James Lawton: Owen proves true survivor in world of vanity

Here, without fanfare and with as much hope of big-time sponsorship as a romantic evening with David Blunkett, are the inaugural James Lawton Awards.
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The Independent Online

Survivor of the year

Michael Owen. He single-handedly showed up the galactico policy of the Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez, for what it was - an aberration of vanity and football illiteracy, a sagging belief in the power of mere celebrity to shape the destiny of a great football club, rather than the fundamental reasons why Real became a glory of the game in the first place: beautifully honed talent and tremendous competitive character.

The greatest galactico in the history of the Bernabeu was, of course, Alfredo di Stefano, who once fascinated England's World Cup and European Cup winner Nobby Stiles with a public dressing down of the fabulous Ferenc Puskas. The Hungarian's crime? In Di Stefano's opinion he had underperformed in a friendly at Old Trafford.

Owen's achievement was based on that commitment which has been his constant companion since his brilliant emergence at Anfield as a natural goalscorer at the age of 17: a fierce vow to draw out the best of himself.

Owen could easily have disappeared down the sump-hole of discredited ego in Madrid. Instead, he stood and fought and re-established the meaning of his extraordinary career quite brilliantly.

Strongman of the year

How else to describe Jose Mourinho? In the spring he was the conqueror of Europe with modestly financed Porto, a figure of surreal confidence in Gelsenkirchen after the ransacking of Monaco. At the end of the year he is the masterful guardian of Roman Abramovich's war chest at Chelsea. His predecessor Claudio Ranieri charmed the nation with his graceful handling of the brutish treatment he received at Stamford Bridge, but it took Mourinho just a few weeks to unfurl an operating style of a vastly different, and superior, order.

Whatever infirmities Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger might have hoped for as Mourinho settled into his new theatre of war, and his vast resources, have not been visible. Mourinho's ego is unquestionably huge, but then it appears that so is his humour and his ability to understand the psyche of vastly rewarded footballers. It is a myth that great players always look down their noses at coaches who didn't achievement too much on the field. What they look for is strength and knowledge and an ability to transmit their ideas - the prestige bestowed by a fine playing career can disappear in the course of a few matches and a few training sessions. A touch of affection also helps. For the moment at least, Mourinho looks to be unbeatable.

Enigma of the year

Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France winner who best exemplified the confusion of the fan when he is obliged to consider superlative achievements in those sports clouded by the drug issue. Armstrong beat cancer on his way to a record haul of Tour wins, but fans find it difficult not to recall the old quote of the legendary Jacques Anquetil: "What amazes me is that people are surprised that some of the boys are on dope - they should more amazed that some are not."

For so many years the course was toughened beyond the resources of common humanity - and widespread drug use was the worst-kept secret. Armstrong has strongly denied any involvement in drug use, but sadly it seems that now, in so many Olympic sports and the unfolding history of baseball, unconditional celebration of the most magnificent achievement is too often an act of unqualified trust reserved for Pollyanna.

This was only underlined by the course of the Balco scandal, which brought down so many track and field stars, put a giant question mark against the goddess of the Sydney Olympics, Marion Jones, and the great slugger Barry Bonds, and, most significantly, explained that drug testing lagged far behind cheats who were exposed not by scientific detection but a human snitch.

Runner-up: Wayne Rooney. In the European championships and in his debut for Manchester United, the Mersey kid bathed football in sunlight. In his Madrid meltdown, he darkened the horizon terribly. His fiancée Coleen's challenge for the title of football's No 1 "Material Girl" is also deeply disquieting. Sir Alex Ferguson handled Ryan Giggs brilliantly and, once the celebrity life took hold, went as far with David Beckham as he could. Unquestionably, Rooney serves to represent his greatest challenge.

Bullyboy of the year

The Newcastle United chairman Freddy Shepherd, Florentino Perez's chief rival as the football man of influence most at odds with the realities of building a winning football club. Shepherd's treatment of Sir Bobby Robson was grotesque in its lack of respect and understanding of what the man had achieved in both his football life and his tenure at Newcastle. Now Graeme Souness runs the gauntlet of Shepherd's toxic combination of arrogance and ignorance and, of course, the victims are again those abused fans and their womenfolk sneered at by Shepherd and his buddy Douglas Hall in that Spanish girlie bar all those years ago.

Most promising newcomer of the year

Rafael Benitez, manager of Liverpool, who has relit the flame of real football at Anfield. Benitez, despite his fine record at Valencia, has yet to establish himself as a wonder coach. His early championing of zonal defence made Liverpool a soft touch at set-pieces, something they could never be accused of in the otherwise discredited reign of Gérard Houllier, and some of his selection decisions, notably the resting of the brilliant passer Xabi Alonso from some vital games, were mystifying. But Benitez has sharply increased the relevance of Steven Gerrard's great talent and Liverpool are once again pleasing to the eye when going forward.

Pragmatist of the year

David Moyes, who has steered Everton to such rarefied heights in the Premiership after eyeballing relegation at the end of last season. Moyes, deprived of the ability to make significant signings, or negotiate new contracts with most of his squad, spelled out the realities at Goodison rather as Colonel Travis, commander of the Alamo, did before the arrival of the Mexican army. Result: in future every embattled football manager will be able to cry: remember Everton!

Don Quixote of the year

Lord Coe, charging at the windmill of the 2012 Olympics for London. The case is terribly flawed - Las Vegas could make as strong a case as the world's capital of culture - but the hero of Moscow and Los Angeles is waging a skilful campaign. It is not his fault that Britain cannot boast the sports infrastructure of some Third World countries and taxi drivers and commuters laugh in your face when you speculate on how it will be if London lands the prize.

Buffoon of the year

David Morgan, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board. The sell-out of Test cricket to Rupert Murdoch showed the vision of a sporting doomsday; the insistence on playing in Zimbabwe was without a single redemption.

Casualty of the year

The football agent. What did he do, what was his point? The Paul Stretford case, and the alleged involvement of the iconic Kenny Dalglish, was surely the nadir of English football. The new FA chief executive, Brian Barwick, has a raft of problems, including rampant cheating, inadequate refereeing, and dwindling credibility for his own organisation, but surely the greatest is the ongoing scandal of exploitation by agents. Their rewards had never before been seen to be so grotesque.

English cricketer of the year

Andrew Strauss, the batsman who came from nowhere. Even in the débâcle of Durban, Strauss was the greatest source of encouragement. His place in the team came not from careful selection but misadventure in the nets. Because of this he was as much a rebuke as a glory of the renaissance of English Test cricket.

Rally of the year

The regrouping of South African cricketers in Durban after being swept away in Port Elizabeth. Political correctness has been an inevitable and perhaps morally unavoidable price to pay in the post-apartheid life of one of the great sporting nations, but given that, the sight of Shaun Pollock, son of the establishment, and Makhaya Ntini, who once bowled with holes in his boots, sharing the attack was a wonderfully potent symbol of future possibilities.

Throwback of the year

Miguel Cotto, Puerto Rican world junior welterweight champion, a fighter to remind you of the best of the business. In him we saw the eternal capacity of the square ring to engage all of our senses. It was a vital message in the year when the aura of Mike Tyson was pronounced officially dead.