Small pleasures: The very best of 2016/17

Sarah Winterburn
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers salutes fans at end during the William Hill Scottish Cup Semi Final match at Hampden Park, Glasgiw. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Sunday April 23, 2017. See PA story SOCCER Celtic. Photo credit should read: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial Use Only.

It’s easy to lose sight, sometimes, of the only question that really matters in football, but that we rarely stop to ask: did you have a nice time?

Yes, competitive sport is about separating the best from the rest, but if all we were interested in was the bare objective facts there would be no Football365, no podcasts, no gifs of Kylian Mbappe skinning a defender. We’d just print the league tables and scorers and call it a day.

We know going into a season that there can only be one winner, but ultimately we keep watching and devouring because it provides a series of small pleasures that add up into one transcendent whole. What else do you want from your Saturdays but to just have a really brilliant day?

With that in mind, here are some of the nice things about this season.


Pochettino’s lovely boys
You can’t win as a player: if you get along with your teammates you’re “not taking your job seriously enough”, but if you don’t then you “lack team spirit” and “aren’t playing for one another”.

Tottenham’s young team has struck exactly the right balance. With their handshakes and wee dances, Mauricio Pochettino’s side is the one you can most easily imagine all living in shared accommodation, sliding around the wooden floors in their club-issue pyjamas, staying up past their bedtimes whispering giggled secrets to each other and reading Shoot magazine by torchlight. Harry Kane and Dele Alli definitely share a bunk bed and nobody can tell me otherwise.

Yet far from being a bunch of hapless chumps, Spurs know how to play. Only four of the past 20 English champions scored more goals than Spurs managed this year (86) or conceded fewer (26); eight of the past 20 champions failed to better Tottenham’s points haul from this campaign (also 86), and six of those 20 title winners won fewer games than Pochettino’s side managed this season. Taking the league season as a series of two-legged ties, they won 16, drew two and lost only to Liverpool.

Forget the talk of “bottling it”: this is a side of winners who happened to come up against the second-strongest side in Premier League history. To see them achieve that while playing with such evident glee is just wonderful.


Triumph of the nice guys
This year’s top four managers include Pochettino, Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp. Their touchline antics may rile some, but they’re clearly the good guys here. Further down the table, lovely-faced man Eddie Howe achieved a top-half finish with Bournemouth. Gareth Southgate, unbelievably, is England manager.

Meanwhile, grumpy old Jose Mourinho finished sixth, and David “wee slap” Moyes finished dead bottom.

Who said nice guys finish last?

Some light at the end of the tunnel

Spare a thought for the likes of Coventry City, whose ongoing difficulties and terrible mismanagement continue to give off a terrible smell.

That said, though, every division has had at least one heartwarming promotion, with Portsmouth, Millwall and Brighton fans all ending the campaign in delirious celebration after years of being crapped on by bad owners and corporate shithousery.

Which leads me onto…


Yorkshire football on the rise
Sure, it’s my stomping ground, but this has been a wonderful year for a region with more than its fair share of long-suffering fans.

This season has seen [deep breath] Doncaster promoted to League One, Sheffield United up to the Championship, Bradford in the League One play-off final, Barnsley achieving a comfortable mid-table finish, Leeds coming agonisingly close to making the play-offs in a season that has allowed fans to dare to dream again, and Sheffield Wednesday going out of the play-offs only on penalties.

Special mention, though, to Huddersfield Town, who I’ve become something of a fan of this season, and by no means just as a way to suck up to the boss. If they can get past Reading on Monday they’ll only be in the bloody Premier League.

Still, Rotherham and Hull though. Letting the side down lads.


A happy Brendan Rodgers
After an embarrassing start to his reign – losing 1-0 to Lincoln Red Imps, a team of part-timers from Gibraltar – Brendan Rodgers has gone unbeaten in all domestic competitions ahead of Saturday’s Scottish Cup Final against Aberdeen, and took points off Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City both home and away in the Champions League group stage.

Rodgers is a bit of a silly sod, but we need those in the world, and there are few managers whose teams have the potential for such excitement as Rodgers’. He’s the modern-day Kevin Keegan, and who doesn’t love Keggy Keegle? Idiots and misanthropes, that’s who.


Leicester in the Champions League
They’ve not had the best of times this season, but seeing Leicester beat Sevilla and run Atletico bloody close was a joy. The whole last two years for Leicester still doesn’t seem plausible; unless they can pull off another unlikely title challenge next year, I doubt that situation will ever change. We’ll tell our grandkids about them.


The FA Cup
This year’s FA Cup has given everything you could possibly ask for in a cup competition: enough small team v big team encounters for the novelty value in the early rounds (Lincoln beating Burnley and Brighton, Wolves beating Liverpool, Oxford beating Newcastle, Huddersfield taking Man City to a replay, Sutton United v Arsenal), giving way to two fantastic semi-finals between four of the country’s best five sides.

This Saturday’s final also promises to be a belter, and potentially even the last ever game with Arsene Wenger in charge of Arsenal.

If nothing else, we can enjoy the fact that this season’s FA Cup has been one in the eye for the tiresome ‘is the FA Cup dying?’ debate.


An incredibly high standard of football writing
The standard of football writing is at an unbelievably high level. Attempting to list all the amazing writers whose work I’ve enjoyed this year would only lead to glaring omissions, but we’re truly blessed to have so many talented people writing insightful, amusing and interesting stuff about our favourite hobby.


Jermain Defoe and Bradley Lowery (and others like them)
An unexpected late-career purple patch despite playing for one of the worst Premier League sides in recent memory, leading to a deserved England recall. But it’s off the pitch that Defoe has raised the biggest smile, with his friendship with Bradley Lowery melting even the hardest hearts.

With all the bad press footballers get (often deservedly), it’s great to see so many column inches dedicated to the kind of selfless social responsibility that many footballers engage in but too rarely get credit for. It’s easy (and fun) to be cynical about it, and I’m uneasy about the ‘role model’ tag, but efforts like Defoe’s indisputably make hard lives enormously better for the people who need it most. We can be proud of that.


Steven Chicken