From a sunny trip to Tow Law and many unexpected winners to a seemingly endless number of scandals, our writers’ give their highs and lows of 2016
Best A trip to Tow Law Town in early March. A visit to the proverbially freezing Ironworks Road is always a pleasure, but to go on a day when you have to take off your coat and put on sunglasses is a once in a lifetime experience.
Worst I thought was inured to the stupidity of the FA, but chairman Greg Clarke’s comment that paying compensation to victims of child abuse would eat into money that could otherwise be spent on artificial pitches for deprived communities showed there are abysmal depths as yet unplumbed.
Best Originality isn’t everything, as those of us who have hired Karlheinz Stockhausen as our wedding DJ know. With that in mind, my favourite moment of 2016 was Leicester winning the title, particularly the wonderful unfolding spectacle of Riyad Mahrez’s goal against Manchester City at the Etihad. Leicester’s achievement seemed to presage an era of Mad Hatter football when every single team in every single league in the land would be having a tilt at first place. That it hasn’t worked out that way this season is not Leicester’s fault – it is simply that humankind witnessed something too extraordinary to remember.
Worst Staying with unoriginality, watching England’s attempts to claw their way back into the Iceland game was a truly dispiriting 70 minutes, even more so than the 70 minutes I spent in a Toby Carvery in Reading trying to convince an estate agent that he had a reason to live. The phrase “overhit speculative ball towards the box” has never been more useful than during England’s second half performance. It was a nice idea to lower English fans’ expectations of their national team in the last World Cup, but it’s gone a little too far now.
Best We may only be into its second decade but will the 21st century ever witness a more unlikely trio of successive Scottish Cup winners as St Johnstone, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Hibernian? For the Saints and Inverness it was a scarcely imaginable first major trophy success. For Hibs, who had gone 114 years since last winning the trophy – doing so with a 90th minute winner in the final – was football drama in its purest form. The scenes at Hampden on the final whistle were deplorable; the later emotion-charged rendition of Sunshine on Leith by the celebrating Hibs fans a collective lump in the throat moment.
Worst As if the two Irelands and Wales showing up our national side’s abject inadequacies in France 2016 wasn’t bad enough we’ve not even managed to see out the year with a decent chance of making it to the 2018 World Cup still intact. Gordon Strachan seems to have given up on trying to find any new players to improve on the current mediocre squad, the SFA have given up on trying to replace him, and the fans have simply given up.
Best I suppose only a Leicester City fan could truly love 2016. So, in tribute, my favourite snapshot from the past year was a clearly moved Claudio Ranieri mouthing the words “thank you” to applauding Crystal Palace fans as he walked along the touchline to the Selhurst Park dugout.
Worst The desperate anguish of the ongoing coaching abuses scandal and the dread that more revelations of pay-offs and cover-ups are surely to come.
Best It has to be Éder’s winning goal in the final of the Euros – for its out-of-the-blueness and its couldn’t-have-happened-to-a-nicer-blokeness (but unfortunately for him, probably a “Bobby Stokes” moment). However undeserved in terms of quality of play throughout the tournament, Portugal’s win was perhaps fair reward for a couple of decades of real promise, and it’s always good to see (relative) minnows winning things.
Worst It’s hard to get past Chapecoense as the very worst moment, of this or any recent year. At my club, Boavista, it was seeing personal hero Erwin Sánchez failing to coach a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and being shown the door in October.
Best Aside from Leicester, and this probably makes me sound unbelievably childish, seeing the low attendances roll in for the rebranded Checkatrade Trophy, which confirmed that majority of the football paying public felt the same about one of the most ill-thought through revamps since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Changing the Football League Trophy or thinking outside the box when it comes to youth team development if not necessarily a bad idea. This was.
Worst Seeing Exeter City appear on the list of clubs who'd given their blessing to the EFL Trophy revamp when other Trust run clubs like Portsmouth and AFC Wimbledon had told the Football League, in no uncertain terms, where they could stuff their ideas. There's been a growing disconnect between Trust and fanbase at St James Park and while there are other more pressing boardroom issues, it's hard to imagine previous regimes voting in favour of Shaun Harvey's pet project.
Best Iceland and their never-say-die attitude that saw them win both friends and matches at the Euros, while at the same time making ITV’s punditry look slightly silly with their comments about replacing Joe Hart for England’s “quarter-final game against France”. On a personal note, their journey through the competition was made extra special thanks to the trip I made to the Stade de France with my 11-year-old son to watch them beat much-fancied Austria in the 90th minute. A good time was had by all, especially my son who thoroughly enjoyed his time in Paris and the official Euro 2016 football I bought him as a souvenir.
