As the curtain comes down on a miserable year, Ali Rampling has rolled out the red carpet one last time to bring you football awards with a difference.
West Ham Women really ran with the phrase “start the year as you mean to go on”, by postponing their first WSL fixture of 2020 because of a severe flu outbreak.
The Hammers were due to face Everton on January 5, but when illness spread through the camp, former manager Matt Beard’s side were left with just a handful of fit first-team players, and the FA permitted the match to be cancelled.
When it came to postponing fixtures due to illness, West Ham Women were truly the trendsetters of 2020.
Best goodbye quote
Nick Cushing announced he was stepping down as Manchester City Women’s manager in January after six years at the club to take up the role of assistant manager at New York City FC.
There were five games between his announcement and eventual departure in February, and Cushing left the club in style with a 2-1 win over title rivals Arsenal in his final game in charge.
“These last five games have felt like I’ve split up with my girlfriend but I’m still living in the same house as her,” he quipped at full time.
Best hissy fit
How would a careers adviser sell the refereeing profession? It’s a career choice where, no matter how well you do your job, you’re usually abused by two sets of players, both managers and tens of thousands of supporters, before then having your decisions scrutinised on national television later that evening.
Referee Jon Moss attempted to entertain himself during Bournemouth’s clash with Sheffield United in February by poking fun at the Cherries’ precarious position in the Premier League. Perhaps it wasn’t the most tasteful thing to do, but let’s face it, Moss has probably received much, much worse from players.
Bournemouth lost 2-1 to the Blades and midfielder Dan Gosling did not take too kindly to Moss’ jibe, branding the comments “sarky” and “disrespectful” then calling him a “disgrace”.
Best crowd advice
Ipswich Town Women reached the FA Cup fifth round for the first time in their history in January 2020 and set up a tie with reigning cup holders Manchester City.
The fourth-tier side, consisting predominantly of teenagers, were accustomed to playing amateur teams every Sunday in Division One South East, but came up against a City starting XI made up of 10 fully-fledged senior internationals.
The Tractor Girls ultimately succumbed to a 10–0 defeat against their illustrious opponents – but had they followed one piece of precious supporter advice, it could have been oh so different.
Trailing 3-0 just before half-time, one Ipswich fan – booming Suffolk accent and all – shouted encouragingly: “Just pretend that they’re Brantham Athletic!” – referring to the grassroots, seventh-tier side the Tractor Girls had beaten 14–0 in the Suffolk Women’s FA Cup a month earlier. A slightly different kettle of fish to Steph Houghton and Co.
Best lockdown entertainers
Lockdown hit the UK in March and football across all levels of the game ground to a halt. Live entertainment was gone too, but fortunately Lauren Hemp and Esme Morgan were there to fill the void.
The Manchester City youngsters treated fans to a series of lockdown gigs on Twitter live from their flat.
With the voice of Whitney Houston, the keyboard playing ability of Stevie Wonder and the audience banter of Adele, the fact that Glastonbury was cancelled suddenly paled into insignificance.
Best lockdown moves
The most incredible sporting feats are moments of individual flair and genius that you cannot help but watch time and time again in an attempt to comprehend how on earth the athlete pulled it off; Shane Warne’s Ball of the Century in the 1993 Ashes, Maradona’s stunning solo goal against England at the 1986 World Cup, Roger Federer’s between the legs shot against Novak Djokovic in the 2009 US Open semi-finals.
But are any of these slices of sporting magic as mesmeric as watching Alex Oxlade–Chamberlain and Perrie Edwards dancing in sync on their kitchen stairs?
As seasons gradually came to an end, so did players’ contracts. When a player departs a club after over a decade of service, they are sometimes treated to a standing ovation or maybe even a testimonial.
With no fans this was not a possibility for Luke Garbutt, released by Everton in June after 11 years with the Toffees (which did admittedly consist of six loan spells). Fortunately, Carlo Ancelotti was offered the opportunity to pay tribute to the departing Everton full–back, and when asked about Garbutt in his press conference, the Toffees boss paused, considered his words carefully and replied: “Who?”
