A Year In The Life
Our team of writers reflect on the year in sport and bring you their highlights from racing, football, the Olympics, cricket, golf, both codes of rugby, darts, tennis, athletics, NFL and formula one.
We may say it every December, but what a year of sport it's been.
Of course we can't pretend there hasn't been a worrying amount of scandal casting a shadow over various sporting battlegrounds – not least the Olympics – but let's not dwell on all that here in our favourite Festive feature.
Our team of writers have selected their personal highlights of the sporting calendar (in no particular order) and we can only apologise if your own favourites didn't make the cut…
Horse Racing (National Hunt)
Five sentimental pounds
By Ian Ogg
Any day at the Cheltenham Festival is a good one but the Wednesday that Sprinter Sacre regained his Champion Chase crown was a truly remarkable one. Did you really believe that he could come back? I threw a few sentimental pounds in his direction but there was no confidence in the bet. When the Black Aeroplane loomed large for one more time at the top of the Cheltenham hill with Un De Sceaux trailing in his wake it didn't seem possible, it didn't seem real. The palpable excitement built until the tension was relieved in an ear-splitting chorus of delight once he'd cleared the last. 'They don't come back', they say – well, Sprinter Sacre did and he did it with all the pomp and majesty that we'd come to expect from one of the game's greats.
Paul Nicholls crowned champion trainer again
By Will Hayler
I'm pretty sure I know who I'd rather have a horse with and I'm certain I know who I'd rather go for a pint with, but there was something about the way Paul Nicholls turned away Willie Mullins' attempt to become the first Irish-based trainer to be champion on both sides of the Sea since Aidan O'Brien did it in 2008 that I strangely enjoyed. Heading into the final day of the season at Sandown, Mullins still had £50,000 to find but had assembled an impressive team of runners for the chase. However, defeats for Valseur Lido and Un De Sceaux put a spoke in the wheels and the heroic (and lucrative) effort in defeat of the Nicholls-trained Just A Par in the Bet365 Gold Cup sealed the outcome. It was a battle that injected a different and interesting talking point into the final days of the campaign.
The Perfect Candidate
By Ian Ogg
Victory for Fergal O'Brien's nine-year-old in the staying handicap chase on New Year's Day would have passed many revellers by and with good reason but the Grand National hopeful is owned by long-standing family friends and provided them with their very first winner at Cheltenham. To be on hand to witness the excitement provided by his eight length victory was a treat and a reminder of the pleasure that the good days – and for most they are few and far between in this sport – can bring. A good week for his owners got even better when Arctic Gold won at Ludlow three days later and hopefully the pair will be able to provide a few more memorable moments in 2017.
Ruling the world
By Matt Brocklebank
Aintree has a habit of throwing up the most emotional of stories horse racing can produce but I was sobbing unashamedly at Mouse Morris' reaction to winning the National with Rule The World just months after the death of his 30-year-old son. "He was doing overtime for me, poor old Tiff (nickname of son Christopher). It's just Disneyland, fairytale stuff. "You have to wonder how good this horse would have been with a proper arse on him. He's a class horse." The slightly dishevelled Morris – remarkably son of former International Olympic Committee Chief Lord Killanin – has been saddling winners of major races since the late '80s, His Song, War Of Attrition and First Lieutenant among his finest, but you were left in no doubt that this was a man dizzy with disbelief at what he had just achieved on Merseyside, and it was simply a joy to soak it all up.
"Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. I'm sure that was the reaction of the Chuckle Brothers to England's Euro 2016 exit. Roy Hodgson fell on his sword immediately after the match as the glory belonged entirely to Iceland."
By Andy Schooler
Sharing in the joy
It's fair to say Novak Djokovic has struggled to gain universal approval in tennis circles despite his incredible talent. Indeed, it is easy to make the argument that is the best player to have ever played the game. That argument will continue for some time yet but the Serb's victory in June's French Open final certainly makes him part of it. Only the eighth player to complete the career Grand Slam, Djokovic's come-from-behind victory over Andy Murray was the win he craved above all others. So good has Djokovic been over the past five years that it was hard for even the harshest critic of the 29-year-old not enjoy his winning moment. The fact that it makes this list even though a Briton was on the wrong end of the loss says much.
Best of British
If Djokovic was the story of the first half of the season – at least on the court – then Murray was very much the centre of attention in the second. As the Scot churned out the wins, his rival's world number one ranking drew into view. Tennis fans and pundits crunched the numbers – for weeks in advance we knew what Murray needed to do. He arrived in Paris knowing a final spot could be enough to seal it but the way things unfolded must have raised a smile on more faces than simply mine. On semi-finals day, Murray needed to beat Milos Raonic to get over the line but the match didn't even happen, the Canadian withdrawing minutes before he was due on court. It had been a decade in the making but Murray had finally reached the pinnacle of his sport. As the TV crews chatted on, previewing the match-that-never-was, Murray was already celebrating. As crowning moments go, there was something wonderfully bumblingly British about it all.
