More highs and lows of 2011 from WSC contributors
Best ~ Despite a drawn out and somewhat inevitable relegation, an unseemly exodus of players and a multitude of unanswered questions over our club finances and ownership, Birmingham City won a major cup, played in Europe and have Chris Hughton as manager. How odd.
Worst ~ Not sure what was worse, Sepp Blatter's racism or FIFA's closing of ranks behind him.
Best ~ The nativity of a new loose-cannon, a bona fide self-arsoning, police-baiting eccentric in the Premier League. Mario Balotelli’s undershirt reveal of "Why Always Me?" after sidefooting one absent-mindedly into the United net was a miniature masterpiece of Situationist humour. Self-effacing and self-publicising at the same time, it established him in the direct lineage of Shackleton, Clough, Gascgoine and Cantona. This is not run-of-the-mill attention-seeking eccentricity either, but the rarer, deep-dwelling, deadpan version. It is also nice to think that much of Manchester City’s expenditure this year and next will go on hiring a couple of fixers and a lawyer to specialise in Balotelli’s caseload.
Worst ~ This is a very personal choice. Arsenal’s 8-2 defeat by a team that apparently have at least three fans in every building in the world was the game I had feared all my life. There is a type of middle-aged person who was drawn to Arsenal in the early 1970s, a respectable mid-table team who would not scandalise their fans by playing free-flowing football or ever get close to league titles or relegation. Reliable mediocrity was comforting for unambitious small-town introverts. Listening to this game on the radio, with United scoring every time they came in our half, was the most terrifying ordeal I have endured since accepting a lift from Minehead to Truro in which the driver sang along to their James Blunt and/or James Morrison CD the whole journey.
Best ~ An astonishing run of unbeaten away games that smashed Hull City's club best and came mighty close to usurping the second-tier record that dates back to 1905. We went 17 games on the road without defeat, in sharp contrast to the Premier League campaign of 2009-10 when we failed to win away at all. Only a last-day mauling at Bristol City, when we had just missed out on a play-off place thanks to appalling home form, brought the run to an end. Had we avoided defeat at Ashton Gate we would have equalled the 106-year-old record.
Worst ~ Given the state of Hull City in 2010, it has been a fairly acceptable year on and off the pitch. The defection of Nigel Pearson back to Leicester was probably the worst single moment, but even that was greeted with a collective "meh" of apathy from the Tiger Nation, especially when Nick Barmby took over and got us playing attractive football that launched us up the table.
Best ~ A hard-fought 2-1 win over Cardiff left Forest in second place with a game in hand and we dared to dream that we might be spared our usual implosion in the play-offs. A few weeks later, we duly imploded as usual in the play-offs. But when I recoved, I was pleased that it was Swansea that went up – an apparently well-run club rewarded for playing the best football in the Championship. I was also pleased for AFC Wimbledon, if less pleased that the Franchise don't seem in any great hurry to disappear in the opposite direction.
Worst ~ Most of the rest of 2011 after the Cardiff game was one long worst moment. It is hard to pick out one, but after stuttering to a goalless play-off draw against Swansea and stumbling to a clueless 1-2 defeat against a poor Derby side, Forest fans will never want to see the opposition reduced to ten men in the first minute again.
Best ~ It has to be Mario Balotelli's cheeky shoulder-goal against Norwich. Even though I had heard about it before I saw it, it still made me squeal with delight like a 12-year-old girl in the front row of a Justin Bieber concert. Garth Crooks' po-faced reaction made it even better. Come on Garth, can you remember when football used to be fun? Cast your mind back to when you and your mates would kick a Pola Cola bottle around the school playground. You would have liked it then Garth, wouldn't you?
Worst ~ It is hard to choose between bullets and letter bombs being posted to Neil Lennon, who also received death threats on Facebook, and a Hearts fan being allowed to run 40 yards to attack Lennon in a dug-out left unprotected by police in one of the most contentious fixtures in Scotland. Worse still were the attempts made by too many fans and journalists to somehow pin the blame on the victim, or on Celtic. Also worse was the verdict of not guilty of assault for the man television footage clearly shows attacking Lennon. It all makes Scotland look like a particularly uncivilised country. Which it isn't.
