As another journey around the sun draws to a close, it presents us with the opportunity to look back at the year that was 2016. It is a wonderful time where sporting fans can argue with one another as to what were the best moments, achievements, and performances of the year. To that end this correspondent not so humbly submits for discourse and debate, The Bozza Awards – Biggest Fairytale or Heartbreak Sporting Stories of 2016.
The Bulldogs wait no more
The Western Bulldogs entered 2016 with the longest standing premiership wait in the AFL, their patient and loyal fans had waited 62-years since their last sip from the Premiership Cup. The story of how ‘The sons of the West’ leave the year with the shortest premiership wait is truly remarkable.
Only two years ago the club seemed on its knees. A fourteenth place finish compounded by the departure of both their captain and their coach had many thinking they were destined for many more years in the doldrums. Instead, the old adage that crisis breeds opportunity was about to be proven correct for the umpteenth time.
The club appointed Luke Beveridge as senior coach and Bob Murphy their captain and almost immediately the fortunes of the team began to change. Playing an exciting brand of football the team qualified for the finals last season and big things were expected from them this year.
As their 2016 season continued to be rocked by injury and misfortune, their chances of playing a serious role in September where considered negligible. Despite what the naysayers said, despite finishing seventh, despite being confronted with an elimination tight rope that no one had ever overcome, despite needing to travel twice in three weeks, despite having to contend with the 3-time defending premiers along the way, the Bulldogs fought their way to a Grand Final showdown with the Minor Premiers Sydney.
The premiership decider was an epic contest.
Both teams attacked the contest and their opponent with a single minded desperation that never let up until the siren sounded. Each team was forced into error by the ferociousness of the other as the contest developed into the most gripping of affairs. With 10 minutes left there was a solitary point separating the equally matched adversaries.
Just as you would expect the tyranny of travel, and the compounded pressure of elimination football, to finally sap the energy from the Bulldog’ legs they defied expectation one last time. Liam Picken gathered a loose ball and kicked truly to take the lead out to beyond a kick. The much maligned Tom Boyd, who had two weeks to remember when it mattered most, hoisted a 60-metre bomb to extend the margin to a sizeable but not insurmountable 15-points. Then when Picken kicked his third it was party time, the Bulldogs now only had to wait for the siren.
The Bulldogs were Premiers and the football world rejoiced with them and their supporters who had waited so long for the moment to come again.
A Golden Start ends with Unwanted Records for Golden State
The Golden State Warriors began their NBA Championship defence as the overwhelming favourite to again claim the crown in 2015/16. A favouritism that only grew in fervour as the Warriors began the season with a 23-game winning streak. On the back of Stephen Curry, who became the first ever unanimously voted MVP, the Warriors blitzed their way to an NBA record 73-9 regular season.
In their playoff matchup with the Rockets, their hopes took a turn for the worse with an injury to their MVP. An MCL kept Curry out of action but was not enough to keep the Warriors down. The champs eventually booked their berth in the NBA Finals, but only after recovering from 3-1 down in the Western Conference Championship Series.
In the NBA Finals they met a familiar foe, in LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who they had defeated to claim the 2015 Championship. Each side would deny it, but both entered the finals with the weight of outside expectations bearing down on them. For the Warriors, defeat would forever place an asterisk on their regular season heroics. For Cleveland, a city with a combined 147-season championship drought across their three professional teams, there was a monkey on their back as there was for the star LeBron. Defeat in this series would represent a fifth championship series defeat and would add further weight to the arguments of those who questioned whether King James was ‘clutch’.
After four games the Warriors had seized control of the series having taken a 3-1 lead in the best of seven match up. One win away from back to back titles, the Warriors held a lead that had never been surrendered in the history of the NBA Finals.
Game Five was a disaster for Golden State. With the Cavs facing elimination, their stars rose to the occasion with Kyrie Irving and James, becoming the first team-mates to each score 40-points in the same Finals match, leading Cleveland to a 112-97 victory. The night further soured for the Warriors with news that their Australian centre Andrew Bogut had suffered a season ending injury and forward Draymond Green suspended for Game Six.
The Warriors missed their second opportunity the close out the series in Game Six. LeBron led all scorers with 41-points as the Cavs became the first team in 50-years to recover from 3-1 down to force a Game Seven. The changed fortunes of both teams illustrated when Stephen Curry hurled his mouth guard into the crowd after being fouled out of the contest.
