Welcome to this column’s end of year review, the only annual review that you can read before you’ve finished your Christmas shopping.
The trick with end of year reviews is to get your review in well before the year actually ends. There are no medals for being best so you may as well get it done first. The longer you wait the more of the year there is to review after all.
Finally, before I start, it is important when writing end of year reviews to be wise after the event, to see the bigger picture, to understand the tides in the affairs of men, to look back on everything that has happened in our game with a sense of perspective.
So. 2016 will be remembered by historians as the year of Leicester City.
And there was Brexit and Donald Trump. These major events happened in that order of time and importance.
Leicester City won the Premier League and boggled the imaginations of all of us old school romantics who wondered what we might have done if we’d put money on them at 5000/1. As Donald Trump said when he had the idea of building a big wall , dilly ding, dilly dong.
In a year when many people in Britain decided that their own lives might be better without economic immigrants Claudio Ranieri single handedly revived the market for Italian managers ,a stock which had gone flat after Capello and Mancini slipped away. Chelsea picked the best of the crop in Antonio Conte. Watford went Italian too and opted for Walter Mazzarri, the first Walter I can remember in English management since Wally Downes graced the stage. No reporter has dared to called Watford’s boss Wally yet but he does have the look of a Soprano’s extra. Swansea began the season by bringing Francesco Guidolin home to meet the folks. He seemed like a very nice man but got coldly dumped after just a few dates.
The romance of Leicester’s win cued a Jamie Vardy movie, although the what-happened-next sequel is starting to look far more more interesting. Vardy and Claudio are now hovering above the relegation boobytrap like Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in that Indiana Jones movie fittingly called the Last Crusade.
Whatever happens Leicester can always say that they gave hope to footballing underdogs and also rans everywhere. Already this season we have seen unlikely signs of life from teams like Nice in France, Leipzig in Germany, Sevilla in Spain and United in Manchester.
Considering that Leicester won the title with ten points to spare the only fly in their ointment must have been the chorus of pundits who spent the first half of 2016 telling the world that Leicester had succeeded only because every other club that was bigger and richer had failed. The giants had all taken their eye off the ball.
The evidence of this season is that the pundits were right ( that’s why pundits make the really big money) and with the new broadcasting rights deal swinging into place all the usual suspects are back in contention. There is a bottleneck of contenders for Champions League places The football has been very good, defending seems to have gone out of fashion and even Chelsea, who have been easy to dismiss as a basket of stealth over the years, are playing some lovely football.
Big spending is back in fashion with Mourinho paying a world record fee for a player Manchester United had gotten rid of some years earlier.
And we have moved into the era of The Manager. They are the new matinee idols. No more tracksuits stretching over potbellies. No more doing things they way they always have been done. The managers are sleek and smooth and the papers want to know what they think and whose shirts they wear.
On the television now we spend more time speaking about the moods and tactical formations of the gafferazzi than we do about players. Managers have become stars in their own right. The standard camera shot after a goal is scored/conceded is Klopp or Conte going into a spasm, Mourinho’s face darkening or Arsene just looking inscrutable. We know where Jose stays, what Jurgen drives, where Antonio got his hair weave and that just when Claudio had declared pizza to be the food of champions Pep banned the same pizzas at the Etihad.
What is interesting about the fascination with well presented foreign managers is that English managers have become the equivalent of Greggs. Filling, unimaginative but no Michelin stars. Poor Eddie Howe has alone become the future of English management in the Premier League.
It is certainly entertaining to watch the new era of management and if there is one obvious positive it is that clubs seem at last to be beginning to appreciate that when they have a decent manager he is worth sticking with. So far this year the casualties in the Premier League are at an all time low with Guidolin being the only boss forced to walk the plank.
The down side is that accomplished English players (and those from Ireland and the home countries) are becoming an endangered species. The Premier league doesn’t have a club like Bayern or Juve or Sporting Lisbon or the Spanish giants who like to embody the football of the country they come from. So English managers and players head off to major championships looking very confused about their identity.
