Part one: Sport and the pandemic
Judgment call of the year
As clubs reacted to the new normal: Arsenal – unveiling £230k-a-week Thomas Partey (“#NoThomasNoPartey”) a day after making their dinosaur redundant. Arsenal said job cuts, including Gunnersaurus, were “sad but essential” for “ensuring we operate in a sustainable and responsible way”.
Also making sad changes:
1) Daniel Levy – trying to furlough 550 Spurs staff with 20% pay cuts before public opinion turned. Levy said the criticism of a tax‑exile‑owned club asking for public money “had been felt all the more keenly because of our track record of good works – and our huge sense of responsibility to care”.
2) Fenway Sports Group, walking back their decision to furlough Liverpool staff soon after reporting a £42m club profit, having “come to the wrong conclusion last week … we are truly sorry for that”.
And 3) Mike Ashley, furloughing Newcastle staff to “safeguard the future of the club” while also trying to sell it to Saudi sportswashers. In March Ashley clarified his broader stance on the pandemic after media criticised his lockdown attempt to keep Sports Direct open and put its prices up. Ashley: “There has been no dress rehearsal for what we as a nation are currently tackling … I for one am immensely proud of our government, our NHS and all of our key workers.”
Best antidote to all that
Was Newcastle fans raising over £20,000 for a food bank by donating their £14.95 pay-per-view fees. PPV – backed by Ashley in October “due to there being no realistic or viable alternative” – was dropped in November.
Image of the year
Taken in 2018 but finding new life online in 2020, as the public got a feel for the man throwing a protective ring around the nation.
Single strangest moment
Came in November – Allegra Stratton, new head of the No 10 briefing unit hired to tidy up government crisis messaging – pocket-tweeting a lo-res photo of Tony Pulis captioned “Pppppppp”. No explanation followed, it was deleted, she moved on.
Pandemic story with the most cut-through
The moment No 10 knew cut-through was complete:
29 May: TV viewers watching Sydney Roosters v South Sydney Rabbitohs at Australia’s Bankwest Stadium – where fans could pay $22 to have a cardboard cutout of themselves in the stand – spotting one of Dominic Cummings.
• Also given airtime during the cutout scheme, before the NRL launched “a review of the vetting process”: Harold Shipman watching Newcastle Knights v Penrith Panthers, and Adolf Hitler, photoshopped into the stands by Fox Sports’ The Matty Johns Show. Fox said sorry after a viewer backlash: “We sincerely apologise for the offence the image has caused.”
Most surprising source of reliable global emergency info
Was Inter’s Ashley Young, filling a government comms hole in March with a 12-tweet thread of Covid advice, based on his experience as Italy struggled.
• Among 2020’s less successful attempts to step up:
1) Kyle Walker
, urging followers in April to “stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives” without telling them he’d hired two escorts for a £2k lockdown home visit the previous day.
2) @jofraarcher, bursting England cricket’s biosecure bubble for a trip home, 13 days after warning followers: “Coronavirus is the biggest global crisis for children since World War Two.”
And 3) @JackGrealish, crashing his car while wearing mismatched slippers outside a friend’s house the morning after telling fans: “Stay home. Only leave your house to buy food, medicine, or to exercise. This is urgent. Protect the NHS. Stay at home. Save lives.” Grealish said he was “deeply embarrassed … I obviously urge everyone to follow the rules, I know for a fact I’ll be doing that,” then broke them again this month. Dean Smith: “These are challenging times for us all.”
Most on-brand government policy announcement
Came in November amid restriction exemptions for chauffeurs, “high-value” fliers and grouse-shooters: a £135m bailout for rugby union, and £12m for rugby league. No 10 denied favouring “Tory sports”; RFU head Bill Sweeney called the settlement “very pleasing”.
Purest heart of the year
Was sport’s leading anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic, whose summer Adria Tour featured hugging, topless dancing, full stands and then multiple positive Covid tests, including for him and his wife. Djokovic said he put the event on “with a pure heart and sincere intentions” but “we were wrong … I pray for everyone’s recovery”.
Best shark jumping
Surreal moments even in a surreal year: 21 May – Matt Hancock taking questions from Robbie Savage at the daily Covid briefing; and 5 October – Hancock admitting a major Covid data loss in the Commons while next door Brexit’s Baron Botham of Ravensworth was making his debut in ermine.
Most popular intervention of the year
Was a fake @MarcusRashforrd account handling the alt-right so he didn’t have to. @KTHopkins: “Dear Marcus Rashford, do you think women should think about how they are going to feed a child before they decide to have it? I do not want to pay to feed other people’s kids. You are welcome to.” The fake account’s reply had two words, and 259.8k likes.
