Napoli’s mopeds, a shirtless Grealish and more: my random football moments of 2023

<span>Composite: Getty, Shutterstock</span>
Composite: Getty, Shutterstock

We are a day or two away from having our minds filled with the most needless statistics football has to offer: THE CALENDAR YEAR. Nothing gives the last 12 months a greater sense of self-importance than writing the word calendar in front of it. Our minds are already full before being inundated with this stream of irrelevance.

No one won more duels in 2023 than James Tarkowski. Jordan Ayew was offside more than any other player. Rodri committed the most fouls since Kevin Davies in 2006. Don’t check any of these. But does anyone care?

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Football happens in seasons. The season starts, the season ends. There’s a break. Players are bought and sold, managers move on, someone takes a big cloth to the slate, and it is clean once again. As the old adage goes, you don’t win anything at Christmas (apart from the 2022 and probably the 2034 World Cup).

The end of December should be a time to reflect on the moments without trying to turn them into a bar chart. Although it might be middle age kicking in, it feels as if Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones knock on my front door with increasing regularity to zap my mind of all the sport I’ve recently watched, let alone something that happened last February. Like opening Spotify and suddenly forgetting every song you’ve ever heard. So these recollections are Google-aided, and unapologetically season-, not calendar year-, related.

Unless you’re a Manchester City fan, it’s hard to find huge joy in a nation state backed team with 115 charges hanging over them winning the treble – and now the Club World Cup. But within that you have to admire that demolition of Real Madrid in the Champions League. At times Erling Haaland was mesmerising – an elite footballer dropped into Jack Reacher’s body. That image of a shirtless ripped Jack Grealish, arms outstretched on the top deck in the Manchester rain, is perfect.

West Ham winning a trophy is a once in a generation thing. Lucas Paquetá’s weighted pass. Jarred Bowen’s composure. Moyes going full David Pleat was a glorious end to the Europa Conference League final – and watch those fans behind the goal when that ball goes in. The unadulterated happiness and madness is spine tingling. It is such a release. It’s a shame that Premier League survival and Champions League qualification mean so much that teams regularly rest and rotate in cup competitions.

Further down the pyramid, you might be fully welcomed to Wrexham by now, but that Ben Foster penalty save against their title rivals Notts County as the stopwatch ticked into the seventh minute of six added on is extraordinary. Wrexham are 3-2 up. County fans can barely watch. The taker re-sets the ball. Foster goes right, and pushes it behind, and then goes classic keeper trying to organise his defence while all they want to do is hug him. He was just off his line, but County emerged victorious from a wild playoff journey, which probably made that moment of agony worth it.

If we’re getting self-indulgent, Cambridge United staying up on the final day of the season was as good as a trophy for me Clive. A win over Forest Green, while Morecambe and MK Dons both slipped up. There is a goalmouth scramble in the final moments of the Burton-MK Dons game that still gives me butterflies despite knowing the result and it taking place seven months ago. Burton with nothing to play for hurling their bodies in the way as if their lives depended on it. At full-time, I sat breathless in a radio studio just trying to take it in – it is still remarkable how the game can make you feel. And then there’s the Football Victoria Metro South East Division Eight title with the Melbourne University Bohemians – never stop playing.

Back in a world readers might care about, those mopeds following the Scudetto-winning team through Naples. So many mopeds. How did they all fit in that tunnel? Sheffield Wednesday 5-1 Peterborough in the League One playoffs – overturning a 4-0 deficit. The whole world delighted for Darren Moore. More recently Shakhtar Donetsk – displaced by war – beating Barcelona in the Champions League. Jude Bellingham carrying Real Madrid, (almost) everyone falling in love with Ange Postecoglou.

Of course we cling to the failures of others to get us through most of the year. The Manchester United bin fire – I actually found myself pity-supporting them to come back against Villa on Boxing Day – such an odd sensation for anyone who grew up with their relentless success. The hilarity of Chelsea spending an Austin Powers-defying £1bn and still being mid-table. And then there’s the unadulterated rage of the VAR conspiracists, dedicating hours of their lives to convince themselves that Howard Webb and friends are conniving to deprive their team and their team alone. It all evens itself out lads. Probably.

I would happily swap all the pleasure the game has given me in 2023 in return for handball going back to the pre-VAR years. The latest one being Everton’s Onana inadvertently doing what Manchester United’s Onana has been actively trying to do for months. But still, does anyone really want a penalty for that? If we must persist with penalising defenders every time it hits their hand – let’s campaign for it to just be a free-kick, wherever they are in the box. Eleven players on the goalline, chaos, less chance of a goal. There are no downsides. The quest begins here – and when it fails, we can collate a list of bad handball decisions across the calendar year and go again in 2025.