According to the Chinese calendar, 2016 was the Year of the Monkey. I beg to differ, 2016 was the Year of the Underdog. Well, in the world of football anyway. In the last 12 months, the beautiful game has provided us with moments that we didn’t even know were possible, when in fact we have learnt that anything is possible.
The Premier League
There’s only one place to start and that’s at Leicester City. It will always be impossible to sum up their miraculous achievement in just words, but I’ll try. And ‘miraculous’ is probably the best way I would describe it. It was a miracle, and not because they didn’t deserve it. With a superb team spirit, players and a manager with a point to prove and the incredible support of fans who couldn’t believe what they were witnessing, the Foxes deservingly won the 2015-16 title, finishing 10 points ahead of second placed Arsenal.
But it was a miracle because of the odds of it happening – the 5000/1 figure will be forever engraved into the club’s history. Two years ago, Leicester sat rock bottom of the Premier League, only surviving relegation in 2014-15 after a late surge of wins. But Nigel Pearson was sacked in the summer of 2015 and Claudio Ranieri brought in, a man who had been sacked from his previous job in charge of Greece after losing to minnows the Faroe Islands. Many questioned the appointment and the club’s survival chances, including local hero Gary Linekar who ended up presenting the first Match of the Day of this season in just his underpants because of the club’s title victory. It is undoubtedly the greatest underdog story in the history of football, let alone English football.
Euro 2016 also gave us some incredible underdog stories. For the first time, 24 teams took part in the tournament which some claimed made matches boring, but the expanded format allowed the likes of Iceland, Wales and Portugal to take centre stage against the odds. The Scandinavian nation, competing in their first ever major international tournament, went through the group stages unbeaten before pulling off the biggest shock of the tournament as they defeated England 2-1 in the Round of 16. Whilst their players provided us with a superb story, their fans provided us with another one of the moments of the summer, with the viking clap that has since been replicated across the globe.
Wales, spearheaded by Gareth Bale, also surpassed expectations as they topped Group B ahead of England and beat Belgium in the quarter-finals to reach the semi-finals in their first major international tournament since 1958. Bale might have been the star, but Aaron Ramsey showed his quality too in the number 10 role, skipper Ashley Williams was rock solid in defence and even popped up with a goal against Belgium. As did Hal Robson-Kanu, a free agent at the time, whose Cruyff turn and goal that bamboozled the Belgian defenders was voted Goal of the Tournament and nominated for Goal of the Year. The victory prompted Robbie Savage in commentary box to ecstatically scream “Go and wake your kids up! Something special is happening here tonight!”, in my favourite commentary line of 2016. Special mentions must go to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland too, both of whom made the round of 16 in France.
It was Portugal who lifted the trophy at the Stade de France, but had it not been for the new format they wouldn’t have even made it past the group stages. They drew all three of their Group F games to finish third, but qualified as one of the best third place teams. Even in the final, the odds were stacked against Fernando Santos’ side. Coming up against hosts France, who had defeated World Champions Germany in the semi-final and achieved the biggest win of the tournament in the quarter-finals as they defeated Iceland 5-2, Portugal were well and truly up against it. Their task then was made seemingly impossible as Cristiano Ronaldo was forced off through injury just 25 minutes into the game. But Leicester City two months previously had taught us that nothing was impossible. The French dominated but couldn’t find a goal, as the game went to extra-time. In the 109th minute, substitute Eder found what proved to be the winning goal as his effort from 25 yards out found its way past Hugo Lloris. The forward himself was somewhat of an underdog, having struggled for playing time at Swansea and Lille the previous season and featured for just 13 minutes at the tournament previously.
As a Reading fan, the first half of 2016 wasn’t much fun, FA Cup run aside. Bringing back 2012 promotion winning manager Brian McDermott to replace Steve Clarke ultimately proved to be the wrong choice as we finished 17th in the Championship. But it seemed as though he did have a plan for the club going forward, before he was surprisingly sacked just six months after being appointed. That was undoubtedly the lowest moment of the year. It wasn’t clear who was actually calling the shots at the Madejski Stadium and we were in danger of becoming a club who changed their manager quicker than you can say underdog.
Jaap Stam arrived as Brian’s replacement, and although a big name, his managerial experience was certainly questionable having never been a head coach before. But here we are, six months later and sitting third in the Championship table after performing way, way better than expected. For the first time in a long time, it really feels that the club is going somewhere and who knows, maybe come May we’ll be promoted to the Premier League?!
At the start of the year, I found out my third cousin was a professional footballer, William Troost-Ekong, who played for the Nigerian national team and was on loan at Norwegian side FK Haugesund. We have been in regular contact ever since, and it was thoroughly enjoyable watching his progress at the Olympics as he collected a bronze medal with Nigeria. William is now back at Belgian side Gent, who have drawn Tottenham Hotspur in the knockout stages of the Europa League, so I hope to be heading to Wembley in February to watch the second leg.
Going to Paris for the Euro 2016 final was an incredible experience. The atmosphere was the best I have ever experienced, helped in no small part by the fact that France were in the final. After seeing the fan park on TV for the past four weeks, I had high expectations and it didn’t disappoint. To be surrounded by so many fans all with a passion for the game and everyone sharing the same moments of joy and despair throughout the game was something that I will never forget. Even after France had lost, walking through the city back to our hostel with car horns beeping and jubilant Portuguese fans everywhere was truly magical.
I’ve just realised that I’ve gone over 1000 words in this post so I really ought to stop. I’ll end by saying a massive thank you to everyone who has read, shared or liked any or all of my blog posts this year. The support has been great and it’s enabled to me to now get paid to write for It’s Gone Viral. My re-brand in August has seen a decrease in posts as you’ve probably noticed but I like to think I’m now producing better quality articles that are more enjoyable, unique and interesting to read rather than bog-standard articles that you could find anywhere else.
2017 promises to be another brilliant year in the world of football and for me personally. I take my A-Levels in June and then if all goes to plan will be enrolling at Cardiff University to study English & Journalism. I will continue to write on here, The Tilehurst End and It’s Gone Viral, and who knows where else and what other opportunities will arise!
Happy New Year everyone and may 2o17 bring you joy and happiness!