The 200% Review of the Year: Goodbye. Good Riddance
Anyone hoping for a positive take on 2016 in this article is about to have their hopes dashed. Dashed again, probably. I was in the mood to find upbeat angles for this football-year review but there’s precious few. 2017 needs to be a belter to make up for this 12 months of shite and more shite. Just before sitting down to type this, Professor Phil Scraton clinched the “Non-football Person Involved with Football” of the Year. The leading Hillsborough justice campaigner’s refusal to accept the Order of the British Empire, partly on the grounds that (to paraphrase) the British Empire was s**te, may even be regarded as disrespectful by some. And he acknowledged that it “might come as a disappointment to some Hillsborough families, survivors and whoever nominated me.”
However, despite this and his acceptance of awards including the Freedom of the City of Liverpool, his main argument was sound: “I could not receive an honour on the recommendation of those who remained unresponsive to the determined efforts of bereaved families and survivors to secure truth and justice,” by which he meant “successive governments” who “until 2009, and despite compelling evidence, declined to pursue a thorough independent review of the context, consequences and aftermath of the disaster.” And of course, this work is incomplete, as Peter Marshall’s recent Hillsborough documentary demonstrated all-too-clearly.
Taken purely on 2016, it is hard to see past Leicester City for “Team” of the Year. Yes, everything that could go right for them went right in 2015/16. But their Champions League (UCL) campaign was a thing of wonder until their reserves got horsed in Oporto. And only the most cynical cynic could avoid giving them credit for their form, tactics and resilience en route to a convincing ten-point title triumph. Intriguingly, in the English Premier League (EPL), everything that could go wrong for them has gone wrong in 2016/17, as manager Claudio Ranieri semi-tearfully acknowledged after their recent home defeat to Everton. So the full perspective on Leicester’s year awaits. What odds, for instance, on a UCL/relegation double? Indeed, what odds on a UCL knock-out stages/relegation double? And, no, I’m not about to ask Joey Barton.
Regardless of that, though, and because one aspect of their decade-long journey ended in 2016, in some footballing style, my team of the year is AFC Wimbledon. As a Kingstonian fan, I am supposed to hate them. I won’t bore you with the details (yet) again. Although I understand Ks fans hearing jarring notes and smelling whiffs of hypocrisy in Wimbledon Chief Executive Erik Samuelson’s desire, expressed in the latest “FC Business” magazine, to “do what we can to get more people from Kingston to come and see us at the new stadium” and to continue community projects and teams in Kingston even after they return “home” to neighbouring Merton. However on October 9th, when they overtook Milton Keynes Dons in the Football League standings, AFC Wimbledon righted a fundamental wrong. Again, most of you know the details. But it is worth re-recalling the words of the 2002 FA panel ruling on the old Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes, which stated that for supporters forming their own “Wimbledon” would not be “in the wider interests of football.” Bollocks then. Demonstrable bollocks now.
Eddie Howe has been an annual “Manager” of the Year contender since 2009, apart from his 21-month blip at Burnley. His Football League (FL) Manager of the Decade award in 2015 was entirely merited. This year, though, I’m very fractionally more enamoured by Celtic’s Brendan Rodgers. Which I know may seem a biased choice. The Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) should be the cakewalk it is proving to be for a club so resource-dominant as Celtic are in Scotland. Rodgers has the team almost a point-per-game ahead of the pack and Celtic’s League Cup triumph was total, outplaying the current second and third-placed sides with no goals against on the way. But these are only a part of his success at Celtic.
His side visibly improved during a mixed UCL campaign. And these improvements have come without major changes to last season’s insipid, uninspired playing staff. French striker Moussa Dembele might be the best half-million quid spent in football in 2016. But Rodgers’ other signings have missed swathes of the season. So Celtic have become near-title certainties in five months with largely the same insipid, uninspired playing staff. Players such as Tom Rogic, James Forrest and Stuart Armstrong are showing their true form, which had previously emerged intermittently at best. And almost the only difference is Rodgers himself. It bears repeating that Celtic’s domestic financial advantage is gargantuan. But their league lead, regardless of what happened at Ibrox after I typed this, is more gargantuan still. This has allowed Rodgers to experiment with tactics and personnel. Yet he has kept a large squad’s sense of involvement and the on-field entertainment they have provided, at high levels. Which is all you can ask for from a manager, even one in Rodgers’ favourable position. And not many managers provide that these days.