By David John
Foxes pounce in the City
One of the endearing features of Leicester's romp to the Premier League title at 5,000/1 last May was manager Claudio Ranieri's continued indifference to whether or not they were going to remain genuine contenders for the long haul. But once his side had rampaged through the Etihad Stadium 3-1 in early February and given Manchester City what-for then surely the mild-mannered Italian must have started to believe it could actually happen. This wasn't just a cagey, thief-in-the-night job scuttling away with all three points – Leicester took their opponents apart as a Riyad Mahrez goal of sublime quality shortly after half-time confirmed their utter superiority and left their rivals in a daze. Perhaps we all knew deep down from Christmas onwards the destination of the Premier League crown was going to be the east midlands but this was the result and performance which confirmed the deal would be sealed.
Defences on top!
This has turned out to be a slightly topical reflection considering Alan Pardew's recent exit from Crystal Palace and his team's display at Swansea at the end of November had to be seen to be believed. It takes some doing for a team to trail 3-1, then hold an improbable 4-3 lead heading into added time and somehow manage to chuck it all away again in a 5-4 defeat. On reflection, managers involved in those on those sort of crazy outcomes don't tend to last very long at the top end of the market so perhaps Pardew was only marking time while some patient owners looked for a better option. He may well watch the conclusion of that game in south Wales at some stage down the line with a rueful smile and a calculator – I lost track with what the heck was going on around about the seventh goal.
"Lutalo Muhammad's tears did at least earn him a place in all our hearts for a few hours at least. Britain doesn't really do plucky losers anymore, but if we did Lutalo would be a national treasure."
By Steve Bramley
Jones the perfect appointment
When Eddie Jones was appointed England coach at the end of 2015 I must admit to a certain amount of scepticism. Twelve months on I've been made to eat my words – a first Grand Slam in 13 years, a whitewash victory over Australia and a record-equalling 14 match unbeaten record – Jones seemingly can do no wrong. His controversial appointment of Dylan Hartley as captain came in for widespread criticism at the time, but proved Jones's masterstroke. England quickly found a clinical edge, sadly lacking under predecessor Stuart Lancaster. The Australian, to his enormous credit, regularly praises Lancaster for providing him with a talented squad of players, he has just added the gloss, the belief and crucially the cutting edge. For all my doubt I'm now totally converted. Jones' target is World Cup glory in Japan is 2019 and after a remarkable 2016 there is growing belief England could fulfil his and England supporters' dreams.
Itoje makes his mark
The emergence of Maro Itoje on to the international stage has been a huge plus in a remarkable year for England. The 22-year-old's man of the match display in the 25-21 victory over Wales at Twickenham – in only his third Test appearance – underlined the enormous talent England had uncovered. The Camden-born second row has it all – sensational in the line-out, outstanding in the breakdown and deceptively quick for a man of his size – putting it simply he's the complete footballer. Not since Jonny Wilkinson have England produced a player of such outstanding ability. Itoje missed the autumn internationals after breaking his hand but his return ahead of the Six Nations defence is a huge fillip as England defend their Six Nations crown.
"And finally we arrive at Found. Brilliant, gutsy, Found. So often the bridesmaid, second in five Group One contests between May and September, she thrives off racing and produced her very best in the Arc."
By Dave Tickner
Ben Stokes: From Hero…
Ben Stokes is one of those cricketers with the uncanny ability to find himself at the heart of things. For better or worse. In 2015, Stokes' fondness for centre-stage incorporated the fastest ever Test hundred at Lord's against New Zealand, and a dismissal for obstructing the field in an ODI against Australia at the same venue. This year, if anything, he's raised the bar. It started in January, with one of the all-time great Test innings. It would become the fastest 250 ever seen in Test cricket. In a match that ended in a high-scoring draw at Newlands, it would be easy to dismiss Stokes' heroics as flat-track bullying. Worth remembering, then, that England were 167-4 when he came in and 223-5 when he and Jonny Bairstow came together. When they were finally separated 58 overs later by a farcical dropped-catch-run-out from AB de Villiers, England were 622-6. Stokes' dizzying contribution was 258 from 198 balls in just over five-and-a-half hours. His acceleration from a relatively staid opening hundred (105 balls) was startling. He reached 200 just 58 balls later, and 250 after 35 more. In all he sent 11 sixes raining down on the good people of Cape Town.