Best lockdown hairstyle
As lockdown rumbled on and the hairdressers remained shut, we were all forced to make one of two choices; go full This Is England and shave it all off or just leave it to do its own thing.
As a result, when players returned to training in May, it was like the first day back at school after the summer holidays; Kelechi Iheanacho had a new goatee, N’Golo Kante had grown his hair and Eden Hazard had gone bald.
But the man who stole the show was Roberto Firmino. The Liverpool forward had a full head of curly hair and the beginnings of a Freddie Mercury moustache to match, with fans comparing him to a young Ross Geller ( especially during that episode where he bleached his teeth, let’s be fair). And can you blame him for imitating anyone else but the Friends character during lockdown? After all, football was on a break.
The greater good award
Football began plotting its return in April, and it soon became clear that Leagues One and Two were likely not going to have the financial muscle of the Premier League and Championship to finish their seasons on the pitch. And so the bickering commenced.
Points per game emerged as the fairest way to conclude the campaign, but this largely divided clubs into those who agreed (who benefitted) and those who disagreed (who didn’t).
However, one club were able to put their self-interest to one side “for the greater good”, with Port Vale chair Carol Shanahan voting to end the season, despite her side sitting just a point outside the play-offs.
Best supporter replacements
Football slowly started to return in May, but the game had to adapt to life behind closed doors. Cardboard cutouts sprung up in stadiums to compensate for the lack of supporters – Osama Bin Laden had a front row seat at Elland Road in June, and in the very same month, Roy Keane popped up at the City Ground holding a Mr Whippy.
However, the introduction of cardboard cutout supporters were all with the benefit of hindsight, once it was discovered what happened when K League outfit FC Seoul attempted to fill their stadium with mannequins. They were sex dolls.
To their credit, each doll was wearing a face mask and adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Best negotiating tactic
League One followed League Two and agreed to curtail their season in June, a decision that was hard to take for a cluster of clubs on the outskirts of the play-offs.
Ipswich Town thought they belonged in this category – despite sitting seven points off the top six and having played more games than their rivals. The Tractor Boys had been hot favourites for promotion ahead the 2019/20 campaign, but after enjoying a flying start, they suffered a severe downturn in fortunes.
Determined to somehow save their season, Ipswich pitched the idea of concluding the campaign with promotion play-offs that absolutely anyone could take part in, regardless of league standing. It was a wonderful display of bold, brazen, completely undisguised self–interest, very much like AFC Bournemouth offering to settle the season standings via alphabetical order.
Domestic leagues gradually returned across the globe, but with the lack of pre-season and the intense fixture schedule, soft tissue injuries were a common occurrence. However, this was not what was keeping Oldham Athletic’s David Wheater out of action.
It was November and the defender was still yet to feature for the Latics – much to the bemusement of fans, given the former Bolton man was also the club captain.
You know when you didn’t fancy doing PE at school and you’d come up with the most creative excuse possible in an attempt to fool your teacher and get out of doing netball? Oldham’s explanation for Wheater’s lack of participation in the club’s League Two campaign was of similar ilk.
The club released a statement to explain his prolonged absence, revealing that he was unavailable due to suffering a back injury “which he stated he had sustained when ‘lifting his dog’”.
Post-match interviews were all change post-lockdown, with microphone stands suddenly replaced with two-metre-long broomsticks. But no amount of social distancing can stop Wolves captain Conor Coady’s personality radiating through your television screen.
Grinning from ear to ear, the defender gave an endearing interview after scoring his first England goal against Wales in October, and would go one better the following week after Wolves’ 1-0 win over Leeds.
When speaking to Sky Sports, he was informed that his central defensive partner Max Kilman had won the man of the match award, to which Coady, unable to hide his surprise, quickly responded: “Did he?!”
Most wholesome interview
Scotland were one of the feel-good stories of 2020, as the men’s side booked their place at a major tournament for the first time in 23 years via a dramatic penalty shootout victory over Serbia.
Celtic’s Ryan Christie was three years old the last time his country had appeared at the men’s World Cup and the teary-eyed midfielder summed up just what every supporter was feeling in an emotional full-time interview.
“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through. Just for everything, you know. Ohhhhh. I’m gone.”
Follow Ali on Twitter @AliRampling