Maybe this will be the way it is from now on. British football, more than any other, is personality-driven, with the focus often on the manager. But despite the control exerted by some powerful personalities it is hard to see anyone having that dominant, domineering and fierce and sometimes nasty level of influence that Ferguson insisted upon.
It was always going to be seismic when he retired and, thankfully for him, he retired at the top. The pages of coverage, the hours of air-time and the interest generated by his autobiography showed that he was the man who shaped English football while having the sole focus of achieving success with one club.
England supporters have been primarily concerned with winning one Ashes series against Australia then losing the next. Neither was close but some of the sport has been worthy of the highest traditions of Test cricket.
Away from the Ashes, however, the rumours, reports, allegations and admissions of match-fixing and spot-fixing threaten to engulf the rest of the world stage. This year the former Bangladesh captain Mohammad Ashraful voluntarily confessed to having been involved in fixing since 2004, after nine players in Bangladesh’s 20-over league had been charged with corruption. Three former New Zealand internationals are now being investigated by the Anti Corruption and Security Unit.
Do not think that English county cricket is exempt. The ACSU are investigating more than one player involved in the Sussex v Kent 40-over match at Hove in 2011. If any game is being televised, as this was, it could be fixed.
Last year an international coach, as well-travelled and respected as they come, told me he thought only two international teams were clean. I naturally incline more to the cock-up than conspiracy view of history and did not want to be quite so pessimistic.
The profile of the suspected fixer used to be the greedy person, whether from rich or poor background, or the player who was trapped into fixing against his will. Those now seem to be the good old days of relative innocence.
Now the profile of the likely fixer has been extended to players who are coming to the end of their careers, who feel aggrieved that they have not been selected for their country more often and therefore paid considerably better, and who want to cash in before they retire. These hangers-on multiply as the Twenty20 tournaments proliferate.
Sorry these are not tidings of comfort and joy. But there is too much smoke for there not to be fire beneath the surface. And there is no deterrent until a major player is caught and convicted.
The scrummage is back! The International Rugby Board’s series of directives for engagement – controversial at the time they were issued – are working, of that there can be no doubt.
Yes, they may not have always worked faultlessly, especially on poor pitches, of which we have seen far too many of late, where far too many collapses have occurred.
But, contrary to some misty-eyed old-timers’ recollections, scrummages have never been perfect. And, in general, there has been a significant improvement this season.
The new crouch-bind-set sequence has meant that the huge hits as front rows crashed into each other are now a thing of the past. There is still a hit of sorts, but it is nowhere near as violent as it was in the past, so that, if a side does not want to scrummage, it can no longer just go to ground.
The scrummaging technician can do his stuff again now, and the hooker is at last doing what it says on his tin again. He is hooking. Schalk Brits has even been spotted taking one against the head for Saracens.
There are fewer re-sets and penalties, and there is so much more playable possession from this facet of the game that is only supposed to be a method of re-start, after all.
Goodness, in the second Test of their autumn series, England scored a try – from Billy Twelvetrees, against Argentina – from a scrummage. Nobody could remember the last time that had happened.
Some referees are notably stricter on crooked feeds than others, but it is rather like the adjudication of a forward pass in that the official should be watching the motion of the scrum-half’s hands to prevent blatant feeding into his second row.
The one thing that does require addressing is the referee’s instruction to the scrum-half of when to put the ball in. Why should the opposition know when to push? That must go.
If one single thing contributed to a banner year for boxing in 2013, it was more meaningful match-ups at every level.
That was aided at the top of the sport’s complex match-making pyramid by Floyd Mayweather Jnr moving his vast influence to the broadcasters Showtime, part of CBS, from Home Box Office. The five-weight world champion signed to his new televisual paymasters in the United States for a fee of £151 million for six fights, and suddenly, Showtime was a major player again after years of dominance by HBO.
The rivalry between the stations re-invigorated competition and created a series of more competitive fights. Mayweather’s contest with rising Mexican star Saul Alvarez, for example, became the highest-grossing pay-per-view fight of all time, generating £90 million in revenue from 2.2 million pay-per-view buys.
Competitiveness between broadcasters was mirrored in the UK as BoxNation and Sky Sports went head to head. Promoter Eddie Hearn, ever-emerging and with a burgeoning stable, and Sky Sports created a powerful alliance in Europe and pay-per-view boxing returned on Sky Box Office for the first time in two years – the last being Dave Haye and Wladimir Klitschko – mainly due to the pulsating contests Carl Froch generates.
In amateur boxing, headguards came off again at the Amateur World Championships, and styles changed immediately. There was more action, more knockdowns, more intent. It will allow us to observe who of the more gifted boxers in the unpaid ranks could transition to the professional game.
Gareth A Davies
After the euphoria of 2012, when athletics played to full houses at the London Olympics and the talk was all about gold medals and world records, athletics suffered a rude awakening in 2013.
