped point after point pushing us tortuously towards a fate from which we knew, this time, there would be no quick and easy return. Less a "worst moment", more a dark and drawn-out sentence of despair.
Best ~ Very parochial I know, but Oldham Athletic signing Shefki Kuqi stands out. Yes he is getting on, but he is a Latics striker that actually scores goals, isn’t the odious Lee Hughes and brings a real presence to the team. Naturally, the season will carry on as they normally do. The goals will dry up in January, the brief flirtatious hopes of the play-offs will melt into a dalliance with relegation and we will finish just below half-way. But that one flying goal celebration: Joy!
Worst ~ The way John Terry "fronted up" as if it was an act of courage, morphed into Poppygate, followed by the hypocrisy of the FA's appeal over Wayne Rooney's ban revealed the complete lack of self awareness in "Team England". Yes I want them to do well in the Euros, but spare us the rest of it.
Best ~ I never, ever though I'd say this, but Gary Neville. From the golf club idiocy of Keys and Gray has come a pundit with a genuine ability to impart the tactical nuances of the game in a way that engages. Although it may be more that every other pundit I can think of on TV is just very, very bad rather than the Neviller being good.
Worst ~ Poppygate, World Cupgate, Warnergate. Every time the FA and the tabloid media went to battle against FIFA only served to diminish our influence. The superiority complex in not recognising that football isn't just about a group of white English people with top hats and elaborate facial hair anymore is as foolish as it is staggering. Of course Blatter is a corrupt old goat, but the FA sharing David Cameron's negotiating tactics in our relationship with other countries isn't edifying.
Best ~ Watching Barcelona take Manchester United apart in the Champions League final. I can expect to see football like that only rarely, but it is nice to think that it is possible to be both the best and the most beautiful team in the world at the same time. This is a lesson that has been forgotten in Italy since Arrigo Sacchi left Milan in 1991.
Worst ~ Freccia Azzurra is an obscure Milan team that play in level eight of the Italian pyramid. On the morning of November 20, a 56-year-old director collapsed and died while watching his son playing for one of their youth teams. In shock and as a mark of respect, they called off the first team's afternoon game but, understandably, forgot to inform the local committee of their decision. Their reward? A fine, the loss of the game and a points penalty. A decision so bizarre, so bureaucratic, so lacking in sensitivity and so negative for the image of football that you couldn't make it up.
Best ~ Threave Rovers v Stenhousemuir – a glorious Scottish Cup saga of late drama, alleged betrayal and multiple postponements. Non-league Threave came within a minute of an upset in the first game, then saw the replay called off 15 times as a mini-Ice Age hit south west Scotland. By the time the match finally went ahead in January, Threave midfielder Davie Irons – at 49, the oldest man ever to play in the Scottish Cup – had defected to manage their opponents, amid much rancour. Under Irons, Stenhousemuir won the replay 5-1 and were then knocked out in the next round a couple of weeks later.
Worst ~ When Surrey wicketkeeper-batsman Steve Davies publicly declared himself gay in March, bookmaker William Hill tastefully responded by offering bets on whether a Premier League footballer would come out before the end of the season. Thinking of telling the world about your sexuality? Good news – it could make some idiot a few quid at 7-2. The market was quickly withdrawn when many, many people pointed out that reducing someone's very difficult personal decision to a money-making opportunity was spectacularly crass, even in a world where people watch a cockroach crawl up Fatima Whitbread's nose for entertainment.
Best ~ It hasn't been a vintage year for football, so the one moment that does occupy a happy spot in my memory is Walton & Hersham versus Tunbridge Wells in the FA Cup on my birthday. A gloriously sunny late summer's day with a beer in hand, a game with goals and red cards, and the catering hut giving away free portions of chips because they had cooked too much. If that is not an idyllic version of football bliss, then I don't know what is.
Worst ~ Watching Exeter City's limp second-leg performance against Brentford in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Area Final was particularly dispiriting. But, in all honesty, everything pretty much pales into insignificance with the death of Gary Speed. I saw the news on the big screen at Waterloo station and assumed I had misread. It is hard to imagine a more gut-wrenchingly awful moment than reading the headline for the first time.
Best ~ After 20 years of trying, Bournemouth finally reached the League One play-offs. The second leg of the semi-final was one of four games with Huddersfield. None were settled in regular time and no one deserved to lose this one in particular. Apart from Kevin Kilbane's woefully unpunished shove on the Ref, this match was everything good about the game at this level with Huddersfield fans applauding off Bournemouth after winning an excellent match on penalties
Worst ~ The constant sale of most of last season's starting XI and the way this was often communicated to the fans. Bournemouth are allegedly in the black and improving after a difficult start, but the empty seats show the damage that has been done.