Best sport/politics crossover memes
1) Breaking news on new government restrictions in October.
2) Plus @visualsatire, staying topical in September.
Worst double checking
South Korea’s FC Seoul – explaining themselves in May after they were fined for filling empty stands with sex dolls. Seoul said their “inexcusable mistake” was due to “a mix-up with the supplier … it is true they look and feel like real humans, but the manufacturer told us they were not made for sexual use. We double-, and triple-checked this.”
• Also not happy: tech suppliers to Japanese baseball side Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, denying in July that replacing fans with synchronised dancing robots in human and dog form was “too creepy”: “These are often used at construction sites. This is only their first time in entertainment.”
Best reaching out
Schalke in June, asking fans who bought tickets to matches they were no longer allowed to attend to explain why they wanted refunds: “Why do you need the money now? Elaborate on your case of hardship and if possible submit documentation.” The club apologised for using “impersonal and not very sensitive expressions”.
Unlikeliest sport headline
Among many that would not have made sense last year: @SkySports on darts in April: “Gary Anderson ruled out of event due to poor WiFi.”
@eastleighFC, not buying into the first lockdown’s inter-club online banter after Havant & Waterlooville’s account asked in March: “Hey, @EastleighFC fancy a little quiz?” @EastleighFC: “No.”
Special award for trying to do the right thing
German 11th-tier side SG Ripdorf/Molzen II, beaten 37-0 in September after socially distancing from opponents. Only seven Ripdorf players agreed to take part after learning Holdenstedt’s squad had been in contact with an infected person, and “kept a safe distance” during play. “We are thankful for those seven,” said Ripdorf’s co-chair. “There was no perfect solution here.”
Best vantage point
And single best use of lockdown
Was rugby and golf commentator @MrAndrewCotter covering feeding time for dogs Olive and Mable. Featuring the year’s soundest all-round advice: “Don’t bollocks around wagging your tail.”
Part two: away from the pandemic
Best use of a platform
Naomi Osaka won the US Open having worn a different mask in each round bearing the name of a black victim of violence. “The more retweets it gets … that’s so lame … but the more people talk about it.” See also Lewis Hamilton.
Worst use of a platform
FA head Greg Clarke, telling MPs in November about “coloured” players and how gay players made “a life choice”. Clarke resigned hours later: “Sometimes I trip over my words.”
Most satisfying delivery
Was this from January, in simpler times: Greg Harlow telling World Indoor Bowls Championships partner Nick Brett: “There’s about six inches between the two bowls, so there is just room.” The crowd laughs; Brett finds the six inches.
Came in November as Scotland’s Ryan Christie welled up pitch-side after their Euro 2020 qualifier penalties win in Serbia ended a 23-year absence from major men’s tournaments. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through … Just, for everything, you know … ohhhhh. I’m gone.”
Worst sinking feeling
From British Transport Police @BTPNotts in July: “Officers attended a report of persons in the canal opposite Nottingham station. A Forest fan had jumped in to celebrate a win over local rivals, unaware of the late equaliser. #wounded.”
A club statement from @FortWilliamFC in March: “Following unacceptable behaviour of The Ultras supporters group over a number of games this season we have taken the decision to ban this group from home games. They will be able to gain entry individually if accompanied by a parent.”
Venue operators playing the wrong national anthem. This year: The ATP Cup, playing Romania’s anthem to honour Moldova before their tie with Belgium in Sydney in January. “We are sincerely sorry and have apologised personally to #TeamMoldova.”
Most helpful use of sport to explain politics
Explaining what happened on US election night, and on the nights after, through the medium of Troy Deeney.
Most reassuring headline in an otherwise changing world
Came on 30 July: “Fifa president Gianni Infantino faces Swiss criminal proceedings.” Infantino denies wrongdoing. See also: “Infantino joins $3m club” and “Madagascar FA boss ‘goes missing with €25m’”.
Plus: most telegraphed twist
2017: Ahmad Ahmad wins Africa’s confederation presidency on an anti-corruption ticket as “Africa’s candidate for change … This is sweet victory, thanks to God. I’m the only one who dared present a candidacy for change. Now I’m vying to bring it.” Gianni Infantino: “Ahmad works body and soul for football. He’ll fit into our team.”
2020: Ahmad banned for five years for alleged bribery, abuse of staff and spending CAF money on cars. He denies wrongdoing.
Award for dogged persistence
As live tweeted by @StevenageFC in January:
“45+1’ – Ben Nugent attempts a right-footed volley from inside the Northampton box. Throw-in. 0-0 #WeAreStevenage”; “45+2’ – Charlie Goode shoots from thirty yards. Car park. 0-0 #WeAreStevenage.”