Game Seven was a titanic struggle in front of a packed house in Oakland. The fate of the championship remained in the air until the final moments, twenty times the lead changed hands and eleven times the teams drew level. For the Warriors, the team that had led the league all-season and the Finals 3-1, their dream season evaporated in the final five minutes of the season. The team that set the league alight in scoring could not find a basket in the final 4.39 of Game Seven.
The defining moment came with 1.50 remaining and scores tied, the Warriors Andre Igouodala drove to the basket but had his layup blocked by a desperate James. A Kyrie Irving 3-ponter then gave the Cavs the lead that they wouldn’t surrender. James pushed the lead out to 4 points when he made one of two from the free throw line with 10.6 seconds left. A foul on Draymond Green gave the desperate Warriors 6.5 seconds to conjure a miracle.
Iguodala to inbound. Shumpert trying to stay with Curry – catches, one dribble, steps back, puts up a 3… won’t go! Rebound tip taken by Speights! Final seconds… (time expires) It’s over! It’s over! Cleveland is a city of champions once again! The Cavaliers are NBA Champions!
It wasn’t to be.
For LeBron it was a crowning moment, having led the series in points, rebounds, steals, assists and blocks he was a unanimous choice as Series MVP. It took a herculean individual effort but he had made good on his promise to bring a title back to Cleveland.
Instead of the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the Warriors took ownership of two most unwanted records, the most regular season wins without a championship and first team to lose an NBA Finals Series after leading 3-1. It was a fairytale story turned heart-breaker in the final pages.
Cubs end 108-years of Championship Hibernation
Most extended championship waits cause supporters to question whether their team is cursed but few blame the ejection of a goat for their woes. That said, not many have had the kind of wait that was endured by the Chicago Cubs and their long-suffering fans.
For 71-years the Cubs on-field performances helped further the belief that the team was under the hold of a curse placed on the team in 1945. As the team fought it out with the Detroit Lions for the World Series that year, it was made clear to local business man Billy Siakis, and his goat Murphy, that they were not welcome in Wrigley Field for Game 4. An incensed Siakis expressed his displeasure in a telegram to Cubs Owner PK Wrigley and threatened “You are never going to win the World Series again because you insulted my goat”.
At 3-1 down in this year’s World Series they would have been forgiven for thinking the curse had struck again. Had a sensational 103-game season been lost to the 7-decades old ravings of a disgruntled goat owner? No matter the fear within the supporter base, the 2016 Cubs are made of sterner stuff, and after surviving elimination twice found themselves in a ‘winner takes all’ Game 7 in Cleveland.
In a game that will be long remembered by all that watched it, the Cubs and the Cleveland Indians fought out an extraordinary contest. The battle seemingly over early after hefty blows from Cubs bats Dexter Fowler and Javier Baez. The strikes ended Indian ace Corey Kluber’s night and helped Chicago to a 4-1 lead after 5 innings.
An error laden bottom of the fifth from veteran catcher David Ross saw the Cubs lead halved. As is often the case with sport, the man known to his team-mates as Grandpa Rossy didn’t have to wait long for his moment of redemption. With one swing of his bat at the top of the sixth Ross, became the oldest man to hit a home run in the World Series, and helped restore one of the runs lost at the bottom of the fifth.
Four outs away from glory the Cubs played their trump card, imposing closer Aroldis Chapman. Unfortunately for the Cubs, the Billy Goat’s Curse was not going to be that easy to exorcise. Inconceivably, Chapman surrendered the Cubs hard won lead. A scoreless 9th innings followed and as rain began to fall, a game that only minutes before seemed in Chicago’s keeping, was headed to extra innings.
The Cubs wait for glory that already included two World Wars, was then delayed by rain for 17 painful minutes. For neutral fans, it just added to the incredible theatre, for both competing supporter bases it must have been a cruel kind of Cleveland Water Torture.
The extra innings became a chess match between competing managers Joe Maddon and Terry Francona, pinch runners, sacrifice flys and intentional walks all on show as both men sought the advantage. Miguel Montero and Ben Zobrist brought team mates home in the 10th to again take the advantage for the Cubs.
It meant that for the Indians it was now all or nothing, they were down to their last 3-outs. Moments later when Kris Bryant intercepted a ground ball, paused briefly for a broad and joyous grin, and fired the ball to first base the game was over. After 108-years the Cubs were once again World Series Champions.
