Roger Alton

Why 2021 could be sport’s greatest year yet

Why 2021 could be sport’s greatest year yet
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The best thing about sport in 2020 was that any happened at all. And how good much of it was. The worst thing was that hardly anyone got to see it live. Trophies being lifted was a triumph. Trophies being lifted in front of rows and rows of empty seats was just tragic.

Let’s replay the year again. This time, though, we transpose the front and back pages of our newspapers. What a year it would have been if we had awoken each day to stories about the excellence of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool; the continual brilliance of Lewis Hamilton; the coronation of the Gypsy King Tyson Fury and his admirable decision to tell the BBC to stuff their sports award where the sun don’t shine; the astonishing batting of some of our limited-overs cricketers; and the ever-more impressive Marcus Rashford’s repudiation of the idea that all footballers worry about is whether their bathroom taps are the right shade of gold.

As we have observed before, politicians are furniture movers, not furniture makers. Sportsmen and women, on the other hand, are creators who at their best have a profound effect on us. Be particularly thankful this year for Jonny May, who reminded us what running rugby looks like; for Maro Itoje, who reminded us what superman looks like; for the West Indian and Pakistan cricket teams, who broke the Covid grip on our sports and played with skill, intensity and grace throughout long and lonely tours in empty grounds. Caps doffed to the Aussies for playing six gripping T20s and ODIs, winning the 50-over decider with a 200-plus stand between Glenn Maxwell and Alex Carey that seemed to come out of nowhere. And never forget magnificent Serena Williams, who reached the semi-finals of the US Open against advancing years and mounting odds.

In a savagely telescoped year we had three brilliant cycling grand tours, with the Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart of Hackney proving that reports of the death of British cycling were greatly exaggerated. And if we ever needed a reminder from the greats that they are human, who can forget Tiger Woods taking a bracing 10 on the irritating par-3 12th at the Masters? Then to show that the immortals aren’t really like us at all, he birdied five of the next six holes.

It’s been a great year for football’s youngsters — Mason Mount flourishing at Chelsea, and up on Merseyside Neco Williams and Curtis Jones of Liverpool, along with Everton’s irrepressible Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who will be hogging headlines for years to come.

It wasn’t such a great time for our women athletes. By now, Dina Asher--Smith, the fastest British woman in history, and Katarina Johnson-Thompson, world champion heptathlete, should have been household names, their faces adorning billboards and TV screens. But it didn’t happen. Nothing happened. Let’s hope next year will set matters right.

All silver linings have a few clouds, so take a bow the Premier League for ripping off pay-per-view fans; Owen Farrell for continuing to find some aspect of the phrase ‘high tackles are illegal’ incomprehensible; and Novak Djokovic for organising a get--together during a pandemic and failing to realise that if you whack a tennis ball in an enclosed space there could be problems.

And let’s not forget everybody’s favourite plain-speaking Aussie, Eddie Jones. His players are quite happy to turn on the style at club level but when they arrive for international practice, Eddie inculcates them with the message that they’re there to work on their cauliflower ears and homicidal tackles, and forget about entertaining the punters. Mostly.

But in this curious fan-free year, questions about who won what in 2020 will be harder than the same question about 1920. There may have been months of thrilling cricket (full respect to the ECB) but the great British summer of sport just didn’t happen: no Wimbledon, no Lord’s Test, no rammed Royal Ascot, no Henley.

Sport will make the grandest plans for 2021, hoping to make up all the lost ground and lost money. This could be the greatest year of sport ever. So don’t look back, look forward. There will be more of everything and there will be no break — finals days and F1 GPs and cricket Tests and Lions matches all coming together. It will be an endless five-setter, an 18-hole playoff and a penalty shootout stretching into night. There are Ashes and Lions and European Championships and an Open at Sandwich. And then there’s the Olympics and we’ll have to dig deep and go again. Touch wood.