Best transfer announcement video
Still demanding better press standards in Italy: Brescia owner Massimo Cellino, 2 February, issuing a statement “categorically denying” media reports that he plans to sack coach Eugenio Corini for the second time inside one season. “We go forward together, with even greater commitment, and with more positivity.” 5 Feb: Sacks him.
Best extended metaphor about boats
12 Nov: Nice chairman Jean-Pierre Rivère says fans should lay off Patrick Vieira because “when we are in a boat, in the middle of the sea, we must row together, in one direction, to sail to our solution. We hear what fans say, we’re not deaf, but our role is clear: to support all those in our boat.” 4 Dec: “We thank Patrick for his hard work.”
Chris Broad, match referee for the England v Pakistan series, fining son Stuart £2,000 for bad language in August. Broad junior was sanctioned after an “exchange of words” with Yasir Shah; his father also added a demerit point to his disciplinary record.
Most sick of being asked
Ajax youth coach Tinus van Teunenbroek, unsurprised in May after FC Cincinnati mistakenly used his photo as they unveiled new manager Jaap Stam. “Often on vacation people shout: ‘Hey, that’s Jaap Stam.’ Really, it happens to me a lot.”
Also struggling online
This year’s other top corporate social media missteps:
a) @chelseaFC, late in January’s transfer window with fans burning for a signing, announcing a shirt sponsor: “You wait 24 days for a signing, then Three come along at once… @ThreeUK #Ch3lsea.”
b) @FCBarcelona, upbeat as they identified the real story on 1 December: “ALL ABOUT A RECORD DAY ON SOCIAL MEDIA! Tribute to Diego Maradona breaks records on FC Barcelona’s social media.”
And c) @ManUtd, as fans railed against £14.95 PPV fees, using a crying laughing emoji with the question “where are you watching #newmun from?”. As replies stacked up, they deleted it.
Seven-year-old snooker fan Jamie, clearing the table in January.
Most tense atmosphere
Was the aftermath of triathlete Mirinda Carfrae losing the virtual Ironman VR Pro Challenge when her husband tripped over the power cable of her smart bike. Carfrae: “He decided to bring my trophies in here and when he walked round the back he kicked out the plug. What an idiot.”
Best use of a lengthy VAR delay
Apply critical theory to it then live-tweet your findings. One sample from @daisychristo’s 23-tweet thread from the London Stadium in February: “This aspect of VAR reminds me of nothing so much as German Higher Biblical criticism. If we apply the latest scientific & technological tools to the excavation of Biblical meaning, we’ll get closer to what God meant. Or we might just blow up the foundations on which it all rests.”
Best show of decency
In a year that needed more of it: triathlete Diego Mentrida stopping on the line in September to let James Teagle win after Teagle took a wrong turn 100m from the finish. “He just read the signs wrong,” said Mentrida. “So I had to stop. He deserved it.”
Accidental Partridge moment of the year
From October. Still amazing, even when you know what’s coming.
Biggest non-virus attention seekers
Headlining 12 months of animal cameos:
1) A stray cat coming fourth in September’s Balkan U20 Championship 100m in Istanbul;
2) Local alpaca Oscar slowly pitch-invading Carlton Athletic v Ilkley Town in September;
3) A Brazil women’s training game in September held up when a parrot landed on Bruna Benites.
4) A stray dog taking a free-kick in a televised game in Turkey, being chased off then returning for more;
5) “Multiple ants” taking against Brazil’s Jacuipense goalkeeper Jordan after he rolled into their hill during a game at Ferroviário;
And 6) A wasp getting stuck into snooker referee Ben Williams at the Masters back in January after being picked off the table during Jack Lisowski v Kyren Wilson. Five days later the final was also disrupted by what Dennis Taylor called a “not very funny” fart box left on a seat.
Biggest personal renaissance
Came for Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty: cleared by police in February of punching a teenager who patted him on the head during a meet-and-greet, ending the year as a globally-recognised antifa, anti-Trump icon. Highs included starring on a Four Seasons Total Landscaping T-shirt, and Gritty as Olenna Tyrell from Game of Thrones.
Ruthless from Robbie Keane’s four‑year-old son Hudson, mascot at Middlesborough v Spurs in January. Unable to ignore the ball on the centre circle during the formal pre-match photo, Hudson booted it, dribbled slowly downfield, scored slowly, then stared down the crowd.
And the purest pre-pandemic emotions
Came in Japan back in January: 29-stone sumo minnow Tokushōryū Makoto bursting into tears of joy after sealing a shock title victory. “Maybe I cried too much,” he reflected later. “But deep down I was feeling like: ‘Is it OK for me to win this championship?’ I was the lowest-ranked… It all feels like a dream. I just don’t feel like myself. I feel like I’m walking on clouds.”