Despite a brave challenge from current Fifa president Gianni Infantino, this year’s Sepp Blatter of the Year was once again the gnomic Swiss self-awareness desert Sepp Blatter. Infantino’s presidential election promise of a 40-team World Cup finals seems like a voice of reason compared to the 48-team behemoth which has since emerged, purely for the good of Fifa’s selected broadcasters (and what could go wrong with acting in their interests?). And his internal manoeuvring and sucking up to reprehensible national regimes, football and political, are, as many say, straight from the Blatter playbook. But however laughably appalling President Infantino is, Blatter has remained one step ahead, nicking this award in the proverbial 90th-minute with a “BBC World” interview in which he condemned as “shameful” accusations that “Fifa (was) a Mafioso organisation” one…hundred…and…seventy-three…seconds before criticising Infantino for “not paying respect” to him. Maybe Blatter was taking the piss. But as president he often produced such headline-grabbers to distract from more dangerous moves. Now that he is banned from football for six years and unless or until he faces “real” courts, Blatter has no more dangerous moves. So, he is simply Sepp Blatter of the Year. Disgraced Fifa president. And idiot.
In my early days on 200% (I still have my original quill somewhere), there were enough and more dodgy/incompetent club owners to fill any Rogues Gallery. A minor lull ensued, coinciding with the exit of some of the more appalling types. But 2016 has been full of them again. Names including Massimo Cellino, Francesco Becchetti, Roland Duchatelet, Karl Oyston, Fawaz Al-Hasawi, Jason Levein and Steve Kaplan continually besmirch what’s left of English club football’s good name (only Scotland persists with an out-and-out convicted criminal in “charge”, the “Rangers International Football Club plc” chairman, Dave King). It was also dismal to see personalities such as James Brent and Ron Martin up to old, old tricks despite their clubs’ relative on-field successes. And who knows what is to come at Birmingham City after Trillion Trophy Asia’s, ahem, “bold” appointment of recent managerial failure Gianfranco Zola six hours after sacking recent managerial success Gary Rowett.
Glasgow-based Scottish national football journalists were the “Spineless PR-Lackies” of the Year for failing clumsily to conceal how much in thrall they are to PR bullshit, predominantly from Ibrox. Nonsensical stories continue to pock-mark the Daily Record and Glasgow’s Evening Times newspapers particularly. Remember the entire Rangers team being assaulted on the pitch immediately after their Scottish Cup Final defeat? Well, the Record’s award-winning journalist Keith Jackson wrote it. So it must have happened. Pity that so few knew about it. Including some of the Rangers players, it speedily transpired.
Remember “Celtic’s” dodgy tax scheme? Well, the Record “investigated” it. So it must have existed. Pity Celtic avoided NO tax as HUNDREDS of players from DOZENS of British clubs invested ALREADY-TAXED money in the scheme as PRIVATE INDIVIDUALS. Which would have transpired after a two-DAY investigation by anybody with access to Companies House data. And as for journalistic squirming about Rangers’ title chances…well…that’s for another article in another year. The worst, however, was Matthew Lindsay in the Evening Times. Tickets are available for Rangers’ forthcoming Scottish Cup tie against…actually you’ll have to find details on Rangers’ website. Because no self-respecting journalist would put his name to those details as a NEWS STORY on any self-respecting newspaper website. Oh yes he did.
But most seriously by far. Player(s) of the Year Ronaldo? Messi? Antoine Greizmann if France had won the Euros? No. Nor confusingly influential French midfielder N’Golo Kante, whose close-season departure from Leicester to Chelsea appears to have caused Leicester’s disintegration and Chelsea’s reincarnation. The flippancy of much of the rest of this piece belongs elsewhere. Andy Woodward, Steve Walters and the other players who waived legal identity protection to speak out against “non-recent” sexual abuse in football have done more for the game than anyone in 2016.
Woodward became the haunted face of the story of abuser and ex-youth football coach Barry Bennell, after an often chilling interview with the Guardian newspaper’s Daniel Taylor, published on 16th November. And his bravery (and that of Walters, whose interview with Taylor appeared six days later) is still needed as signs emerge that relevant authorities are dragging heels on the issue. Woodward, Walters and ex-Manchester City youth team player Chris Unsworth formed “The Offside Trust,” to “support players and their families who have suffered from abuse” and represent players “in a completely independent and transparent manner.” They have requested “donations from…all commercial organisations who profit from the game,” the response to which may contrast the attitude of authorities to football’s past sins with their new-found haste to protect modern youngsters.
The Trust could be busy. Chelsea recently apologised “profusely” for the abuse of ex-player Gary Johnson in the 1980s by ex-chief scout Eddie Heath. Johnson reported it to Chelsea in 2014. Chelsea paid him £50,000 in 2015 by way of a “confidentiality agreement” but entirely failed to report the allegations. The EPL asked for a copy of Chelsea’s “internal review” into their conduct but had already ruled that Chelsea broke no EPL rules. Hundreds of players have reportedly come forward with allegations of “non-recent” abuse. And the FA have set up an independent review, chaired by Clive Sheldon QC. Yet despite the six weeks since Woodward’s Guardian interview, he is still waiting to give information to police about his allegations.
So it seems that once again, the search for justice may be long. However, Woodward, Walters, Unsworth and others have started a long-due process by talking so openly and publicly about the abuses they suffered, an unimaginably difficult, courageous act. If they and the Offside Trust succeed in their aims, it will be an achievement way beyond mere football.
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