A decade after the BALCO scandal threatened to undermine the credibility of the sport, performance-enhancing drugs were back on the agenda as a series of doping scandals un`folded.
They ranged from revelations of stupidity, with world-class athletes apparently taking tainted supplements or medicines without checking their contents, to brazen acts of cheating, with an astonishing 43 Turkish athletes being banned for taking anabolic steroids.
The drip-drip of bad news began with the announcement that Turkey’s Asli Cakir Alptekin, winner of the 1500 metres gold medal at London 2012, had been suspended for abnormalities in her biological passport. Veronica Campbell-Brown, the Jamaican three-time Olympic gold medallist, then tested positive for a banned diuretic.
But the controversy was nothing compared to the storm unleashed on July 14 when American former world champion sprinter Tyson Gay was revealed to have failed a drug test just a couple of hours before Jamaican sprinters Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson were also announced to have tested positive for a stimulant.
The finger-pointing at Jamaica was heightened by accusations that the island’s anti-doping agency was hopelessly inadequate and under-funded, while authorities in Kenya also came in for criticism from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for their delay in investigating allegations of drug use among its runners. With disciplinary hearings due to begin in the cases of Powell and Simpson and Gay’s fate yet to be decided, doping could overshadow the sport for months to come.
When Lance Armstrong, one of the greatest sports figures the world has seen, sat down opposite talk show host Oprah Winfrey in an Austin hotel in January and confessed that he had, in his words, been a bully, a jerk, a liar and a cheat and that his glittering seven Tour de France victories had actually just all been “one big lie”, an earthquake inevitably consumed cycling, the messy after-shocks of which are still being felt now.
That extraordinary TV confessional, in which Armstrong may have told some truth but not the whole truth nor nothing but the truth, was originally hailed as if it ought to be a moment of absolute cleansing for cycling.
It was supposed to be the sport’s year zero, the moment when all the sins of Armstrong’s generation were properly acknowledged and the sport could reinvent itself afresh.
Well, not quite. True, there felt like a general disinfecting, as a raft of historic doping admissions, also prompted by the French senate’s anti-doping probe that uncovered EPO positives from the 1998 Tour, dripped from former riders such as Michael Rasmussen, retiring ones such as Stuart O’Grady and current ones such as Ryder Hesjedal.
Also, the fall-out from Armstrong’s downfall, with the International Cycling Union’s reputation increasingly stained by accusations that it had protected him from doping allegations in his Tour-winning years, led directly to a new broom when, in October, the British candidate Brian Cookson ousted the former UCI president Pat McQuaid with the promise of “restoring cycling’s worldwide credibility”.
Easier said than done, of course. The doping positives keep coming – most recently concerning the former Team Sky rider Michael Rogers – and with the wretched Armstrong now firing bullets from the outside so has the overwhelming cynicism and scepticism that has greeted new champions such as Chris Froome.
Outside Britain – where Wimbledon and Andy Murray dominate the landscape – 2013 will be remembered as the year of Rafael Nadal’s mind-boggling comeback, which confounded every pundit in the world. Yet the most surprising thing was not how much tennis changed, but how little, given that Nadal’s resurgence returned him to his rightful position.
Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were still the men to beat; Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova dominated the women. Roger Federer might have had a disastrous year, according to the general perception, but he is still sitting at No 6 in the world rankings.
There are still no young meteors threatening to turn the world order on its head, even if Grigor Dimitrov – now Sharapova’s beau as well as the most dashing young buck in the top 100 – is starting to show that his style on the court can match up with his style off it.
If there is a trend, it has surfaced late in the year, with no fewer than five of the top 10 men changing or dismissing their coaches over the last couple of months. Five of the top 12 women have also made recent changes, in a sequence that makes tennis’s job security seem no greater than the Premier League’s.
Perhaps we are too Murray-centric here, but has this rash of appointments – particularly Djokovic’s shock decision to hire Boris Becker, and Federer’s new alliance with Stefan Edberg – been prompted by the success of his alliance with Ivan Lendl?
One suspects that Murray – who wanted a coach to understand his own very particular situation – may have been a special case.
There is a real Last Days of Rome feel about Formula One at the moment. Bernie Ecclestone turned 83 in October, just as a £85 million damages trial began against him in London’s High Court.
We are still awaiting the judgment on that one, but it is safe to say that if things go badly for Bernie he will be fighting for his future as Formula One chief executive.
A potential domino effect could well come into play with a criminal trial pending in Germany relating to the same allegations of bribery, not to mention civil suits in Germany and the United States.
