Johnny Phillips: The good and bad of another challenging year for the beautiful game


 Raul Jimenez  (Photo by Jack Thomas - WWFC/Wolves via Getty Images)
Raul Jimenez (Photo by Jack Thomas - WWFC/Wolves via Getty Images)

As we see out the old and welcome in the new, here’s a look back at some of the hits and misses of another challenging year for football. For the first half of 2021, the lockdown domestic football season was best forgotten, true contests only take place in front of the most important people of all: the fans. But we returned after the summer with a brighter outlook and a hope that the football industry can recover its mojo, before Christmas arrived with the game once again struggling in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. So, let’s have a look at the best and worst of 2021.

MISS – EUROPEAN SUPER LEAGUE – One of football’s most poorly conceived and badly timed ideas was founded in April. Its legacy was the unification of supporters across the continent in disgust at the idea of member teams being guaranteed entry to the competition every season. The damage done to the reputations of clubs’ owners in this country was considerable. As each of the six Premier League teams pulled out, in the wake of significant protests, there were some grovelling admissions of misjudgement from the likes of Liverpool’s John W Henry, the Glazer family at Manchester United and others. No doubt – given the greed at the heart of this - the super league concept will be back on the table in the future at some stage, so we can only hope it will be met with similar resistance each time the avaricious few try to push ahead with it.

HIT – ITALY’S SKY BLUE BLAZERS – The Italian football team deservedly conquered all at Euro 2020, but off the pitch Roberto Mancini and his management staff won the hearts of the fashion designers with their retro sky blue jackets. The Georgio Armani blazers were a nod to the attire donned by Italy’s 1982 World Cup-winning manager Enzo Bearzot and his coaches. The 2021 design eschewed the sky blue trousers of the 1982 vintage, instead opting for black trousers. But, in keeping with a long tradition, the Italians looked the part off the pitch as well as winning the football on it.

MISS – MEL MORRIS – Derby County fans have been put through the mill by the mishandling of the club at the very top. The Rams are marooned at the foot of the Championship going into 2022, facing a spell in the third tier of English football next season. Morris oversaw big transfer fees, significant wages and long contracts in chasing the Premier League dream over several seasons. It was a reckless way to run a club, with a high turnover of players and managers. Essentially, the whole gamble boiled down to the outcome of the 2019 play-off final, which Derby lost to Aston Villa. Had the result gone the other way then administration may have been avoided. But such an ‘all or nothing’ outlook is no way to run a football club.

HIT – RAUL JIMENEZ – Raul Jimenez’s return from that horrific injury suffered at Arsenal towards the end of 2021 has been nothing short of miraculous. I’ll never forget the sound of that head clash with David Luiz on that dark November night at a near-empty Emirates Stadium and the sense of panic that enveloped the entire Wolves team and backroom staff. How the players went on to finish (and win) the game, I’ll never know. After such a damaging injury it was hard to see how Jimenez could ever resume his career. But the actions of the Wolves and Arsenal medical staff in the seconds after the injury and his subsequent care in hospital, followed by a long period of rehabilitation, led to a remarkable recovery. The documentary made by the Wolves media team, Code Red, about Jimenez’s story is well worth a watch on the club’s YouTube channel.

MISS – WEMBLEY – The scenes at Wembley before, during and after the Euro 2020 final put a serious dampener on what should have been the showcase occasion of the tournament. A combination of poorly equipped stewards, a similarly ill-prepared and underfunded police presence and thousands of boorish, ticketless fans with an opportunistic attitude to gaining entry to the stadium made for a shambles of an event. Many fans became increasingly intoxicated with drink and

drugs as the day went on, and the authorities just weren’t prepared for the carnage that followed as stadium gates and doors were stormed amidst serious disorder.

HIT – LEICESTER CITY’S FA CUP WIN – Last season’s FA Cup was mainly played out behind closed doors, so it will never be recalled with the fondness of tournaments past. There were some highlights, though, including non-league Marine’s incredible adventure that culminated in the Merseysiders’ third round tie against Tottenham Hotpsur. Even then there was great disappointment that the only supporters who got to see the game were those in the houses with gardens backing onto the perimeter fencing of the tiny Rossett Park ground. But by the final in May, lockdown had partially lifted and 20,000 fans were present to see Leicester beat Chelsea. The triumph was a fitting reward for the phenomenal work done by Brendan Rodgers since taking the helm back in 2019.

MISS – POSITIVE LATERAL FLOW TESTS – We ended the year with the Covid-19 pandemic back in focus owing to the rise of the Omicron variant. The football calendar has been decimated by postponements and once again the future is uncertain. In Scotland and Wales restrictions on attendances have been brought back. Here’s hoping, as we head in to 2022, that we can avoid another period of lockdown football and get back to full fixtures as soon as possible.

HIT – THOMAS TUCHEL – The instant impact of Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea was hugely impressive. In his first game in charge, against Wolves, he set a record for possession and passes completed for any debut manager in Premier League history. By March he had overseen a 13-game unbeaten run. In April, Chelsea beat Manchester City to reach the FA Cup final. They ultimately fell short in that competition, but Tuchel crowned an incredible four months in charge when he oversaw another victory over City to see Chelsea lift the Champions’ League trophy in Porto. In doing so, Tuchel destroyed the myth that managers can’t make an impact when taking over midway through a season.

MISS – NUNO ESPIRITO SANTO – 2021 was a grim time for Nuno on the pitch. The latter half of last season tailed off dramatically as his Wolves side ended the campaign looking tired and forlorn after their heroics of 2019/20. A move to Tottenham Hotspur offered the opportunity to reinvigorate his career at an established top six club. Despite winning the Premier League Manager of the Month for August, Nuno’s spell in North London lasted just 17 games in all competitions. However, off the pitch the Portuguese left a lasting legacy that will never be forgotten. His £250,000 donation to Wolves Foundation’s ‘Feed Our Pack’ initiative in January helped society’s most vulnerable during the Covid-19 crisis, in stark contrast to the city’s MPs who voted against the extension of free school meals during the pandemic.

HIT – MO SALAH - He may have ended 2021 on a low with that penalty miss at Leicester on Tuesday night, but 2021 sparked a return to the very highest levels of performance for Mo Salah. In September he became the sixth quickest player to reach 100 Premier League goals, reaching the landmark in just 162 appearances. Two of those goals were scored for Chelsea but the remaining 98 were hit with Liverpool, whom he joined in 2017. Salah’s arrival was one of the key reasons for Liverpool’s 2019/20 title win. As we head in to 2022 it will take a herculean effort to rein in Manchester City, but an in-form Salah will be crucial to stopping a second successive title for Pep Guardiola’s side.

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