By David de Winter – Sports Editor
@davidjdewinter [email protected]_Sport
Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to the most prestigious awards ceremony in football journalism. Well….not quite, especially given that our budget couldn’t even stretch to some soggy sandwiches, a packet of Monster Munch and a bottle of Lambrini. However, due to (un)popular demand, we’ve cobbled together some prizes that will doubtless hang proudly in the recipients’ trophy cabinets for years to come.
Player of the Year: Riyad Mahrez
Who else? Mahrez’s teammate Jamie Vardy might have grabbed the headlines by breaking Ruud Van Nistlerooy’s scoring record in the autumn, but the Algerian was the architect of Leicester’s success, scoring 17 goals and providing 11 assists, many of them for Vardy. Mahrez has the whole package: skill, fleet of foot, control, vision, crossing – you name it, he’s got it. And he has often made even the most seasoned Premier League defender look like a Sunday morning jumpers-for-goalposts amateur. All that for £400,000.
Manager of the Year: Claudio Ranieri
When it was announced that the Tinkerman was returning to the Premier League, I had a little chuckle to myself and then swiftly tipped Leicester for relegation. The slightly mad Italian has been a revelation, overseeing probably one of the greatest stories in the history of team sport. Even when Leicester’s title challenge went from far-fetched dream to plausible to probable, Ranieri managed to keep his players focussed whilst the more experienced, so-called ‘bigger teams’ were losing their heads. He constantly (and wisely) played down his team’s chances at every opportunity and in doing so, shielded his players from unnecessary spotlight.
Perhaps not enough has been made of Ranieri’s tactical acumen that has transformed a team that almost got relegated to a team that, in the end, won the league at a canter. He realised Leicester’s limitations and identified its strengths (Vardy’s pace, Mahrez’s creativity) whilst extoling the virtues of hard work and pressing, ultimately fostering an unbreakable team-spirit. Bravo Claudio.
Goal of the season: Jamie Vardy v Liverpool
Everyone loves a volley, don’t they? A hopeful punt upfield from the Leicester defence is met by a dipping effort from Vardy over Simon Mignolet in the Liverpool goal sending the Foxes faithful into raptures. It’s the sort of effort that usually ends up in row Z but fair play to Vardy for attempting it. A fitting winner. Honourable mentions to Dele Alli’s outrageous piece of skill and volley against Crystal Palace and to Xherdan Shaqiri’s audacious chip against Everton.
Tosser of the Year: Jose Mourinho
Always a hotly contested category, bookies favourite Jose Mourinho seemed to have the award sewn up after the first game of the season by publicly criticising team doctor Eva Caneiro and her medical team for doing their job. He then further enhanced his prospects by continuously refusing to accept his Chelsea team were dreadful, despite all evidence to the contrary and being generally classless at all times. What a shame it was when Roman Abramovich gave him the sack. Aston Villa captain Gabriel Agbonlahor ran the Portuguese close after being caught smoking, taking ‘hippy crack’ in a nightclub hours after another Villa defeat and for genuinely seemingly totally indifferent towards the Villans’ relegation plight. But for me, Mourinho wins it by a nose.
Best Match: Everton 3-4 Stoke City
A great advert for the Premier League. Best league in the world. Yeah, yeah we’ve heard it all before and it’s not true, but this match was compelling end-to-end stuff, fitting entertainment for the Christmas holidays. Xherdan Shaqiri put the visitors ahead with a close range finish following an intricate move before Romelu Lukaku equalised from inside the box. Shaqiri then restored Stoke’s lead with a sublime half-volley chip over Tim Howard. Lukaku levelled again after the break before Gerard Deulofeu put the Toffees into the lead. Joselu equalised again and Marko Arnautovic made sure it was a Christmas to forget on Merseyside by converting a last minute penalty. Epic stuff.
Best Signing: N’Golo Kanté
Who? I’d never heard of the diminutive Frenchman signed from Caen when the season started. Fast forward nine months and he’s the new Claude Makalele, wanted by all and sundry. Kanté was the workhorse of the Leicester team, harassing, intercepting, breaking up play so the creative forces of Marc Albrighton, Mahrez and Vardy could wreak havoc. And he only cost £5.6 million. Bargain. Honorary mentions to James Milner (free) and Jordan Ayew (also free).
Worst Signing: Oumar Niasse
Always a category teeming with potential, it’s tempting to give the award to Christian Benteke who cost Liverpool £32.5 million, scored 10 goals and who would generally struggle to hit a cow’s backside with a banjo, let alone the target. But my award goes to Oumar Niasse who joined Everton in January for £13.5 million, scored precisely zero goals in seven appearances and promptly got himself arrested for assault before the last game of the season. An honourable mention goes also to Clinton N’Jie of Tottenham Hotspur who scored zero goals in his 12 appearances before getting injured in December. A snip at £8.5 million.
Save of the Season: Kasper Schmeichel v West Ham United
Schmeichel has had an excellent season and this save turned out to be crucial to Leicester’s eventual title win. The score was 0-0 at the time as Foxes stopper flew full length to tip a header from a Kouyate onto both posts. The game ended 2-2 with a last minute Leonardo Ulloa penalty but had the header gone in, the Hammers may have won the game and Premier League title could have been heading to a different destination.
Own-Goal of the Season: Damien Delaney v Manchester United
Oh yes, the award everyone has been waiting for, and my personal favourite. Normally Kolo Touré wipes the floor with this one but, strangely, he’s managed not to smash a screamer past his own goalkeeper this season. Damien Delaney is this year’s lucky recipient. A daisy-cutter of a cross from the Manchester United left is seemingly posing no danger to the Crystal Palace defence. However, Delaney sees his opportunity for glory, sticks out a right foot and BANG, buries the ball past Julian Speroni. Brilliant.