A couple of months later, Stokes found himself on the other side of the fence. England stood on the brink of claiming their second World Twenty20 crown after making eye-catching progress through to the knockout stages via an outrageous run-chase against South Africa, a near-calamity against Afghanistan, and defying Angelo Mathews' ballsy and almost successful one-man smash-and-grab mission for Sri Lanka. In the semi-final, England clinically disposed of New Zealand – until that point the tournament's standout team. In the final, England appeared certain to avenge their only previous defeat in the event against West Indies. Stokes' death bowling had been one of the key reasons behind England's success in India, and he stepped up to bowl the final over with 19 runs to defend. He was undoubtedly the man for the job; the title was England's. Four balls and 24 runs later, Carlos Brathwaite was a bona fide West Indian hero and a crestfallen Stokes was on his haunches trying to work out precisely how four successive deliveries had disappeared into the Eden Gardens stands to seal one of the most remarkable victories of all time. Stokes, typically, would bounce back soon enough. When Alastair Cook became the first England batsman ever to reach 10000 Test runs, who stole all the social-media buzz by appearing on the team balcony wearing only a pair of bright green underpants? Benjamin Andrew Stokes. He wasn't even playing in the match.
By Jordan Fiddes
When the Super 8s concept was first derived, the tagline of 'every minute matters' was used to encourage fans and, once again, in 2016, it came to fruition. From Ryan Hall's last gasp try to claim the League Leaders' Shield for Leeds in 2015, to this year, when Salford competed in the 'Million Pound Game' for Super League survival against Hull KR. To possibly give it even more importance than Ryan Hall's dramatics the previous year, this isn't all about keeping a place in Super League, it's also about keeping a full-time job for the majority of players, with many clubs opting for 'part-time' status in the Championship. Hull KR's Jamie Peacock – who came out of retirement to help the Robins' injury crisis – summed up ahead of the game: "To put it into context, imagine doing your job all year and then having an 80 minute interview where everything is on the line – and the amount of stress that brings." Little did he know, it was the moments after the 80 minutes that had the biggest impact, in what soon became the 'Million Pound Point.' After an amazing comeback from the Red Devils, who came from 18-10 down with two minutes to go, the scores were level at the hooter. Gareth O'Brien's 40 metre drop goal in golden point extra time sent the Lancashire side into euphoria whilst also maintaining their Super League status for another year. Hull KR – who were 4/1 to finish bottom of the league – are relegated to the Championship and will bid for a top four finish in order to compete in the Middle 8's in 2017.
Hull of a season
With high achievement in mind, 2016 was close to being the perfect year for Hull FC. The Airlie Birds won the Challenge Cup, finished third in the Super 8s and reached the semi-final stage of the play-offs. Starting the season sixth in the betting for Challenge Cup honours (12/1), reaching the Wembley final was already an achievement. The Black and Whites clinched the Challenge Cup in one pivotal moment. Man of Steel Danny Houghton made a last ditch tackle on fellow high-achiever Ben Currie, dislodging the ball as the Warrington man reached for the line. The FC hooker started the season at a surprising 50/1 to win the Steve Prescott Man of Steel award despite being top tackler the year previous. He again achieved that feat with a hugely impressive 1,289 tackles and nearly 200 runs from dummy-half.
Horse Racing (Flat)
Arc 1-2-3 caps tremendous year for O'Brien
By Ben Linfoot
Even by his standards, it was an exceptional 2016 for Aidan O'Brien. The Ballydoyle maestro won 23 Group Ones in the calendar year, falling short of Bobby Frankel's world record of 25, but taking four Classics, a Breeders' Cup victory and that phenomenal Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe one-two-three. Minding was just brilliant and could do some real damage at four next season, whereas although 'the best two-year-old I've trained' Air Force Blue went winless, The Gurkha stepped up to the plate in his absence to take the French Guineas and the Sussex Stakes. This was the year of the fillies though – not just Minding, but Seventh Heaven, Alice Springs and he future looks bright, too, with the two-year-old Rhododendron a decisive winner of the Dubai Fillies' Mile. She's a strong 1000 Guineas favourite heading into the winter. And finally we arrive at Found. Brilliant, gutsy, Found. So often the bridesmaid, second in five Group One contests between May and September, she thrives off racing and produced her very best in the Arc, diverted to Chantilly while Longchamp has a makeover, to lead home a frankly amazing Ballydoyle one-two-three. An unforgettable highlight in an an unforgettable year for Ballydoyle.
The Sheikh who must be Obaid
By Will Hayler
The problem with most fall-outs in sport is that they end up being conducted in private and those of us on the outside never get to see behind the curtain. When Sheikh Mohammed Obaid al Maktoum elected to remove Postponed and his other horses from Luca Cumani to join Roger Varian, Cumani was at the time predictably diplomatic about the split. The Sheikh also kept his counsel for a while, until cornered by the press in the winner's enclosure at York after Postponed's impressive success in the Juddmonte International and asked about the reasons behind the switch of stables. "I tell you something," he barked. This is promising, I thought. "I am military. If I give someone orders, they have to take my orders. Otherwise he has to tell me to take my horses all from them, you see. We do it like this. I'm not going to listen to a trainer to give me an order what to do. I said to them 'If I tell you this is the race I want to run, this is the race I want to run, and I won't take any excuses later'." So there you have it. Not just a great moment on the track, but good entertainment off it, as it became clear that it was a difference of opinion over running plans for Postponed and the extent to which he should have been fully-tuned for the first half of last season, that had caused the greatest dispute between an owner and a trainer and subsequent switch of horses for… well, for at least another couple of months!
