2023 was the year of Manchester City, of Unai Emery, of Spain women lifting the World Cup and of VAR making more of a beast of itself than usual.
But that’s not all the last 12 months had to offer. While we’ve covered the big stories of the year in our awards special, paying tribute to those who defined 2023, there will be others who don’t receive too much of a look-in. Or maybe they will… and we just want another 100-200 words to rave about ’em some more.
We asked our esteemed team of writers to vote on an array of categories – and here’s where the FFT Alt Awards are heading this time around.
The FourFourTwo Alternative Awards: Performance of the Year
Chris Flanagan, Senior Staff Writer (@CFlanaganFFT): Ipswich Town
For a long time last season, the two teams that looked set for automatic promotion from League One were Plymouth and Sheffield Wednesday. Then Ipswich strengthened in January, went on a ludicrous run in the final months of the season and transformed into easily the best team in the league. They went up with 98 points – somehow, still only enough to finish second.
Then, even more incredibly, they kept that form going in the Championship, passing 50 points by December 12, to put them within touching distance of the Premier League. All while playing attractive football, too. Kieran McKenna has done a superb job.
Ryan Dabbs, Staff Writer (@ryandabbs__): Arsenal 0-3 Brighton, May 2023
Moises Caicedo at right-back, Julio Enciso running Arsenal’s defence ragged, yet more crazy tactics from Roberto De Zerbi. Honestly, this could go down as one of the all-time great displays in the Premier League, it was that impressive. Tearing apart the Premier League challengers in their own backyard, Seagulls fans will be fawning over it for years – and rightly so.
Ed McCambridge, Staff Writer (@EdMcCambridge): Jude Bellingham vs Athletic, August 2023
Most footballers would gladly settle for a few forgettable minutes in injury time when making their Real Madrid debut, just to settle nerves. Not Jude Bellingham.
Unphased by his £89m price tag, his superstar team-mates, Zinedine Zidane’s old No.5 shirt and a hostile home crowd at Athletic Bilbao’s San Mames stadium, the 20-year-old smashed his new club 2-0 up and then ran the game. The goals (17 in his opening 20 matches) have kept coming, as have the show-stopping performances. It’s Jude’s world… the rest of us just live in it.
Mark White, Online Content Editor (@markwhlte): Gary Neville during Tottenham vs Chelsea
Gary Neville can’t bark with authority, like Andy Gray used to. He can’t straightfacedly tell us that the city of Kazan fell to Ivan the Terrible in 1552, like Ally McCoist. No. He’s there for familiarity, occasionally insight, and the calming “oohs” and “ahhs” of a nervous driving instructor around tight corners.
Tottenham’s hosting of Chelsea may go down as the weirdest game of football this side of the pandemic – two red cards, ultra-high line, Nicolas Jackson with the least impressive hat-trick of all time, etc., etc. – but it was also G-Nev’s magnum opus. The former Manchester United defender was exasperated throughout, claiming that he had a “parrot” on each shoulder at one point in the absence of a conscience (no, really) and struggling to keep up with the mayhem of Cristian Romero two-footing his way from one opponent to the next. Wonderful TV. Play it again on Christmas Day after Doctor Who, please.
Disasterclass of the Year (in association with Ali Dia)
Chris Flanagan: Dejphon Chansiri
It takes a special kind of owner to create mass unrest among a club’s fanbase mere weeks after promotion, but credit to Chansiri, he managed it at Sheffield Wednesday.
His parting of the ways with boss Darren Moore was controversial, so soon after their comeback for the ages in the play-off semi-final against Peterborough, then victory over Barnsley at Wembley. Replacement Xisco Munoz picked up just two points from the Owls’ first 10 matches in the second tier, while Chansiri released bizarre statements and suggested that fans should produce £2m to pay a tax bill. Suffice to say, that did not go down well.
Ryan Dabbs: Any number of options, really
FIFA. UEFA. VAR. Chelsea. Howard Webb. Antonio Conte. PGMOL. Joey Barton. Referees. Take your pick.
Ed McCambridge: BVB’s Bundesliga bottle
Borussia Dortmund had one hand on the Meisterschale going into the final day of last season’s Bundesliga. A home win against Mainz was all they needed to end Bayern’s 10-year stranglehold on German football. Actually, they didn’t even need to win – just match Bayern’s result at Köln. Yet Edin Terzic’s side found themselves 2-0 down within half an hour before missing a penalty and limping to a late draw. Bayern did the business against Cologne, and a golden chance to make the Bundesliga more interesting was squandered.
Mark White: Luis Diaz’s goal against Tottenham getting ruled out
We all understand that bad decisions happen – but Luis Diaz’s perfectly OK goal against Tottenham getting chalked off takes the absolute Hobnob. In a year of VAR drama, PGMOL scandal and Howard Webb’s endless apology letters, this one stood head and shoulders above (below?) the rest. Desgracia.
Best Breakthrough Act
Chris Flanagan: John Mousinho
Some Portsmouth fans appeared to be sceptical when the club appointed Mousinho as boss in January, without any prior managerial experience.
It didn’t take him long until he led his troops on a 27-match unbeaten run in League One – taking over with the club in the bottom half of the third tier last term, they’re now well clear at the top of the table, on course for a return to the Championship for the first time since 2012. Keep going like that, and their gaffer will have a big future in management. Who needs Mourinho? They’ve got Mousinho.
