The year 2016 was a terrific one for the Premier League and a terrible 12 months for English football. Leicester City’s title success was every bit the fairy story, the perfect antidote to long held and justifiable fears that ordinary clubs could no longer dream of glory as the bigger institutions and the Champions League elite had effectively ringfenced all the prizes worth winning.
The Foxes’ achievement was all the more remarkable for being totally unexpected, not just for the above reasons but because of the struggle against relegation the previous season; yet even as Jamie Vardy and his team-mates enjoyed their party at domestic level something much more predictable was clouding the international scene.
England doing badly in tournaments is now almost a given. The faithful expect little else and are grateful for even the smallest signs of progress. Even so, being ejected from the European Championship by Iceland while simultaneously watching Wales turn into one of the teams of the tournament surely represented a new low. The last time England looked as though they might enjoy themselves at a tournament was in 2002 or 2004; the story since has become a little more depressing every couple of years, though no sooner does it seem impossible to sink any lower than the national side find a way to manage it.
England actually performed that trick twice in 2016. Not only did their abject 2-1 capitulation to the smallest nation ever to qualify for a major tournament represent a startling variation on the dire baseline established in Brazil two years earlier, when they were eliminated before the end of the group stage, but when Roy Hodgson did the decent thing and the FA bowed to pressure to appoint a more streetwise manager it found that decision blowing up in its face as well. So England have had three permanent managers in the calendar year, including one reign so short that Sam Allardyce never got the chance to play a game at Wembley, and perhaps more damagingly have ended up with Gareth Southgate in charge because the job is no longer viewed as sufficiently attractive, prestigious or desirable.
Southgate will probably not lead England back to the forefront of world football, the journey is simply too long and no one now expects it. Just about the only positive to be drawn from a sorry situation is that Southgate finds himself in a position somewhat similar to Chris Coleman when he took over Wales. Unlike England, Wales have never had any sense of entitlement in international football – they know they have to start low and work hard for any success. Recognition finally arrived in 2016 and well-deserved it was too. England could do worse than attempting to copy the Coleman plan, though with Wembley to fill and 50 years of hurt to factor in, the parallel is not an exact one.
With the abuse scandal this newspaper helped uncover reaching unimagined proportions by the end of the year, 2016 could hardly be described as a high point for English football. Yet, if the Premier League is what this country does best, this was one of its vintage years. The Leicester story delighted football followers around the world and the achievement is not diminished by the team’s struggles in the league this season. Now that Chelsea, Liverpool and the Manchester clubs are back to something approaching their best it does begin to appear that Leicester took advantage of an ideal set of circumstances last season.
Arsenal and Tottenham are particularly guilty of dithering instead of cashing in on the managerial changes and overblown transitions going on elsewhere but Leicester still deserve immense credit for being decisive and making their distinctive team ethic work. The Foxes were worthy winners of Team of the Year at the BBC’s Sports Personality awards for, if ever a title was won by collective effort rather than the contributions of individuals, this was it. Leicester took on the big teams and won when it mattered, most notably in posting a stunning victory over Manchester City at the Etihad and providing José Mourinho’s final defeat as Chelsea manager.
Mourinho had remarked that Leicester were in a false position, a statement he then had to retract, though his mistake was not quite as expensive as similar assumptions made by bookmakers.
Mourinho is back in employment now at Manchester United, where he gradually seems to be shaping the side into one capable of living up to club traditions, even if talk already of a contract extension has unsettled some supporters. Under Mourinho United still made their worst start for 27 years, however well they are currently playing, and though Paul Pogba is now starting to exert a positive influence in midfield and Henrikh Mkhitaryan has begun to deliver, it is fair to say fans were expecting a little more bang for their bucks after breaking the world transfer record in the summer.
Manchester City are in a slightly better though similar position. Pep Guardiola has not found it easy to adjust to the Premier League after all. The City manager has been freely admitting as much in recent weeks but his side have played some thrilling football at times during a campaign which has already yielded impressive victories over Arsenal and Barcelona. Last season City would have been out in front without too much of a problem. This season they are being put in the shade by Chelsea and Liverpool, especially the former, though a moment of truth will arrive at Anfield when City are the visitors on New Year’s Eve.
It is fair to point out, as Guardiola and Mourinho frequently do, that Chelsea and Liverpool have the advantage of being unencumbered by European commitments this season, though Antonio Conte in particular deserves credit for completely changing his club’s outlook in well under six months in a new country. Chelsea have been playing so well of late that even neutrals have been appreciating their ability. That used to happen in a grudging way when Mourinho was in charge, mostly because the efficiency was remarkable, but now Chelsea are the genuine crowd-pleasing article, showcasing some exceptional talents and looking a good bet for the title. If it is true that Roman Abramovich has always hankered after an entertaining, free-scoring side, a force not only recognised but admired around Europe, he seems closer than ever to achieving his wish. If Chelsea continue to improve, European progress will surely follow under Conte, though that is for next year.
As 2016 winds down, with the official prizes to be handed out towards the end of the season, here are a few unofficial suggestions for the year as a whole …
Team of the year: Leicester City
Coach of the year: Claudio Ranieri
Player of the year: Riyad Mahrez.
Most improved team of the year: Chelsea
Most improved player: Diego Costa.
Most memorable goal: Jamie Vardy v Liverpool
Most jaw-dropping moment: Hal Robson-Kanu puts Wales ahead against Belgium
Quote of the year: Robson-Kanu again: “I’ve just Cruyffed them and stuck it in the net.”
Most remarkable atmosphere: Liverpool v Borussia Dortmund
Most embarrassing own-goal: Sam Allardyce
Most embarrassing choice of drink: Sam Allardyce
Best positional switch: Chelsea to back three and wing-backs
Best celebration (premature): Alan Pardew dancing on the sideline at the FA Cup final
Worst news management: Manchester United spoiling Louis van Gaal’s moment of glory at Wembley
Worst slide to the bottom of the table: Swansea and Sunderland to share
Most promising newcomer: Marcus Rashford
Best old-timer: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Most biblically apt arrival due this Christmas: Gabriel Jesus joins Manchester City
Piece of commentary for posterity: Steve McClaren talking up England as Iceland score
Best dresser: Antonio Conte. Even his outfits look more animated than those of his rivals