IT was a weird and wonderful sporting year which served up a fairytale in New York, a robbery in Abu Dhabi, the Ghost Games of Tokyo and the familiar agony of penalty shootout defeat for England.
The year began with fans being sorely missed, as the behind-closed-doors era dragged on.
Then football supporters were lauded for their leading role in smashing the hated breakaway European Super League.
But as stadiums began to fill, England was shamed by a drink-and-drugs-fuelled mob which severely tarnished the national team’s first major tournament final in 55 years.
The vandalism at Wembley before that Euros final defeat by Italy was as depressing as the breathtaking arrogance of 12 clubs — including the Premier League’s Big Six — threatening to shred the fabric of football with their roped-off Super League.
The scheme met with revulsion and ridicule, as it was torpedoed in little more than 48 hours — even managing to overshadow Tottenham sacking Jose Mourinho six days before their Carabao Cup final against Manchester City.
That grubby Super League plot laughed in the face of the idea that anything can happen in sport.
But in September, at Flushing Meadows, the very essence of the impossible dream arrived when an 18-year-old tennis player from Kent became the first qualifier to win a women’s Grand Slam singles event and the first British woman to claim a major title since Virginia Wade in 1977.
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Emma Raducanu’s extraordinary campaign at the US Open stands alone as a British sporting story — in this, or any other year.
Ten matches, ten straight-sets victories, culminating in a 6-4 6-3 final triumph against Leylah Fernandez — a nerveless exhibition from a youngster whose first Grand Slam, at Wimbledon, ended with a medical retirement and her mettle being doubted.
How wrong could they have been?
Ireland’s Rachael Blackmore became the first woman to win the Grand National at Aintree, aboard Minella Times, having already become the first female to be leading jockey at the Cheltenham Festival.
The only possible contender to Raducanu as Britain’s sportsperson of the year ought to have been Lewis Hamilton, who contested a Formula One title fight for the ages with the young Dutch upstart Max Verstappen, 24.
Yet Hamilton’s bid for a record eighth world crown was scuppered by the anarchy and farce of a final-lap run-off with Verstappen in Abu Dhabi, as race director Michael Masi fancied himself as a Hollywood director rather than a guardian of the rulebook.
Raducanu, made an MBE in the New Year Honours list, was not the only English teenager thrust into extreme pressure — Bukayo Saka’s decisive penalty, saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma, meant England’s Euros ended with the cruellest shootout defeat.
The then 19-year-old, along with fellow subs Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, suffered sickening online abuse after failing from the spot — although the Arsenal kid felt the warmth of the vast majority of fans and was even given a standing ovation by Spurs supporters in a pre-season friendly.
England defeated Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Ukraine and Denmark on their glorious march to the final.
Gareth Southgate proved himself the most successful Three Lions boss since Sir Alf Ramsey, with Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane leading from the front, Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice indomitable in midfield, while John Stones, Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker formed a formidable all-Yorkshire defensive three.
And Luke Shaw was the surprise feel-good hit of the summer, enjoying an outstanding tournament and opening the scoring inside two minutes of the final.
The atmosphere had been joyous and raucous as Southgate’s men came from behind to defeat the Danes in the semi-final.
But that was in contrast to the carnage of the final, which meant the Three Lions were punished by having to face Italy behind closed doors in the Nations League next year.
Major sport was plunged back into silence at the Olympics in Tokyo — delayed by a year, yet still unable to provide a crowd’s authentic soundtrack.
Team GB managed 22 golds, down on their tally from Rio and London but still a mighty achievement compared to a generation ago.
Adam Peaty became the first Brit to retain an Olympic swimming title and, like his team-mate Tom Dean, clinched two golds.
Cycling spouses Jason and Laura Kenny entered the record books. Fifteen Olympic medals now reside in their Cheshire home — a dozen of them gold.
After 13 years of trying, diver Tom Daley finally topped the podium, alongside Matty Lee, in the ten-metre synchronised.
The Olympics also brought mental health into sharp focus as its brightest global star, American gymnast Simone Biles, pulled out of the women’s team final, claiming she felt ‘the weight of the world’ on her shoulders.
That same week, Ben Stokes — perhaps England’s most fiercely-competitive sportsman — took a four-month break from cricket to prioritise his mental health.
Biles and Stokes were bold with their honesty, proving even the greatest are vulnerable, especially when living under stifling Covid restrictions.
In football, Thomas Tuchel inherited a mid-table Chelsea side from Frank Lampard, smashed up Pep Guardiola’s hopes of a Quadruple and delivered a second European Cup to Stamford Bridge.
Manchester City regained their Premier League crown with ease but Tuchel’s team beat Guardiola’s men in three different competitions, climaxing in a Champions League final victory in Porto.
Leicester defeated Chelsea to win a first FA Cup, five years on from their title glory, but for the second successive year a late collapse saw them miss out on the Champions League.
Manchester United, meanwhile, shambled on — despite pulling off the league’s most eye-catching signing of 2021 with the return of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a caretaker who should never have been a permanent boss, was replaced by a caretaker in Michael Carrick, then an interim in Ralf Rangnick who wants to be the permanent manager.
Outside of Old Trafford the year’s biggest letdown was the failure of Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury to get it on and settle the undisputed world heavyweight boxing crown.
When American judges ordered Fury to complete his trilogy against Deontay Wilder, that much-anticipated all-British contest was toast.
Joshua was outclassed by Oleksandr Usyk at Tottenham — not the only comprehensive away win there during Nuno Espirito Santo’s reign — as he lost his three belts.
After that, the prospects of Joshua-Fury ever happening were reduced further still.
At least Fury and Wilder served up a third epic, with the Gypsy King stopping the Alabama slugger in the 11th round in Vegas.
The British and Irish Lions were defeated by world champs South Africa, Europe were thrashed by the United States in the Ryder Cup and England’s cricketers have already lost The Ashes.
But the greatest disappointment of all were the dark clouds of Covid gathering as the year draws to a close — threatening our lives, our freedom, and that most important of unimportant things, our sport.
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