After the fairytale of Leicester City’s unexpected success last year, this season marked a brutal back to business return for the Billionaire Boys from The Bridge, writes Nick Callow.
Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea reclaimed the title to make it five championships under the Russian owner.
It also came with the crowning of a new King in manager Antonio Conte – the fourth different Italian coach to win the Premier League in seven years. One of them, Leicester’s Claudio Ranieri was shamefully banished from the scene when he was ruthlessly sacked in February. More of Conte’s remarkable success later, for remarkable it was when up against the much-heralded arrival of Manchester managerial double act Pep and Jose.
And while money can buy you points, players and trophies, it can not get you a place in The Irish Examiner’s end of Season Awards. Read on to find out who will has won our coveted gongs at the end of the 2016-17 season...
Player of the season
The humble midfielder lost out on the seasonal gongs to Leicester team-mates Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy last year, but those decisions now make the players and journalists look a bit foolish as this guy was the heartbeat of all things good in Ranieri’s team.
And he proved to be the key to Chelsea’s success this season too, breaking up opponents’ attacks with an uncanny ability to read the game, perfect timing in the tackle, endless energy and sound passing. Fellow French countryman Eric Cantona is the only other outfield player to win back-to-back top flight titles with different clubs.
Manager of the season
Please excuse the lazy stereotype, but Antonio Conte had the air of an angry Italian mafia hitman when he sat in his trademark dark suit and tie with crisp white shirt and chastised his players after their 3-0 thrashing at Arsenal last September. “We are only good on paper and that has to change,” he said, sounding like he might also be about to be bumped off by Roman Abramovich.
But how he proved everyone wrong by drilling his squad into a new formation and different way of playing that reaped English football’s ultimate prize. By the time Arsenal played Chelsea again, at Stamford Bridge in early February, the title race was as good as over, Conte’s men won easily and the ground throbbed to rolling chants of ‘Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.’ A master tactician and great man manager.
Goal of the season
There are team goals, free-kicks, long range power drives, overhead volleys and then there is the SCORPION. A rare sight in any form of football since Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita retired.
But now we had two of them to feast our eyes on and both in one winter week. First was Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s sublime effort for Man United against Sunderland, seemingly closing the book on this category for good. But Giroud, oh Giroud! The Frenchman’s effort to secure a win over Crystal Palace was even more spectacular.
That he lost the January Goal of the Month to an Andy Carroll scissor kick for West Ham was surprising and clearly upset the beautifully bearded one. “I don’t want to big myself up, but goals like mine leave a mark on history because they’re rare,” Giroud told French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.
Match of the season
Jurgen Klopp’sside were heading for a 12-game unbeaten start to the season and title contention when they led 2-0 at half-time and then by 3-1 with just 14 minutes to go at Dean Court. Sure, Chelsea coming back from a goal to defeat Tottenham 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, also in December, was possibly the defining win in their march to winning the championship, but for sheer thrills and spills look no further than Bournemouth.
Eddie Howe’s likeable south coast side somehow (pun intended) summoned the spirit and belief to score three late goals and beat Liverpool for the first time in their history.
Two in as many minutes levelled the match with 90 minutes up only for Chelsea loan star Nathan Ake to make the most of a Loris Karius howler three minutes into time added on to seal the deal.
Flop of the season
Closely rivalled by the highest paid managers, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, for their poor grasp of the Premier League compared to new kid on the block Antonio Conte, this award has to go to the most expensive player in the history of football.
Aside from the belief £100million is a grotesque amount to pay for a footballer, it is fair to expect that player to be at least half decent pretty much every time he plays. That can not be said of Paul Pogba. For that money you have to be rivalling Messi and Ronaldo.
Referee of the season
In a season when we bade farewell to the inexplicably over-rated king of the sunbeds Mark Clattenburg, a more anonymous figure in black emerged from the shadows – one Michael Oliver. As a former official told me only this week he is almost unique in Premier League football in that he not only applies the rules well, “he also knows them!”
Cool, assured and rarely ruffled under pressure that is why he is the only official to take charge of over 30 Premier League games this season. And the worst ref? Form an orderly queue, gentlemen.
Pie of the season
When is a pie not a pie? When it is a sausage roll, of course.
While it is tempting to nominate the half-time pies served up in the press room at Arsenal, the pastry guard of honour should only be formed for something really special and Leicester’s sausage roll with Red Leicester cheese is unique.
Complete with a pastry club crest, it truly is a culinary delight. And no-one ever said pies, or sausage rolls in this case, were health food!
Fans of the season
They were going down for much of the season, but Sunderland supporters always turned out in their numbers to support the team. As if to rub it in, the television schedulers selected their away match at Arsenal for live coverage last Tuesday night.
Sunderland to north London is not an easy journey at the best of times, but when your miserable team has already been relegated, with no chance of catching the last train home? The away section was pretty packed and they out-sang the home fans from start to finish – not that keeping Arsenal fans quiet is saying much.
Moan of the season
For those living outside North London, WOB stands for the Wenger Out Brigade – as opposed to WKB (Wenger Knows Best) and boy have they been moaning.
And when they were not moaning, they were wasting time and money for planes to fly over grounds with ‘Wenger In’ and ‘Wenger Out’ banners, depending on which way the wind was blowing. And the marches! One didn’t start because fewer than ten people showed up and those that did featured a grown man with a placard declaring WEXIT.
Pitiful and an embarrassment to a once proud set of supporters. Most people in football agree he is not the cutting edge coach he was when he looked down on the rest of English football two decades ago, but show the man some respect for revolutionising Arsenal and the Premier League.
If you really want change, be more decisive and show some conviction in your protests – or aim them at the people who should be making those decisions – the people who own and run the club. Or was that Arsene Wenger all along? Now even I’m moaning!! A sorry saga every which way.
Over-achiever of the season
The manager with the gruffest voice and one of the sharpest senses of humour in football kept faith with Burnley to lead them straight back into the Premier League. Most pundits thought they’d go straight back down again.
But he assembled another hard-working team of wannabes and misfits and turned them into a unit that was difficult to beat and had one of the best home records in the country. Tony Pulis also did well to get West Brom into the top half after they were for so long seen as a relegation certainty in recent seasons. And Ronald Koeman has impressed in his first season at Everton, to the extent he is increasingly being linked with his former club, Barcelona.
The uncharismatic Claude Puel might not be around long, but he has steadied Southampton at a time when they might have folded. And an honourable mention also goes to Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham for coming second in the league and finally finishing above arch rivals Arsenal for the first time in 22 years.
Under-achievers of the season
Pep Guardiola was on Manchester City’s managerial wish-list for so many years that we all bought into the dream that he would turn them into the best team in the country again. And when the Qatari owners backed him with another bottomless transfer fund we wondered what could possibly go wrong.
Have you seen their defence? Nor have the City fans! Claudio Bravo the best keeper in the world!! What a waste of money. And the season came to an end with even Pep admitting he would have been sacked by now at former clubs Barcelona and Bayern after limping out of the League Cup, Champions League and FA Cup without a trophy in sight.
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