Well, that was the year that was. Some flit past, skulk by, creep away, leave hardly a trace. 2016, though, will have historians scratching their heads for decades as they struggle to analyse the deeper meaning of the past 12 months and just how the blithering heck Brexit and Donald Trump came to pass. But if 2016 in politics was a juddering block tackle, a sliding challenge from far back, both feet off the ground, or any other type of sensational interruption you care to name, then the football year amazed and astonished, too. It was the year of Leicester City, the year of Hibernian.
Nobody expected Leicester to win England’s Premier League. Nobody expected Hibs to win the Scottish Cup. These two started a trend. Nobody expected the Rio Olympics to be any good and nobody expected Andy Murray to end 2016 as the king of tennis. But just look what happened.
Remember that Monty Python sketch, the one with the catchphrase “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”? The interrogators seemed fearsome but their weapons consisted of comfy chairs and soft cushions, which was exactly the kind of arsenal Hibs had been accused of bringing to their cup-ties down the years, resulting in a 114-year hoodoo.
Leicester City aspiring to be champions of England seemed like an even bigger joke. The Premier League, until one day in May, was a secret society of elite clubs who divided up the title between them. “Top four” referred to the placings allowing entry to the Champions League but also to the quartet which, boringly, always occupied them. Maybe every now and then Spurs or some other upstarts would blag their way past security but permanent membership behind the velvet rope would elude them. What chance, then, the least glamorous team from the least glamorous part of the country, namely the Midlands? Who’d just replaced their eccentric manager who may or may not have wrestled a bear and won with an eccentric manager who definitely wrestled his team-sheets, scrunching them up and starting an all-new formation every week? The bookies rated Leicester 5,000-1 no-hopers.
For the top four in English football, read the top three in world tennis. Here was another elite club: Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Murray seemed to have guest membership, off-peak. He could use the facilities sometimes, winning the occasional Grand Slam, but not all the time. Djokovic was threatening to turn the club into a black-card elite of one, beginning the year by winning the Australian Open as usual, whipping Murray in the final as usual. Remember at Roland Garros how the Scot exploded when a spectator in a blue shirt jitterbugged around? This was a blue shirt to a bull and without Ol’ Stone Face – Ivan Lendl – almost daring Murray to be distracted from the task of winning, we wondered if two Grand Slams and one Olympic title would be his lot. A grand haul for a British player, of course, but we’d gotten greedy.
Then Ivan the Imperious returned. Then, regarding the brilliant robot Djokovic, smoke started seeping from the ears. He wasn’t invincible. Murray wasn’t destined for the commentary box quite yet. Seven weeks before his second Wimbledon triumph his grandfather Roy Erskine was at Hampden with Murray’s mother Judy to see Hibs smash the curse. Erskine was on the Easter Road books in the 1950s, graduating from the third team to the reserves, but like many others couldn’t budge the Famous Five. Like many others, he thought it was only a matter of time before the club repeated something they’d last done in 1902 and lifted the Scottish Cup. We all know how that panned out, for good Hibs teams and bad ones. Then Alan Stubbs’ side, from the second tier, put last-minute defeats in the League Cup final and the Premiership play-offs behind them and produced not the hugely fortunate, off-the-backside victory which would have been more than sufficient for their demented support, but a thrilling one in a stone-cold classic with an ending first fantasised by these fans in primary school, playing in regulation black gutties with elasticated fronts.
That League Cup was won by Ross County, a first-ever trophy for the team from the town with the 5,491 population, and for a few weeks in 2016 both national cups resided in the Highlands as the prizes in Scotland continued to be shared around during what we might call The Ronny Deila Interregnum.
Places at Euro 2016 were shared around. Increased obesity got everywhere, including this competition, which made it sag and drag, but only the hardest heart would have been unmoved by the lusty efforts of Northern Ireland and especially Wales. The lucky-bags-all-round philosophy couldn’t quite extend to Scotland, however, and our failure to get to France was compounded by a dismal start to qualification for the next World Cup, the ba’ up on the slates already.
But if the international football team caused angst, the international rugby team started to spark something approaching joy. The Scotland XV don’t get hammered anymore, they don’t move the ball tremulously anymore, like the music’s about to stop in pass-the-parcel, and they don’t drop it anymore. There’s real swagger about this team, flair and dare.
There wasn’t much dare on display from the world’s top golfers who ran a mile from Rio and a Zika virus which health experts insisted wasn’t a serious threat as bona fide Olympians like Mo Farah and Alistair Brownlee and of course Usain Bolt made a mockery of the doubts concerning the Games – and a certain smugness over how good London had been – to enhance the great gathering with towering performances.
And of course there was Murray. Another Olympic gold after an epic final, then the world No.1 spot. All of this and fatherhood too – what a year it’s been for him. “This little lad from a tiny dot of a place,” remarked Roy Erskine, when we met in Dunblane two summers ago. This summer, I had a grandstand Wimbledon seat for every ball he struck and, in 41 years as a journalist, have never felt more privileged. He’s Sports Personality of the Year and no mistake.