LIAM MACKEY: 2016’s last question: Does Dylan trump two Robbies?

From terrorism to Trump, the year just ending gave us many reasons to be fearful.

With the passing of a host of revered artists and entertainers, there was also much cause for sadness. Football was not untouched by the darkness, from the death of the great Johan Cruyff to the horror and tragedy of the Chapecoense air disaster.

Events such as these, we are often told, put “mere” sport into proper perspective. While understanding the logic of that, there’s an argument that actually the opposite is the case: That the worst of times serve only to reinforce the value of a human endeavour which at its best — and for all the cynicism of the age — retains a bountiful capacity to inspire, thrill, surprise and delight. (And that was just Leicester City).

In that spirit, then, herewith a random selection of football highs which brought a welcome smile to my face in 2016.

He only had one thing on his mind…

Commentary and analysis is pock-marked with deadening cliché but I have a particular aversion to the ubiquitous ‘he only had one thing on his mind’ since, though intended as high praise, it somehow seems to imply that we should make allowances for a striker with a clear sight of goal being distracted by thoughts of how he might spend his win bonus or some such.

Still, every cliché has its day, or even its night, and such was the case when Robbie Benson brilliantly illuminated Dundalk’s Champions League play-off game away to Legia Warsaw with a contender for volley of the year.

What made it extra special was the heightened sense of anticipation. As David McMillan’s high, looping header from the left dropped out of the sky and Benson began his acceleration into the box, it was already clear that he had no intention of unnecessarily complicating the situation.

Eyes firmly on the ball, stride unbroken, right foot commencing its backswing — Benson, for sure, only had one thing on his mind. The result was a perfect contact, a screamer into the top corner and a proper ‘wow’ moment to grace Dundalk’s season of remarkable achievement.

A tale of two Robbies…

This time two years ago, Robbie Brady made it into our quotes of the year collection for his post-match quip to David Forde about the uncontrolled celebrations on the Irish bench at John O’Shea’s late, late equaliser against Germany in Gelsenkirchen: “I was that far out on the pitch, the FAI should give me a cap.”

Brady was still a member of the supporting cast in 2014 but he ends 2016 as one of Ireland’s main men after his breakthrough performances at the Euros in France.

It’s been said, not incorrectly, that in keeping with football’s Year Of The Underdog, it was a tournament which produced more great moments than great games. And with his own late, late goal against Italy, Brady certainly claimed a place in the summer’s highlights reel as well as inspiring an even wilder eruption of joy on the Irish bench, in the stands and all around the country.

In a rather less high-stakes game, Brady was at it again in August, setting Ireland on their way to an easy win against Oman with a splendid free-kick at the Aviva. But that other Robbie wasn’t quite done yet, the great Keano taking his all-time international tally to 68 in his final game for his country with a goal of trademark predatory cuteness and class. And with Martin O’Neill’s team sitting atop their World Cup qualifying group as we head into 2017, it’s fair to say that one of Ireland’s greatest ever footballers has left behind a national team that’s in pretty good shape.

Brazil’s redemption song…

For all the wrong reasons, the most astonishing game of football I’ve ever witnessed in the flesh was the 2014 World Cup semi-final in Belo Horizonte when hosts Brazil were demolished 7-1 by Germany, a shocking result in any circumstances, but most especially as experienced first-hand by someone fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition in making a pilgrimage to the home of the beautiful game.

Last month, in their qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup, the selecao returned for the first time to the scene of the crime to play Argentina in the South American superclasico. The result, proclaimed sports daily Lance! with redemptive hyperbole, was another “massacre”, but this time in favour of the home side, as Brazil turned on the exhibition stuff to beat their arch rivals 3-0.

The man earning all the plaudits is new manager Tite who took over from Dunga a third of the way through qualifying when Brazil were languishing in sixth place in the 10-team group. Now, at the end of 2016, they are clear at the top after six wins on the trot — something they last achieved in World Cup qualifying en route to Mexico in 1970. Indeed, the remarkable transformation in the team’s fortunes has even prompted former Argentina boss Cesar Menotti to observe: “Without forgetting the difference in quality of the players, they look like the Brazil of 1970.”

Fittingly then, the victory over Messi and company was also Brazil’s first game following the death of Carlos Alberto, the captain of the greatest ever World Cup-winning side and the man who delivered the coup de grace at the end of a superlative team move in Brazil’s celebrated 4-1 win over Italy in the final in the Azteca Stadium 46 years ago. And to mark the great man’s passing, Tite had made right-back Dani Alves captain for the night. History repeating itself? Even though they’re already on the brink of qualifying for Russia 2018, we shouldn’t get too carried away. Enough, for now, to say that football lovers everywhere should rejoice in the thought that watching Brazil is once again just like watching Brazil.

A question from Mystic Mug…

“Should Roy Hodgson drop Joe Hart for the quarter-finals?” — ITV’s Mark Pougatch at half-time, England v Iceland, Euro 2016. At the end of a topsy-turvy 12 months during which, if we learned only one thing, it was that everything we know is wrong, this was the quote of the year.

And, finally, the Bob Dylan connection…

We simply can’t let the year pass without acknowledging Himself taking home the Nobel – or at least sending Patti Smith to Stockholm to take it home for him, with her attack of nerves somehow making her performance of ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ all the more moving. But what connection has Bob got with footy, I hear you ask.

Er… How about this? Many moons ago, I played for Hot Press in a media tournament in Dublin in which the Irish Times also had a team taking part. As the first of their games was nearing kick-off, someone asked where they were. Pointing to the dressing room, I’m afraid I was heard to cough slightly and reply: “Oh, the Times they are a-changin’.”

Say no more, 2016, I’ll get my coat.


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