Final day banana skin cost Ajax the crown
A dramatic final day of the Dutch football season saw the championship up for grabs with defending champions PSV Eindhoven and perennial powerhouse Ajax Amsterdam level on points. Ajax, who had held the championship lead for much of the second half of the season, had a goal advantage lead over PSV and only had to match their rivals result on the last day. Their opponent on the final day was De Graafschap, a team already consigned to the relegation playoff and with nothing tangible to play for.
When Ajax opened the scoring in the match, the equation looked to be the formality many expected it to be before kick-off. Despite their Championship hopes being out of their hands, PSV upheld their end of the bargain accounting for PEC Zwolle 3-1.
PSV fans then turned their attention to Championship leaders Ajax and their battle with De Graafschap. A second half equaliser had changed the context of the title race and the Amsterdam team now relentlessly attacked their resolute opposition’s defence for a title winning goal. It never came.
After entering the final day with one hand on the Eredivisie Shield, Ajax had squandered their advantage and had to watch as rivals PSV celebrated their good fortune. The title once so agonizingly close, heartbreakingly ripped away by a lone strike and an unlikely result.
After receiving the crown, PSV Manager Phillipp Cocu expressed that he had never given up hope. “My philosophy is always to remain positive even if we weren’t in the best situation” he said as his players celebrated “We only had a really slim chance, but a very slim chance is still a chance, isn’t it?”
Leicester City – The little team that could
“I know enough of the world now to have almost lost the capacity of being much surprised by anything”
― David Copperfield (Charles Dickens’ creation, not the magician)
It is fair to say that most of us felt similarly to Copperfield when the English Premier League crowned their champion each season. Almost exclusively the plaything of four clubs since the early 90’s and not won by a club that had finished lower than third the season before, the competition while regularly high on skill and highlights, was relatively low on surprises. All this meant that Leicester City’s remarkable rise was a welcomed change to regular programming.
Nobody, Leicester City fans excluded, gave the Foxes much thought when it came to predicting the likely winner of the 2015/16 Premier League title. They were given so little a chance of winning the trophy, that bookmakers offered punters odds of 5000-1 if they wanted to place their hard earned on Leicester. If you need further illustration of how fanciful a Foxes title was seen, the same bookmakers offered better odds that NASA would discover alien life (1000-1) or that Simon Cowell would become the next British PM (500-1).
When the Foxes fired manager Nigel Pearson, the man who had engineered their great escape from the clutches of relegation the previous season, the odds on offer may have started to appear a little short. The man the club installed to direct their second season back in the Premier League was 64-year-old Italian Claudio Ranieri. The Foxes job, his 16th across a 30-year managerial career, came at the perfect time for Ranieri. The Italian having been released from his role as Head Coach for the Greek National team after they had lost a World Cup Qualifier at home to Faroe Islands. Ranieri had yet to claim a major piece of silverware in his managerial journey and that wasn’t expected to change during his second stint in the top-flight of English Football, many backing him to be the first manager sacked.
Football is won on the park and not in newspapers or audio grabs and Leicester went about doing just that. On the back of outstanding seasons from Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the Foxes jumped out of the box full of running. At Christmas, Leicester were top of the table, a long way removed from 12 months earlier when they sat stone motherless last.
A loss on Boxing Day followed by two draws either side of the New Year saw many put a line through Leicester’s championship credentials. It was felt that they had fired their best shots and would be found out in the run home. Instead, Leicester threw down the gauntlet to their championship rivals with a sustained run of results to the finish line.
A loss to Arsenal on Valentine’s Day, only the third defeat suffered by Leicester all year, was followed by seven wins from their next nine matches including a run of five consecutive victories from early March to mid-April. Then with their draw at Old Trafford against Manchester United, followed by Tottenham surrendering a 2-0 lead to draw at Chelsea, saw the Foxes crowned champions with two games left to play.
Leicester completed their season with an away fixture against Chelsea, as tradition dictated the Blues gave the Champions a guard of honour as they entered the pitch. It must have been a sweet moment for Ranieri, 12-years earlier the Blues had sacked him, in part because owner Roman Abramovich did not consider him a coach capable of winning the EPL. Now he and his team were honoured by the same club for doing just that.
It proved an apt ending to a fairytale story.
The end of one lap of the sun is the commencement of another and with that we eagerly await what fairytales and heartache 2017 hold in store for us.