Best ~ Portugal is a small country, and notwithstanding the relative success of the national team in the last couple of decades and the internationally recognised quality of the players and coaches it exports, it is generally perceived as a bit of a backwater in footballing terms. It always gives me a bit of vicarious pride in the underdog, then, when Portuguese teams do well in Europe. So having three clubs – Porto, Sporting Braga and Benfica – in the semi-finals of the Europa League last season was my favourite moment. The fact that I stood to win a bit of folding if Porto won the whole thing helped. And, of course, they duly obliged.
Worst ~ I was walking towards the departure gate at Lisbon airport when I saw on a TV in the distance the name "Gary Speed" and, as I got closer, the word "dies". It was a strange moment, my brain not quite computing what I was seeing: he couldn't be much more than late 30s or early 40s, there must have been some mistake. But there wasn't.
Best ~ Bayern Munich forward Mario Gomez finally coming good. I had sung his praises for what seemed like decades and was getting slightly fed up with mothers and toddlers pointing at me in the street, throwing their heads back and shrieking: "That's the man who loves Mario Gomez." I could hardly blame them, though. Even Mario Gomez himself would have pointed and shrieked if he'd heard my simpering.
Worst ~ Functionaries at amateur football clubs parroting their professional counterparts and thinking they can get away with it. The chairman at my local (sixth tier) club sacked the long-serving manager "because the team aren't playing like Barcelona". He didn't seem to grasp that not even Barcelona would play like Barcelona if their team consisted of students, newsagents and plumbers having to turn out on a cinder surface that even the army wouldn't use for training manoeuvres for fear of damaging their tanks. Another patron confided to me that he had lured a centre-forward (five goals in five years) to the club for 800 pieces of silver a month, "so I can sell him on in the winter break". He then tapped his nose knowingly, so he must be doing something right.
Best ~ Naples University revealing that a small seismic shift took place in the city after Edinson Cavani’s second goal for Napoli against Manchester City in the Champions League. Imagine Buenos Aires (Glasgow, even) with just the one professional, top-tier team, and you get some sort of a handle on what the club means to the Napoletani. Despite problems with some of the more undesirable members of their support base, Napoli’s progression in Europe has a lovely warming retro glow. All that's missing is a Mars sponsorship deal on their shirts.
Worst ~ Supporters Direct finding itself in the Daily Mail’s cross hairs. SD chief executive Dave Boyle may have been a little over the top in his celebratory tweeting after watching Wimbledon win promotion, but you can’t help feeling the paper had another agenda up its pinstriped sleeve. As we all know, SD are the good guys. Anyone who gets on the wrong side of the Mail, the Premier League and Milton Keynes has to be doing something right.
Best ~ Wayne Rooney's successful hair transplant sparing us all endless diagrams, fuzzy long lens photos with expert analysis by "top trichologists" of where it all went wrong and "Wazza, my follicle hell" headlines dominating the news, (yet again) banjaxing his form for a season. Fortunately, team-mate Michael Owen has come up with another scheme to steady the good ship Rooney, buying racehorses. After all, no one at Manchester United has ever had any problems over horses, have they?
Worst ~ Developing a pathetic variation of Cassandra's curse - she correctly foresaw the future but no one believed her - based on desperation and hopeless optimism, for example: "Barcelona are due a bad one"; "Manchester United can't play as badly as in last year's final"; "At least we've kept it to 3-1"; "I give the coalition six weeks tops"; "Even Blatter can't survive this one".
Best ~ Barcelona winning the Champions League final in a thrilling match against Manchester United. They are clearly one of the greatest sides ever but can often win games playing at only 70 or 80 per cent of their best. Not so at Wembley where, especially in the first half, United tried to match them at their own game. It was one of those games which flies past without you really noticing the time.
Worst ~ West Ham throwing away a 2-0 half-time lead against Wigan that finally confirmed their relegation from the Premier League. Throughout an abysmal season Avram Grant's side had become some kind of second-half collapse specialists. To do it in a do-or-die game when the consequence of defeat was relegation was really gut-wrenching.
Best ~ Only the most committed misanthrope could be cynical about AFC Wimbledon’s promotion to the Football League. The play-off final penalty saves by a boyhood Don fan were the stuff that terrible British sports films are made of. Grist to the mill for those of us for who well up at even the mention of the word "underdog".
Worst ~ When Ken Dulieu resigned as chairman of Coventry City to take up the post of head of football operations, few could have predicted he would insist on watching the next home game from the bench. Dulieu resigned as a result of his faux pas, but the surreal and desperate sight of a grown man abusing his position to publicly indulge a childish fantasy was the lowest moment in what must be the worst year (so far) in the modern history of the club.