Best ~ Who cares if the competition weren't up to much. It didn't matter that Chelsea were too old, Arsenal were too young and Liverpool are only mentioned out of habit. For a Manchester United fan who grew up hearing the phrase "18 Leagues" at the end of every debate about football, all that mattered was the number. Now for those "five European Cups". This may take some time.
Worst ~ With the scoreline 3-0 and the laughter from the guy behind me becoming harder to take, I left the pub. But as I made it through my front door I saw that Darren Fletcher had pulled a goal back. I set off again thinking a comeback was possible. As I jogged towards the pub I could tell it was more animated than before. Looking through the window, I saw some people in hysterics while others looked on in shocked silence. United must have done the unthinkable again. Another derby winner in injury time. I pictured Ferguson jumping on the touchline, Rooney strutting across the pitch and Gary Neville planting a big kiss on Jamie Redknapp in the Sky studio. I walked in, looked up at the screen and saw Edin Dzeko celebrate City's sixth (SIXTH) goal. The "Six and the City" T-shirts, Demolition Derby headlines and texts asking if I was "six to the stomach" were not of much comfort. Neither was the 0161 616161 helpline.
Best ~ In England, it was AFC Telford United's promotion to the Conference, seven years after the original Telford United went bankrupt. It might have been understandably overshadowed by AFC Wimbledon's achievements, but it brought great pleasure to East Shropshire. In Slovakia, my adopted country, the first international appearances of Karim Guédé – German born but of Togolese origin – were a positive symbol for a country associated with one of the most notorious instances of football-related racial abuse of this millennium. Surprise surprise, the English media, much of which had adopted a self-righteous tone over the treatment endured by Emile Heskey at the 2002 Slovakia-England match, completely ignored the story.
Worst ~ That certain players are paid £250,000 a week yet refuse to play while some clubs can barely afford to pay their players at all is probably the most unedifying aspect of the modern game at the professional level. But the worst moment was unquestionably the death of Gary Speed. A tragedy in a sport that often uses the word far too lightly.
Best ~ As a Wolves supporter my personal highlight of 2011 was the exhausting final day of the season at Molineux. We survived with the help of a late goal from Stephen Hunt that hauled Wolves out of the relegation zone with just three minutes remaining of the Premier League season. It was a special moment that I found appropriately pathetic – the goal only succeeded in reducing the team’s arrears, but the 2-3 scoreline was enough to lift us out of the bottom three. Glorying in defeat – it somehow sums up perfectly life as a fan of a struggling football team.
Worst ~ I found the tribalism surrounding the incidents involving Luis Suarez and John Terry thoroughly depressing. While fans of other clubs had already convicted the players based on flimsy evidence, some supporters of their respective clubs appeared willing to defend the indefensible. Not many people who waded into the furore came out of it with much credit.
Best ~ The emergence of Mario Balotelli may be an odd choice for the best thing to happen in 2011, but in an otherwise unexceptional year he has been a godsend. It is not the fact he swore during ITV’s live coverage of the FA Cup final or that he drove around Manchester city centre high-fiving City fans the day after the 6-1 drubbing of United, or even that he set his house on fire with a firework before become the face of firework safety. It is the fact that he combines this with sublime touches on the pitch. His goal against Norwich City neatly sums up the man – a Marsh/Bowles/Worthington for the 21st century. Here’s hoping he doesn’t go and ruin it all by getting arrested during the festive season.
Worst ~ Either Dutch referee Kevin Blom’s decision to award the Czech Republic a penalty after Jan Rezek tripped over a blade of glass and fell flat on his face to all but end Scotland’s hopes of reaching Euro 2012. Or Dutch referee Kevin Blom’s decision to book Scotland’s Christophe Berra after he was felled in the box just two minutes later. Still, after years of gloating about England's bad luck with referees – especially during the 2010 World Cup – it was only a matter of time before those north of the border fell victim to a similar decision. So much for FIFA's fair play initiative. Boo.
Best ~ Substitute Pierre-Alain Frau’s injury-time winner for Lille against title rivals Marseille at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome on March 6. In France, in those circumstances, most sides would have settled for a 1-1. Not Lille: home and away, against all opposition,they played to win. This late victory was a tangible, pivotal reward for coach Rudi Garcia’s unfailingly positive tactics. Eleven weeks later, Lille won their first league title since 1954.
Worst ~ French match officials: please learn to use the advantage rule. I have lost count of the number of times referees make the mistake of awarding a free-kick when the attacking side would have benefited from being allowed to play on. Wait a couple of seconds!