James Lawton: The heroes and villains of a sporting year that ends with Capello's star ascendant

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The Independent Football

As always, the Lawton Awards duly acknowledge outstanding contributions to the sports life of the nation and so naturally eschew the gimmicky conclusion that really it was the year of the horse Kauto Star and any number of equine arses dressed up as professional footballers and cricketers.

Such disguises sadly couldn't deflect us from the conclusion that they were pursuing new levels of self- indulgence, self-pity and particularly in the case of Joey Barton, who shortly after passing judgement on the viciously fickle nature of the longest-suffering fans in the land, was again addressing his future in the chilly environs of an early-morning police nick self-destruction.

Ironically, Manchester United's tawdry Christmas party, masterminded by that ultimately inelegant social butterfly Rio Ferdinand, could well provide Sir Alex Ferguson with the whip to lash home the one team who plainly have the all-round strength and brilliant individual ability to scupper the sublime resurrection of Arsne Wenger's young Arsenal.

This drama, we have to hope, will fulfil all its potential in the new few months. Meanwhile, we should maybe swiftly record the most significant moment of English sport in 2007. It was when Brian Barwick, chief executive of the Football Association and an object of mockery for his floundering attempts to replace Sven Goran Eriksson after another debacle in a major tournament in 2006, accepted finally that England's fate as a significant football nation had passed irretrievably beyond its own control.

This brings us to the hopefully temporary major award in this year's list. It is for courage and nerve and self-confidence for so long absent in the affairs of our national game and a fine eye for a huge opportunity for both extended wealth and self-aggrandisement. The bauble goes, without a scintilla of significant opposition, to Italy's iron professor of football, Fabio Capello.

Capello is the sports figure of the year because of his wonderfully invigorating opposition to the idea that coaching England's national team represents a degree of difficulty so extreme that the job might just be impossible. Capello is saying, with considerable dignity and strength, something entirely different. He is saying that his job is to not to winkle out unsuspected talent, and produce a set of masterful tactics welcome though such contributions would be but rather to impose new levels of rigour on all those who are selected for the national team.

The Italian is not guaranteed to succeed but we can at least be sure that any future failures will not be accompanied by the celebrity prattle of such as David Beckham, Frank Lampard and Michael Owen, who at various times in a relentless story of failure have resolutely disputed any hint of personal failure, Owen most egregiously suggesting that in terms of talent not one of the Croatian players who proved themselves so superior at Wembley, when the world's richest, and oldest, football nation failed to qualify for the European Championship finals, could have claimed a place in the England team.

Most uplifting is the fact that England, admittedly at staggering financial cost, have acquired more than a new team manager. They have, for the first time in decades, been given a competitive conscience.

Here, now, some of the more traditional awards...

Judgement of the year

A no-brainer decision for the public's refusal to be swayed by the vast amount of hype generated by Lewis Hamilton's spectacular arrival in Formula One and its insistence that Joe Calzaghe, a veteran world champion, was without serious challenge for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year prize. Being first, for a decade, was rated higher than being second for a year, however rich the promise displayed. This was a matter of considerable relief.

Ingrate of the year

Hands-down triumph for Jose Mourinho, who saw the invitation to discuss the challenge of coaching England not as any kind of honour bestowed by a country which had displayed a remarkable tolerance for even his most distasteful foibles of personal vanity and indifference to the truth, but another opportunity to run out an endless string of self-advertisements.

Runner-up: Lawrence Dallaglio, whose gratitude to England's rugby coach, Brian Ashton, for his willingness to extend a time-expired international career was to plunge in the dagger. Fortunately, the assassination attempt failed in all areas except the sales of an otherwise impressive autobiography.

Cynicism of the year

(All-time award) Formula One's parody of Solomonesqe wisdom ... a record fine for McLaren for an appalling case of industrial sabotage against Ferrari, but not a single point docked from their drivers, Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. A higher judgement was passed, you had to suspect, when Ferrari's dour Finn Kimi Raikkonen won the prize in the last act in Brazil but for Hamilton's new legion of fans there was no shortage of comfort. The future still belonged to him and if you doubted it, Sir Jackie Stewart or Sir Stirling Moss would pop up, as if by magic, to tell us so.

Deal of the year

And quite possibly the Millennium, David Beckham's move to LA Galaxy had everything, oodles of easy money, premature retirement from serious football but at no cost to his place in the England team (which, we were reminded brutally was not quite the same thing) or Michael Parkinson's final talk show line-up. Will Capello sustain the fantasy? Not if he caught Ricky Gervais' coruscatingly brilliant denouncement of celebrity culture in Extras, which, perhaps unavoidably, included a rapier thrust at the Beckham publicity machine.

Gesture of the year

It was more subtle than Ashley Cole's two-finger riposte to his tormentors at the Emirates stadium, but Martin O'Neill delivered a salutary lesson to the FA recruiters on their way to the appointment of Capello. O'Neill's refusal to submit himself again to the possibility of the humiliation that befell him when he offered himself last year, underlined to the FA that there are two kinds of football men : those with serious purpose, and a degree of self-respect, and the merchants of chance and speculation. It was a valuable lesson to take into negotiations with Capello, one of the most successful coaches of all time.

Masochist of the year

Sol Campbell in his plea for legislation against the verbal abuse of the terraces. Poor Sol couldn't see that the abusers were not being warned but galvanised.

Footballer of the year

Cristiano Ronaldo. He is still profligate, still unmindful of the law of the great players that you surrender the ball about as willingly as you do your life, but those of us inclined to doubt him after his abject failures in those huge games in the Champions League semi-final second leg in Milan and in the FA Cup final at Wembley are now obliged to defer to an extraordinary, explosive facility.

Footballer of next year

It is the promise of Cesc Fabregas, one which in the next few weeks may largely be shaped or blown away. Already, Fabregas has created a wonderful source of light in this Premier League season. At the age of 20, he has displayed a creative, game-shaping ability that has become unique in the prolonged absence of Paul Scholes. We know of Fabregas' talent, but how lasting will be his influence, his competitive character and his sheer durability? For a little while at least, these are the most fascinating questions in English football.

Most exciting import

Liverpool's Fernando Torres. He can change everything in one sinuous move, and the more work he gets the more he thrives. Rotating Torres, even Rafa Benitez is close to admitting, is not so much unwise as negligent.

Most satisfying performance

Roger Federer's fifth straight Wimbledon title win under the gaze of Bjorn Borg. Rafael Nadal was a mighty, obdurate young opponent who stretched the Swiss master to his very limits. But Federer brought everything you need in great sport: grace, supreme talent, determination and an implicit understanding that along with all your blessings there is the obligation to give the best of yourself.

Comeback of the year

Justin Rose's journey to the No 1 spot in European golf and consistently impressive performance in the majors provided the perfect lesson for a whole generation of young British sportsmen and women. He survived early celebrity, extravagant applause, and a mind-numbing run of failures to beat the cut in his first year as a professional. His ambition has endured to the point where he can contemplate the highest success.

Challenge of the new year

It rests with the erstwhile hero Andrew Flintoff, who perhaps more wilfully than no other sports star in these islands since George Best began to drink away his gifts, has squandered a vast pool of both admiration and popularity. Two years ago he was rightly celebrated for his talent, his performance, and in the unforgettable moment of England's second Test Ashes win over Australia, his grace. The nation would like that Flintoff back. So, hopefully, would he.