Best ~ Financial doping means that the rest of us are doomed to salivate enviously as they hammer our teams, but Manchester City's breathtaking play in the Premier League is beyond criticism. Only two points clear at the top at the time of writing, hopefully they will be unable to take their foot off the gas in the second half of the season.
Worst ~ Increasing evidence of corruption at all levels of the game is a worrying trend. Whether FIFA's flawed governance of the international game or match-fixing scandals linked to betting or otherwise, the concept of a level playing field is being seriously challenged.
Best ~ Málaga’s Julio Baptista returning from a long injury absence on his 30th birthday, scoring a 93rd minute bicycle-kick winner and almost immediately doing a pitchside interview and telling the reporter and millions watching live on TV that his wife had just had a baby so he was dedicating the goal to them, was a moment. He was injured again soon afterwards, and Qatari-bankrolled Málaga are not always an easy team to like, but the obvious joy on Baptista’s face was priceless.
Worst ~ The attempts by Real Madrid, and José Mourinho in particular, to come to terms with Barcelona just being better than them threw up many ugly moments during the year. Playing Pepe in midfield to physically intimidate Barcelona’s players, identifying an international anti-Madrid conspiracy reaching as far as UNESCO and banning his own team’s players from being friendly with their Spanish national colleagues were all pretty bad. When he reacted to another piece of Lionel Messi magic at the end of the Spanish Supercopa by deliberately walking over to Barca’s assistant coach Tito Vilanova, twisting a finger into his eye and then smiling smugly, Mourinho seemed to have gone as far as even he could. But he topped that at the post-game press conference by accidentally on purpose referring to Tito as "Pito" (prick in Spanish).
Best ~ Probably the Asian Champions League final in November between Jeonbuk Motors and Al Sadd. Unusually for the competition there was a full house of over 40,000, a fantastic atmosphere and a match to remember. It ended 2-2 thanks to a great free-kick, an own goal, a lovely counter-attack and then a last-minute equaliser. Al Sadd proceeded to win on penalties but it felt that a real occasion, a showpiece for the Asian game.
Worst ~ OK it is not really one moment but a series of them that made for one seriously depressing episode. The South Korean match-fixing scandal not only shocked a nation with over 60 players, past and present, found guilty of conspiring to rig results of matches (and some players did so for pitifully small amounts) but it resulted in at least two suicides and probably three. Also, the arrest of some of Bahrain’s best players by the government for simply participating in a protest was shameful and it has also backfired as the team are struggling in qualification for the 2014 World Cup.
Best ~ While travelling to Walsall's match at Hartlepool, I was caught in a traffic jam on the A19. Local radio predicted delays of up to an hour but in fact it was more like 40 minutes and I got to the game with a few minutes to spare. We take our "highs'" where we can.
Worst ~ As easy as it is to despise the Premier League and all it stands for, it was always reasonably hard to make a case for them actively seeking to destroy the 72 clubs in the Football League. That changed this year with the introduction of the EPPP - a youth development scheme that not only offers the richest sides the pick of talented youngsters before anyone else but also caps the compensation available when they want to buy the few kids who do slip through the net. Still, at least the England team will benefit from huge numbers of kids stockpiled by the biggest clubs as Joe Hart (Shrewsbury), Theo Walcott (Southampton) and Chris Smalling (Millwall and Maidstone) would doubtless testify.
Best ~ Lille winning the French championship for the first time since 1954. Since Lyon’s seven-year dominance came to an end in 2008, the French league is once again proving to be fascinatingly competitive, harking back to the late 1990s, when the title was won by a different club in six consecutive seasons. Lille adopted a more attacking outlook than has traditionally been seen in goal-starved Ligue 1. Its success has seen others follow suit in what is shaping up to be an equally intriguing 2011-12 season.
Worst ~ The year can hardly have produced anything more distasteful than Liverpool’s reaction to the FA’s verdict in the Luis Suarez racism case. The aggressive club statement and the repugnant T-shirts crassly worn by the players at Wigan last Wednesday night, as if Suarez was the victim, have displayed an astonishing lack of contrition that, given the evidence in the public domain, can be interpreted as a rejection of the FA’s admirable stand against racism.