Formula One’s owner CVC Capital Partners has already indicated that it will sack Ecclestone if he is found to have done anything criminal, while the man himself has started to speak far more openly of a future without him. In this context, it is interesting to note what is happening on the track, where the sport is suffering from a lack of clear direction; caught between trying to ‘spice up the show’ to attract fans who have been turned off by the dominance of Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel, and appeasing purists who cannot stand the more gimmicky aspects of the current era of racing.
The recent doomed decision to award double points at the season finale from 2014 was a case in point.
The traditional Christmas media lunch with Ferrarii president Luca di Montezemolo was a more-than-usually fascinating affair this year as he spoke of the changes coming and the need to get the transition right.
As 2013 draws to a close, it is more obvious than ever that we are reaching the end of an era.
It would be naïve to think that an industry on which Dick Francis based 40 bestselling thrillers and which has been under-pinned by gambling since time immemorial had any innocence to lose.
But that is slightly how it felt when the British Horseracing Authority shocked the racing world in April when it announced that 11 of Mahmood Al Zarooni’s Godolphin-owned horses in Newmarket had tested positive to anabolic steroids in a systematic attempt to get an advantage over his rivals.
That, I wrote at the time, was not the tip of an iceberg: it was the iceberg. But about a week later another iceberg, the full extent of which was only revealed early in December, floated by as Gerard Butler confessed, albeit not fully at the time, to using stanozolol on his horses. The miscreants were banned eight and five years respectively.
But, as is often the case, good has come from bad and it is probably fair to say racing is now in a better place. The ripples from the Al Zarooni case were felt globally and, in a peculiar way, it united racing authorities around the world – apart, of course, from the land of the needle, America.
Part of the fall-out was that countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, all of which had previously allowed the use of anabolic steroids as routine out of training practice, were suddenly overcome by a guilty conscience and have banned it altogether. Meanwhile, Sheikh Mohammed, on the back foot in Dubai, made it a criminal offence there just to be possession of anabolic steroids.
Through the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, the BHA have led the way on this and remain at the forefront. Domestically a BHA review has recommended increased and enhanced dope testing, particularly in the out of training sphere, an increased budget and more for research in to hair testing. As they found out in 2013, from a public relations point of view prevention is better than the cure.
The revolution was never going to happen overnight. But in years to come, rugby league may well look back on 2013 as the year it began to pour forth from its northern heartlands and charm the entire country. The World Cup was a resounding success, despite England’s elimination at the semi-finals, and lived up to its billing as a truly national event.
Over 2.5 million people watched the heart-rending climax of England’s semi-final against New Zealand on the BBC – a higher audience than Sky Sports has managed for any football match so far this season. Not bad for a ‘fringe’ sport.
A sense of perspective is, of course, necessary. The rugby league World Cup will be no match in size or scale for its union counterpart in 2015. The continuing troubles of London Broncos are a reminder that getting people to a big event is not the same as getting them to a small one. But from a loud and chilly Rochdale to a heaving, captivated Wembley, the 13-man game is starting to make inroads. Between 35 and 40 per cent of tickets – just under 200,000, all told – were sold in the Midlands and the south. If just a few of those folk decide to tune in for the new Super League season in February, then the World Cup organisers can satisfy in a job well done.
And really, the old labels are becoming less and less relevant with each passing year. Like it or not, Britain is a more fluid, heterogeneous place than ever before. You can find Harvey Nichols in the north and Morrisons in the south. Stuart Lancaster loves league. Kevin Sinfield loves union. This year brought us closer to a point when league can stand or fall on its own visceral quality alone.
A slow-moving game at the best of times – and belligerently stationary at the worst – the ancient seemed to be spiralling towards revolution earlier in the year.
But the professional game in America stepped back from their threat of ignoring the rule change regarding long putters and so the amateurs continued to play the same sport as the superstars. In theory, anyway.
Tiger Woods was involved in several rules’ controversies in which he was damned by video replays. The R & A and USPGA, perhaps further ennobled by their ‘victory’ in outlawing the anchored method of putting, sought to remove some of the power from those armchair vigilantes, who sit on their sofas with the remote in one hand and the rules of golf in the other. Now, if a player cannot have known that his or her ball had moved then there will be no penalty. But still Woods waits for his comeback major win.
As Rory McIlroy embarked on a slump until winning in Australia last month, Woods recovered his world No 1 crown but suffered his fifth majorless season. Maybe the biggest change for Woods was the query which has appeared above his sportsmanship after the rules sagas.
For England, there is a first male major winner in 17 years, as well as a first US Open winner in 43 years. And before the breakthrough by Justin Rose (left) came Adam Scott exorcising the Australian demons at Augusta. At The Open at Muirfield, Phil Mickelson slayed his own links’ ghosts with the performance of the year.
There was an historic first in the women’s game, as well. Inbee Park won the first three majors of the new five-major season, but it was Europe’s first win on US soil in the Solheim Cup that stole the headlines.
And when it comes to quality, its fans will tell you that there is no greater sport.