Happy New Year to readers of this column… even if we all know there could be hell toupée in 2017!
In that spirit (and yes, it was a Donald Trump joke for those with bad hangovers) here is my New Year’s Honours List, celebrating what has been 12 months of football surprises bigger than even the American elections.
The biggest gong goes to Leicester .
I know they haven’t performed for the whole of the year, but their title win was a bloody miracle.
Even with five or six games to go, they were still given no chance by some.
Look closely and they lost one Premier League game from January to May… and even that was in the 95th minute at Arsenal when they were down to 10 men for almost all the second half.
Given they had virtually no experience of a title run anywhere in their squad, that is staggering. And yeah, the old order has been restored, they’re just above the relegation zone, but even that puts the achievement into perspective.
Don’t forget too, Leicester finished top of their Champions League group game in 2016 and have an outstanding chance of making the quarter-finals. So, no one runs them close as Team of the Year , even if Wales gave it a good go.
It was an amazing spectacle, witnessing Chris Coleman’s men go all the way to the Euros semi-final, and, with a bit more luck, they could have won it.
How incredible had they done it, but their achievement at their first finals in 50 years was outstanding – and a joy to watch.
But Leicester topped it, by producing even more of the strength that Wales relied so heavily on. The biggest reason for success?
They were a team, pure and simple.
Most of them were cast-offs, deemed not good enough by other clubs. Go through the team and you’ll see what I mean – some of them were dumped by more than one club and were in the Premier League’s last-chance saloon.
Yes, you need a technical coach, who understands systems and tactical weaknesses, but you also need a tight-knit group that will fight for each other.
Chelsea have proved that this season – they were hopeless for the first part of 2016, now they are irresistible and it is because Antonio Conte has reintroduced that spirit.
Liverpool to a lesser extent have also shown where team spirit can take you, as Klopp has transformed them, but Leicester are the ultimate team because Claudio Ranieri crafted a unique atmosphere within his club.
MANAGER OF THE YEAR
Which brings me on to the award for Manager of the Year. I suppose here we should be ringing out the New Year’s bells, because inevitably it goes to… Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong… Ranieri.
It is amazing to think that when he was appointed, there was a real backlash, with fans and critics condemning his introduction and saying it would all end in tears.
He combined a ruthless efficiency in his technical and tactical approach – by basically making sure every single opponent played a game Leicester were good at – with an amazing ability to keep the pressure off his team and keep their spirits high.
Ranieri didn’t blink once.
When they lost at Arsenal, it could have been the beginning of the end. Instead, he used it to inspire a run of form that won them the league. That takes experience as a manager, and quality too.
There was much hotter competition in this category, with Conte not only taking a pretty much written-off and totally unfancied Italy team to the Euro quarter-finals – where they lost on penalties to, obviously, Germany – but he has transformed Chelsea.
Klopp deserves a mention, too, for two cup finals in his first season at Liverpool and the creation of a spirit at Anfield which, I’m convinced, will bring plenty of honours.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Leicester take a clean sweep of my honours, with the Player of the Year award going to Jamie Vardy.
They should make a film about it — oh wait, they are.
Leicester themselves had some massive performers over the course of the year, with N’Golo Kante pushing him incredibly close, not least for his sheer consistency and all-round excellence
And after the main awards, I have a few more honours to hand out…
Best Goal Hal Robson-Kanu’s strike, which put Wales ahead to stay in their Euros quarter-final against Belgium.
Not only wasn’t he a regular for country or club, he didn’t even have a club at the time.
Also, it allowed him to win Best Quote too, for this pearler: “I’ve just Cruyffed them and stuck it in the net”.
Best Own Goal Only one candidate – Sam Allardyce. Shame, but at least he left the England job with a 100 per cent record.
Second Best Own Goal England. Losing to Iceland — the smallest nation ever to qualify for a major finals.
Humble Pie Award To… me, for suggesting Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s legs have gone. Maybe they have, but it doesn’t stop him scoring.
Most Improved Player Jointly goes to Diego Costa and Eden Hazard. With the trophy being delivered by Jose Mourinho. About their heads.
Best Atmosphere I was at Anfield when Dejan Lovren scored to defeat Borussia Dortmund – and nothing else comes close.
Worst Atmosphere At Wembley, when Louis van Gaal was effectively sacked before the FA Cup final.
Lazarus Award Henrikh Mkhitaryan for coming back from the Old Trafford dead.
Best Newcomer Marcus Rashford. Shows the most promise of current great young strikers.
Worst Moment The shocking abuse scandal, which could destroy the bedrock of football unless people act.