Worst The League One play-off final was a particularly bad low point for Millwall, after a season that offered much hope and promise. The pre-match injury to defender Byron Webster saw captain Steve Morison shamefully replaced by Tony Craig, who had played no more than a cameo role during the upturn in the Lions’ fortunes, shortly before the teams were led out. A lucklustre performance saw Millwall lose 3-1 and the fans who traditionally come out of the woodwork for such occasions embarrass the club further with a display of misplaced petulance. Whoever made the decision to strip Morison of the captaincy tore a huge hole in the fabric of the side that has yet to be repaired.
Best Expectations were low when journeyman coach, Carlos Carvalhal, arrived at Sheffield Wednesday last season. Yet in May of this year, the Owls beat Brighton & Hove Albion 2-0 at Hillsborough in the Championship play-off semi-final first leg, watched by a boisterous 35,000 crowd. The fixture was a pivotal moment in Wednesday’s recent history. TV cameras broadcast spectacular scenes from the grand old stadium, a galaxy of twinkling smartphones illuminating the stands. “We’re Sheffield Wednesday, we’re on our way back” sang the fans throughout the game. At the final whistle, it felt like they had finally arrived.
Worst In the film Sleeper, Woody Allen is revived after 200 years in cryopreservation and shown footage of commentator Howard Cosell discussing Muhammad Ali’s boxing career on ABC’s World Of Sports. The scientists of the future cannot explain the transmission, theorising to the recently defrosted Allen “that when citizens in your society were guilty of a crime against the state, they were forced to watch this”. In two centuries time, similar conclusions may be drawn of Sky Sports’ Euro 2016 preview feature, Lafferty Banter, starring Northern Ireland striker Kyle Lafferty and his repertoire of dressing room persiflage, a vignette so lowbrow, its forehead was buried under the cutting room floor.
Best I’m still enjoying the Leicester City story – topping their Champions League group as well – as much as I did Forest’s epic 1977-79. Leicester’s football might be a bit industrial and their recent history less than spotless but their achievement is a breath of fresh air and a beacon of hope for all us provincials who stick by our clubs through thin and thin.
Worst In a year of Olympic glory in other sports what English football really doesn’t need right now is a series of attacks from within; such as the national team losing a knock-tie to a country with fewer people than Leicester; or a too greedy saviour turfed out of office inside two months on a newspaper sting; or a flood of historical child abuse accusations emerging from under the carpet. 2016 is rivalling 1985 for “worst moments”.
Best Responding to the loss of a manager mid-season by appointing a former favourite proved an inspired move for both Burton and Barnsley, who overcame clubs with bigger budgets to secure promotion from League One. Nigel Clough deserves another crack at the Championship after being treated poorly at Derby; Paul Heckingbottom did a superb job to drag his hometown club from relegation danger to go up via the play-offs. Pleasingly, their promotions maintained the absurdly high level of teams in the Championship beginning with the letter B, following the loss of Burnley and Bolton.
Worst Watching non-League Curzon Ashton lose 4-3 at home to AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup second round, having been 3-0 up with ten minutes left. It was the equivalent of watching someone’s house fall down in slow motion. A surreal scene was made odder by the fact that, in a field behind the away end, a horse could be seen pottering about and nibbling at a patch of grass, oblivious to the trauma unfolding around 50 yards away.
Best It was a pleasure to have been at Goodison Park as it came alive during Everton’s victory over Arsenal on the night of December 13. It was a reminder of the raw power of an old football ground – and few, if any, can rival the visceral feel of Goodison on such an occasion. No post-goal music, no drums, no plastic flags, no paper clappers… I just hope the Everton employee I overheard describing Goodison as “shit” at a rival Premier League stadium earlier in the year was there that night to learn a thing or two. Sadly, it was a reminder too of what will be lost when Everton do finally move.
Worst The really bad stuff will doubtless receive due attention elsewhere, so let me don my petty-minded fan’s hat and choose the following: the sight of the hitherto ineffectual Cristiano Ronaldo tucking away the winning penalty (cue that oh-God-not-again shirtless pose) to subject poor old Atlético Madrid to yet another Champions League final defeat against their showy cross-city rivals.
Best Thoroughly enjoyed Wales at Euro 2016. Beyond the one week each year I spent on holiday in Porthmadog as a child I have no connection with the place but I'm an absolute sucker for an underdog story. I also liked the way that their red and white colours and the use of “WAL” on the TV scoreboard graphic allowed me to imagine that Walsall had somehow reached the latter stages of a major international tournament.
Worst Andy Taylor shooting from 30 yards out rather than simply running the ball into the corner in the dying seconds of Walsall v Blackpool in January. Blackpool broke quickly and equalised with the last kick of the game. When you miss out on promotion by a single point it would be madness to try to identify a single moment that shaped the season from the hundreds of potential candidates. But I got there in the end.
Tow Law photo by Colin McPherson/WSC Photography: The Ironworks Ground, home to Tow Law Town, pictured in 2014
Millwall photo by Simon Gill/WSC Photography: A young Millwall fans ahead of the 2016 League One play-off final