Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Final Whistle....

For me, the 2010-11 football season ended as it began, with a Welsh team scoring four goals in the teeming rain in England. You can argue which game was more important: The New Saints win in the Champions League at their bucolic English ground, or Swansea City's dramatic elevation to the English Premier League via a Wembley play-off against Reading. Either way, this season showed the inexorable rise in the importance of money in the Beautiful Game these days, with clubs' owners, new and old, casting a shadow over football.

It was not the shadow of money, but rain clouds which accompanied me around most of the season on my various assignments for When Saturday Comes magazine. The ever-persistent threat of a drenching is something which sports photographers just get used to and when the sun does shine, it reminds you of those days in Glossop and Fraserburgh when the snow and wind competed for the ascendancy like a couple of battle-hardened midfielders.

For all teams, a new season sets off with optimism and hope. By the time the evenings are drawing in and the autumnal sunshine illuminates Recreation Park, Alloa, a different reality is setting in. I watch as the Wasps are swatted out of the Scottish League Cup at the hands of Aberdeen's Paul Hartley; by the season's end, both teams have endured miserable campaigns and the aforementioned Hartley is appointed Alloa manager. Quite a twist. Out of another cup, the FA version go Matlock. No cup romance for them, despite the romantic setting of their homely ground nestling in the Derbyshire Dales, beaten by Nottingham's Eastwood Town and their noisy band of fans.

My next stop is at Eastwood's more illustrious city neighbours Nottingham Forest, a club of great tradition and success, now desperate to recreate the Clough golden years, or at least something close to it. Despite a solid win against old boy Roy Keane's Ipswich, the season will end in another play-off defeat and another season beckons in the second-tier of English football. Indeed trips to Championship clubs treading water or in the process of descending become a theme of the season. The red dots around the half-empty Riverside point to declining audiences as Tony Mowbray steers his odd assortment of players away from relegation. Not so lucky for Sheffield United, who despite a rousing win against Leeds United, end up in the third tier in England. At least they can console themselves with a Steel City derby next season.

As the season wears on I see a couple of Indian businessmen looking bemused on a filthy Sunday in Blackburn. The reality of what they have just bought is etched in their faces. They do what every right-thinking football fan would love to do: fire Sam Allerdyce. It doesn't work and a grim season is finally saved from ignominy with a last-day win to keep Rovers up. Other managers in my spotlight are Tranmere’s Les Parry, performing miracles on the thinnest of shoestrings, whose team almost achieve mid-table obscurity despite defeat at Rochdale on New Year’s day. The perma-tanned Phil Brown isn’t so lucky: his Preston team twitches into life in March before being laid to rest in April.

As the season reaches it's climax I get a close up view of what a £35m footballer looks like, see Champagne in Halifax and burgers in Blackpool. Bewildering, I know, which just about summed up Alex McLeish's expression as his Birmingham City team plummeted through the trap door. The season ends in Dublin and London. The Carling Nations Cup provides the pub owners of Temple Bar with two chances to acquaint themselves with the Tartan Army, while on a bank holiday Monday in north west London, 40,000 Swansea fans go, quite literally, mental as they celebrate the prospect of a season in the Premier League struggling against relegation. But they didn't care, and had a party. Job done. Season over. Roll on 2011-12.

Finally, my awards ("The JKs") for the season gone by:
Team of the year: Borussia Dortmund. Great to see them German champions again. They’ll be celebrating in the Gaensemarkt all summer long!
Player of the Year: Charlie Adam, Blackpool and Scotland. What a season and what a left foot.
Manager of the Year: Peter Reid, Plymouth Argyle. Never liked the guy (small and very irritating), but the way he carried himself throughout a season when his club almost went bankrupt and his best players were all sold was so impressive. Docked 10 points, they almost stayed up. They deserved to. So did he, despite the people who ‘ran’ Plymouth Argyle.

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