Year of punch-ups and prodigies, brave hearts and fashion failures

As Liverpool claim Europe's greatest prize, Sam Wallace looks back on the highs and lows of a remarkable campaign
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The Independent Online

Player of the season

Player of the season

Cramp in his right leg, cramp in his left leg. Then cramp in both his legs. Medical science dictated that Jamie Carragher should not have been able to run after 120 minutes and nine penalty kicks at the Ataturk stadium on Wednesday night but he was still the first player to reach Jerzy Dudek in the team sprint from the half-way line after the decisive save.

No one deserved his part in Liverpool's night of nights more than Carragher. The "Rock of Bootle" is the kind of English footballer we thought they no longer made: unpretentious, unflinching and unstoppable and this season he has kept Liverpool's heart beating in their darkest moments.

Manager of the season

He does not know as much as some celebrated coaches do about the right isotonic drinks or ProZone tactical charts or the best way to beat Villareal but Johnson Hippolyte achieved something remarkable at Loftus Road on 9 January. His Ryman Premier League side Yeading held Newcastle United for 51 minutes in the third round of the FA Cup and they did so without resorting to kicking their famous opponents or humiliating themselves with too many tabloid newspaper endorsements.

An FA Cup third-round place and the Ryman championship is impressive stuff but it doesn't quite measure up to a comeback from three goals down to defeat Milan in the European Cup final. Just ahead of Jose Mourinho, the season's best manager has to be Rafael Benitez whose occasionally unnerving lack of temper and undisguised lack of interest in the FA Cup all made glorious sense in the end.

Goal of the season

The fourth official was actually entering Wayne Rooney's No 8 into the dot matrix board in preparation for his substitution after 57 minutes in the match against Newcastle at Old Trafford on 25 April. On the field, Rooney's argument with the referee Neale Barry was one of the reasons that he found himself just behind the line of play when Peter Ramage's clearance dropped. And, from that point, the greatest talent in English football took over to strike the best half-volley the Stretford End had seen in years.

Best signing...

No one ever thought Peter Kenyon had much of an eye for a player but then when you've got the resources of Manchester United's international scouting department at your disposal the temptation is to think: who cares? His signing of Arjen Robben in January 2004 for Chelsea seemed at the time just a touch spiteful towards his old club United, but this season it has been crucial to Stamford Bridge's first Premiership title.

...The worst...

Knowing what we do now about Rafael Benitez we can only assume that he was forced into the transfer by Real Madrid's Machiavellian negotiators - otherwise how do you possibly explain the arrival of Antonio Nunez at Anfield as part of the deal for Michael Owen? We wait to be persuaded otherwise but so far this amicable right-winger seems to have carved out a career at two of the greatest clubs in the world without pace, strength and little or no discernible touch.

...And the one that defied the odds

Who would have thought that the last transfer in the management career of Kevin Keegan should turn out so well? This is the man who, although he signed Andy Cole and Alan Shearer, also paid money for Christian Negouai and Matias Vuoso. But Kiki Musampa, the Atletico Madrid midfielder who arrived on loan to Manchester City in January, has helped Stuart Pearce's team to an eighth place finish.

For services to peace in the Premiership

No Football Association guideline or moral imperative required Gareth Barry to risk the sanctity of his own health and well-being at St James' Park on 2 April by intervening in the punch-up between Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer. After all, they weren't even his own team-mates.

But still the big Aston Villa midfielder chose to step in where few men would dare to tread. He wrapped a firm arm around Bowyer's neck and dragged that snarling red-faced wretch out of the fray. Then he turned, stopped and placed two soothing hands on the aggressor's shoulders while maintaining eye contact at all times. Textbook anger management.

For sheer cheek...

Jose Mourinho will be feeling a little left out after Liverpool's conquering of Milan this week but we shouldn't forget his finest off-the-pitch moment in Barcelona when he had the nerve to predict both line-ups ahead of the Champions' League game at the Nou Camp. A moment of great theatrical quality marred only by a locked side door that stopped Mourinho from sweeping out of the room.

Best chant of the season

Chelsea's triumphant visit to Old Trafford this month prompted a clever reworking of an old favourite when they sang to the home fans "We were here when you were good". Nothing quite tops the Manchester City fans at Stamford Bridge however, who responded to the first sighting of Jose Mourinho's favourite item of clothing with the song: "That coat's from Matalan".

For keeping up appearances

On that same subject, there is rather more evidence to suggest that Crystal Palace's Gabor Kiraly found his grey jogging pants in a cut-price clothes emporium and he is not the only one whose refused to change his ways. Sir Alex Ferguson will not give up that big silver puffa jacket he watches training in and Joe Cole has never been persuaded that an old school Chelsea sweatband on his wrist is surplus to requirements.

But for innovation the two aliens stencilled on to Djibril Cissé's head are just edged out by Ryan Giggs's tights, which first appeared against Manchester City in February and are a brave statement in a game that normally adopts a fairly traditional view on those kind of things.

One for the future

Relegated Southampton do not have complete cause for despair because in 16-year-old Theo Walcott they have what some old sages in the game have described as the "South Coast's Thierry Henry". He is not, like many schoolboy prodigies, a giant who looks twice his age but he is a very skilful player and he has already been linked to Chelsea on the back page of The Sun. Not bad for someone who is still at school.

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