Ryan Dabbs: Jason Tindall
Tindall has been Eddie Howe’s assistant since 2008, but 2023 is where he really came into his own. Even his six-month stint as Bournemouth manager in the 2020/21 season didn’t bring him this much attention – but as Newcastle succeeded, Tindall’s face was everywhere. A viral sensation “desperate to be the centre of attention”, his presence on the touchline – sometimes in front of Howe – has been hugely entertaining, if not a little irritating at times.
Ed McCambridge: Big Ange
Ange Postecolgou’s first few months in English football have been box office. From adroitly dealing with the Harry Kane saga (“I know about as much as you do, mate!”), going unbeaten in his opening 10 Premier League games (“It’ll end at some stage, mate!”) to still trying to attack with nine men against Chelsea when they finally did lose (“That’s just how we play, mate!”). Who doesn’t love Big Ange?
Mark White: Girona
Famously, Spanish football has been incredibly uncompetitive since the days of Deportivo – but Girona are holding the status quo to ransom. This is a Catalan city more famous for being a Game of Thrones filming location than threatening El Clasico dominance, and yet here’s the inspired Michel, walloping Barcelona for four and leading La Liga as Spaniards tuck into their turkey.
Can you truly be underdogs when you’re bankrolled by City Football Group, signing the likes of Daley Blind from Bayern and getting players on loan from Pep Guardiola? Frankly, I don’t care – it’s just nice to see the likes of Girona, Athletic and Real Sociedad all looking good this term.
Comeback of the Year
Chris Flanagan: Neil Warnock
Other contenders I considered for this were the European Super League, lurching back into life Tyson Fury style, or the Romanian national team – last seen in about 1998, but impressively qualifying for the Euros unbeaten. But my comeback of the year is Neil Warnock – it’s always Neil Warnock.
Every year, he tells us “That’s it now, I’ve retired, I’m off to spend time in Devon”, then an ailing Championship side sends out a distress signal and he arrives faster than Superman, except without the cape – a pity, the cape would really suit him.
This year it was Huddersfield, who looked down and out until he arrived and inevitably saved them. Never change, Colin.
Ryan Dabbs: Davy Klassen’s hairline
You might remember the midfielder for barely doing anything at Everton in 2017, and for his shiny bald head. But seriously, find a photo of what he looks like now (find one! – ed) – it’s mental.
Ed McCambridge: Florian Wirtz
Bayer Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz began 2023 in rehabilitation mode, after a 265-day lay off following an ACL tear. Some even wondered if the 20-year-old would be capable of providing the magic he had done before his horrific injury. Yet the German playmaker has been electric so far this season, with 20 goal involvements in 23 Werkself appearances. If Leverkusen can break their Bundesliga duck, it will have as much to do with Wirtz’s mercurial talents as Xabi Alonso’s leadership.
Mark White: Arsenal in every game they play badly
There’s an inevitability about great football teams, that they’re never, ever beaten and won’t accept ever-stacking odds. Now we can’t really place this Arsenal side in that echelon until they win major trophies but the constant knack of being able to pull victory out of a draw’s jaws is simply astounding.
Against Manchester United at home, twice this season, via Eddie Nketiah and Declan Rice, respectively. Against Luton Town away from home in the crackling embers; away to Aston Villa last season when Jorginho netted a rocket. Most famously, against Bournemouth, with Reiss Nelson sending a stereotypically quiet Emirates Stadium into absolute mania. Even against the likes of Southampton and Chelsea, Mikel Arteta’s men have salvaged unlikely draws. Put them a goal down in every game until May and watch the silverware pile up.
Hero of the year
Chris Flanagan: Mary Earps
If you take any notice of Twitter (no, I’m still not calling it X), saying that Earps had a good year apparently isn’t allowed these days, because ShE dIdN’t WiN aNyThInG.
She was however, the star player of a team that reached the World Cup final, which it should be remembered, England’s men’s team haven’t done since 1966, as close as they’ve come in recent times. If losing a World Cup final was such a heinous crime, Raphael Varane would have won the Ballon d’Or in 2018 rather than Luka Modric, and there didn’t seem to be too many people arguing for that at the time.
On the subject of the Ballon d’Or, it was six years since any goalkeeper of any nationality, male or female, had finished in the top five, before Earps did so this time around. Maybe she actually had quite a good year?
Ryan Dabbs: Jude Bellingham
Him. His transfer to Real Madrid seemed the obvious choice, but a settling in process seemed inevitable considering his age and the magnitude of the move. Oh boy, how wrong we all were. His first six months at the Bernabeu has been a whirlwind of mesmeric proportions, and his star will only continue to rise. He could prove the difference for England in 2024 playing the way he is.
Ed McCambridge: Vinicius Jr
Vinicius Jr.’s one-man crusade against racism in Spanish football has been remarkable throughout 2023. The Brazilian has been critical of fans, clubs and even La Liga president Javier Tebas this year, after repeatedly finding himself the victim of monkey chants over the years. In claiming La Liga “belongs to the racists”, abuse of him grew even worse, but he’s kept on calling it out.
Mark White: Gary Lineker
Some think that footballers shouldn’t voice their opinions on politics. Others think that BBC presenters must stay neutral on societal talking points. Wherever you stand on that, Gary Lineker was backed by so many of his colleagues that the Beeb had to air a silent version of Match of the Day. For me, he’s a hero because he continually chooses to stick up for the vulnerable. Football cannot be separated from politics – good on him for using his voice to try and spark a change.