It may be the end of the year but it’s also the end of some major sporting eras. Alastair Cook signed off amid sun-drenched glory and a tsunami of affection. And surprise, surprise, it has liberated Joe Root to make a team in his own image, playing with brio and bravery. Roger Federer may be capable of one last burst of incandescent brilliance but not much more than that.
Meanwhile, the implacable giants of football and cricket, Germany and Australia, have been brought crashing down to earth. We should relish the schadenfreude now, because renewal will follow quickly, and a new-look young German football outfit looks to be already on the way. They beat Russia 3-0 with a lightning-quick forward line labelled by one paper ‘the moped gang’. Australia might be rubbish at the moment, but an Aussie cricket revival is as certain as a hot day on the Nullarbor plain.
What all this means is that it’s a very happy Christmas for English sports fans. The ceaselessly under-achieving soccer team has, under Gareth Southgate, become one of the best teams to watch in the world. With a relatively small talent pool — only a quarter of Premiership players are English — the likeable Southgate has put together a bunch of young, motivated, ambitious players. They reached the semi-finals of the World Cup and will be in the semis of the Nations League next summer. The years Southgate spent with the under-21s are paying dividends: he knows and likes these players and they like him. In Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Jadon Sancho, Pickford and Stones, Sterling and Rashford, England have the makings of champions. And in Southgate a proper English gent, rather than a hatchet-faced martinet from overseas.
It’s a blistering summer in prospect for our cricketers. The white ball team will go into the home World Cup as favourites, though Pakistan and India are very strong, and never write off the Aussies. But Eoin Morgan’s boys have been preparing for this ever since they screwed up in the 2015 World Cup. It has been a long run-in: en route they have beaten more or less everybody, including scoring a record 444-3 against Pakistan in 2016.
It will be a rum old summer, with the Ashes almost playing a support act to the World Cup. This will be a much bigger test of Ed Smith’s new-look England than Sri Lanka. And don’t rule out more surprises: as James Anderson and Stuart Broad prepare to pick up their long-service clocks, all the feisty young quicks ploughing the English county circuit will be keeping their phones switched on. We will also get a chance to see how one of the best English batting line-ups for years can handle properly fast bowling. It didn’t work that well last winter, and in Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, the Aussies still have the fastest and most accurate bowlers in the world.
Meanwhile, could New Zealand’s dominance of world rugby be ending too? We will find out next year at the World Cup in Japan. The gap between the All Blacks and the northern hemisphere countries is closer than it has been for years. The Kiwis are vulnerable at last and all the talk is of their inability to cope with the rush defence as exemplified by Ireland, in one of the greatest games of rugby we will ever see. Wales had a clean sweep of southern hemisphere sides, while England are recovering from a nasty dip to bounce back with a vengeance. How about a World Cup semi-final featuring four out of England, Ireland, Wales, New Zealand and South Africa? Bring it on.
The biggest mystery of 2018 has been that of Manchester United. How to explain the empty seats, the battered water bottles, the boring football, the embarrassing rows between the much decorated manager and his star midfielder, expensively coiffured World Cup winner Paul Pogba? Sooner or later something has to give: there’s only so much a bottle of mineral water can take. Despite all the competing theories advanced for José Mourinho’s wild mood swings and all the failings at his once–garlanded club, might there not be a very simple solution? Could it not all be down to the fact that he is fed up with that hotel suite at the Lowry? I mean, how many times can a man order the chicken salad from room service of an evening and remain happy? Must have seemed like a dream at first but for two and a half years? If there’s another turn-down chocolate — and a bloody praline at that — then that water’s getting it…