Football: The season belonged to them

Glenn Moore hails the men who made the 1996-97 campaign a football year to remember

David Beckham

A pre-season ritual to match this post-season one is the selection of the 'Players to watch'. Most of those disappear into obscurity (such as Ned Zelic last season) so it is a rare delight to choose both in August and May.

From the opening day, when he scored from 50 yards against Wimbledon, to the last fortnight, when he raised himself from exhaustion to shine against Georgia, this has been Beckham's season. Having begun it with his club place under threat from Karel Poborsky, he ended it an England regular.

Glenn Hoddle's continued championing of the 21-year-old has been the best element of his stewardship. It is clear he sees something of himself in Beckham, not least his long passing ability, which in concept and execution is among the best in the game.

Voted PFA Young Player of the Year by his peers, and runner-up in the senior category, he appears destined for greatness, if he can handle it. So far, apart from a tendency towards dives and a touch of Spice Boy trappings, he looks as if he can.

Note: The other men to watch were Emile Heskey (Leicester) and Andy Gray (Leeds).

Juninho

In August it was felt he still had something to prove. No longer: his quality and spirit have been the key factors in Middlesbrough's post-Christmas improvement. But for him they would have been relegated by the end of March and would never have progressed to two cup finals.

Rain and wind have not slowed him, nor, most of the time, have the attentions of defenders. His balance, vision and eye for goal have been a delight. But he cannot do it alone and the summer will be full of speculation over his future.

Robbie Earle and Oyvind Leonhardsen

The heartbeat of a Wimbledon side that reached for the skies

only to run out of steam. Two

semi-finals and a top 10 place

remain a creditable finish, but Joe

Kinnear and his players deserved

more as a team and as individuals.

Leonhardsen may now get that:

he is destined to leave, either

for Italy or for one of those clubs

whose big reputations are so

frequently spoilt by Wimbledon.

Earle seemed close to an England place in the spring, but Hoddle said

his age counted against him. This seemed odd as he picked Martin Keown, also in his 30s, the same week.

Gianfranco Zola

When he arrived, pounds 4.5m seemed a high price to pay for another ageing foreign mercenary who had fallen out at home. In the event it was a bargain: Chelsea should cover the fee in FA Cup final profits and spin-offs alone.

The Italian has been the only player to match Juninho for brilliance and, like the Brazilian, his attitude has also been impeccable. From the first he strained to talk in English, and he trains and plays hard. Such is his charm he has even been broadly forgiven for scoring against England at Wembley in February.

Credit, too, to Mark Hughes, who has flourished alongside, keeping Gianluca Vialli out of the Chelsea team.

Chesterfield

If it were not for David Elleray's curious refusal to allow John Howard's "goal", they might now be appearing on Top of the Pops and getting measured for their Wembley suits.

Chesterfield in the FA Cup final? It was inconceivable when they kicked off their campaign in November; they had never even passed the fifth round before. Six months later it was a genuine possibility with Bolton, away, and Nottingham Forest among the vanquished.

The 3-3 draw with Middlesbrough will long be remembered, as will their whole Cup run. Like Stockport in the Coca-Cola Cup, Chesterfield's performances gave hope to smaller clubs that, even in these money-driven days, they can have their shot at glory.

Through it all the players and manager, John Duncan, conducted themselves with dignity and humility. An example, in deed and word, to many of their supposed betters.

Steve Claridge

If Chesterfield gave hope to the supporters of ordinary clubs, Claridge provided a ray of hope to their players. The quintessential journeyman, albeit with an individual streak, he blossomed in the Premiership with Leicester after spells with Cambridge and Aldershot.

His crowning moment on the pitch was the winner in the Coca-Cola Cup final replay, his best work off it a revealing confession to gambling addiction. His spirit typified that of a Leicester side moulded into more than the sum of their parts by the passionate, but thoughtful, management of Martin O'Neill.

Steve Gritt

It seemed a forlorn task when he took over as manager of Brighton. Adrift at the bottom with a board apparently willing to let the club drift into oblivion, even the act of taking the job was unpopular with fans.

Yet even on his first full day he inspired confidence. There were no wild promises, just a quiet determination to lift the players, give them security, and build on that. It worked and, somehow, Brighton survived at the expense of Hereford, whose season of promise crumbled at the last.

Brighton still do not have a ground to play at next year, but they have a new board and a sense of belief. Gritt, meanwhile, has proved himself after being harshly rejected by Charlton.

Credit, too, to the supporters for maintaining their backing of the team and their pursuit of changes in the boardroom. Supporters down the coast at Bournemouth can also take a bow for masterminding the salvation of their club.

Stan Ternent

An unassuming manager who quietly steered Bury out of the Second Division. Few fancied the Shakers to be movers again after they were promoted out of the Third Division in third place last season. In another age, before all the big signings were made in

Europe, Ternent would have been mentioned when there were managerial vacancies in the Premiership - and Stockport's David Jones would be a favourite for the Everton job. Now it seems an apprenticeship is worth less than a collection of international caps and the ability to speak foreign languages.

Robbie Fowler

Another 30-goal-plus season, a letter of praise from Uefa for his sportsmanship and a vote of thanks from the Liverpool dockers for highlighting their cause. Given that Fowler has had to do his growing up in public - he is still only 22 - he has done a very good job of it. A championship medal still eludes him, but he has time on his side.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Arguably the value-for-money buy of the season. For pounds 1.5m Alex Ferguson acquired a baby-faced assassin (he hates the nickname) whose goals for Manchester United have been plentiful and often crucial. Learned quickly, especially in Europe. As he is still young (24), and was coming off a full season in Norway when he moved to Old Trafford, there should be more to come.

Alan Shearer

Two operations could not prevent his passing 30 goals for club and country again. England captain, burgeoning millionaire, folk hero in his home town - yet still unfazed by it all.

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