The European championships in the summer were a good example. The competition will be remembered for Iceland beating England with a team which actually looked more English than England did and for Portugal winning out in an underwhelming but tactical final.
There was a lot of romance with the involvement of Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. All of those teams stuck sensibly with doing the things that they are good at doing – as did Scotland by failing to qualify.
England at international level though have had a split personality for a long time. Easily good enough to qualify. Easily confused enough after that to be sure of coming home early. This summer they looked like mutton trying to pass themselves off as spring lamb and failed badly. Roy Hodgson looked lost in France and seemed to decide on the positioning of some of his players by drawing lots. Bad news Wayne you are now an international midfielder. Luck of the draw son but wait till you see the formation I’m going to try.
The FA seem to have turned a corner however and they have stopped fluttering their eyelids at any Fabio or Sven who looks the part in spectacles and a blazer. In Sam Allardyce they picked a meat and two veg English manager who once publicly said that “all that tippy tappy stuff is a load of b******s.’
Sam got through 67 days before a newspaper claimed to have caught him being tippy tapped up concerning third party ownership. Sam said it was a load of the usual but this time nobody was entertained.
And so Gareth Southgate is the latest in a string of FA romances. Meghan Markle to Prince Harry, if only the tabs can leave Meghan alone.
If Gareth can get English players to play to their own strengths and if he can be dull enough to limit his appearances in newspapers to the sports pages, the FA might be justified in having a crush on him. He has a straightforward looking qualifying campaign on the way to Russia. Then the fun starts and we’ll get to decide whether he’s a courtier or a chancer.
What else was there? China has replaced the traditional testimonial as the last big pay off for ageing players. If Oscar leaves Chelsea and heads off to the Far East at the tender age of twenty five will he open the gates for an exodus of talent? Yes, it’s more foreign than Spain and yes, the standard is light years below the MLS but when an agent whispers the tender words “sixty million” into a players ear the sudden urge to eat everything with chopsticks can be overwhelming.
The Premier League’s status as the highest paid league in the world may be threatened in the years to come.
Meanwhile the two greatest talents on the planet Ronaldo and Messi continued to dazzle in Spain. There has been some talk of either or both of them being in decline but those of us old enough to remember when people argued over whether Wayne Rooney or Messi was the greater talent are awaiting concrete evidence of aging before we offer any firm opinion. We’re just appreciating living through a time when two of the all time greats go toe to toe every season.
FIFA has completely reformed itself and the organisation is now a beacon of trustworthiness and integrity. To celebrate they have plans to admit all the football nations of the earth as qualifiers to future World Cups. Who would pay alleged bribes in order to play host to that sort of an influx of foreign currency? Best not dwell on that.
Meanwhile the Manchester City team took the field yesterday each wearing sweatshirts with the number eight on the front in tribute to IIkay Gundogan’s cruciate which sadly snapped last week. As a former double cruciate snapper I feel his pain. Gundogan has featured in only nine Premier League matches with City, his colleagues show of sympathy a nice touch as he starts the long road back.
My personal 2016 highs include Dundalk’s stellar European adventure, Sunderland’s annual survival dance, Kasper Schmeichel stepping out from his Dad’s shadow and Yaya coming back from Siberia tripping over the tail between his legs.
Newspaper stings, the German manager’s disentangling of his man bits and the ludicrous Pogba agent’s fee made us all feel a little uncomfortable in 2016.
But the passing of some of the game’s greats – Johan Cruyff, Carlos Alberta, Dalian Atkinson, Pavel Srnicek and Don Howe (who gave me my debut) to name a few, brought great sadness to our game.
Yet even worse is knowing that football, which has always had its secrets, has had none as dark and depressing as those leaking this past few weeks from places so lowly as Crewe and as exalted as Chelsea. If we want perspective on our great game heading into 2017, there it is.