Going for Gold
By Matt Brocklebank
To witness Frankie Dettori at work on the Round Course live at Royal Ascot is to witness beauty itself and Galileo Gold was one of his finest moment in 2016 for me. The horse was the 2000 Guineas winner and was naturally entitled to go extremely close on his Newmarket form, but you couldn't help but think that Dettori's mastery was a key component to Hugo Palmer's chestnut following up in the St James's Palace and subsequent events have done nothing to quell that initial notion. While Ryan Moore attempted a dangerous and ultimately costly game of cat-and-mouse on well-backed favourite The Gurkha towards the back of the small field, Dettori was cunningly tracking the Godolphin pace-setter Cymric and his timing when it came to pushing Galileo Gold's buttons was to a hundredth of a second. The horse shot to the front a furlong and a half from the finish and was kept up to his work by the Italian's famous left-hand drive, before the right hand reached up to punch the air and the clock stopped at 1:44.01.
"Many onlookers believed the opportunity had come too soon in Joshua's fledgling career. However, the 26-year-old dispelled any doubts about his credentials by dethroning the champion inside two rounds."
By Simon Crawford
Long wait over for Mark King
They say good things come to those that wait – and in the case of Mark King it took 25 years. The Romford potter had been a popular member of the circuit for quarter of a century, but had never managed to land a ranking title with his best efforts being runner-up to Stephen Hendry in the Welsh Open final back in 1997 and then also coming second best in the final of the Irish Masters in 2004, this time to Peter Ebdon. But finally it all went right for the 42-year-old at November's inaugural Northern Ireland Open in Belfast. It was far from easy as King had to beat Igor Figueiredo, English Open champion Liang Wenbo, Kurt Maflin, Hossein Vafaei Ayouri and an in-form Kyren Wilson to set up a final meeting with Barry Hawkins. It looked bleak for King when he trailed 5-1, but he fought back to win 9-8 and there were emotional scenes at the end as he admitted he had been forced to borrow money from his dad in order to make the trip across the Irish Sea.
Memorable success for Ali Carter
Winning a ranking title is perhaps something to be expected from a talented player like Ali Carter. But when the Essex cueman won the World Open in Yushan, beating Joe Perry in the final in July, there was added significance to it. The fourth ranking success of his stellar career, more poignant was the fact that it was his first since successfully battling cancer. Carter, who has faced testicular and lung cancer since winning the German Masters in 2013, was 9-5 ahead at one stage but saw a late comeback from Perry take it to an 18th frame. He chose that moment to compile his first century of the final, making 127 to triumph in style and reclaim his place in the world's top 16. "I have been through a lot over the last couple of years so to get back into the top 16 is a huge achievement," he said. Carter is surely destined to add more titles to his CV in the coming years, but that success in China will always hold a special place in his heart.
By Chris Hammer
Can you name all Team GB's gold medal winners from Rio 2016? That's hard enough, such is the volume of champions created by our lottery-funded Olympic obsession (oh, and don't forget all those sacrifices the athletes make), so spare a thought for the forgotten silver and bronze medalists. Well, if it's any consolation for Lutalo Muhammad, he wouldn't be highlighted in this feature had he got through the final second of his fight without being kicked in the head. It was the only type of blow which could snatch gold away from him – and also his chance to be lauded as our latest sporting hero – yet somehow his opponent Cheick Sallah Cisse landed it as the final buzzer sounded. As a mere silver medalist, he's possibly missed out on more lucrative sponsorship deals than he could have secured with a gold but fortunately his tears won him a place in all our hearts for a few hours at least. Britain doesn't really do plucky losers anymore, but if we did Lutalo would be a national treasure.
By Ben Coley
DJ calls the tune at Oakmont
Even the casual golf fan knows Dustin Johnson, and they know his story: from major heartbreak, through personal torment and into the Gretzky household, where partner Paulina and her father Wayne helped bring out the best in golf's most athletic talent. Paulina's influence, it is now accepted, has been enormously positive, but there remain those who turn their noses up at Instagram videos of the happy couple cruising the Everglades in between drinks. One such video is backed by a song, whose lyrics ask 'how many f**** do I give?', an emphatic and pinpoint message to those who circled Johnson at his lowest moments. When I watched this giant of a golfer play the closing holes at Oakmont en route to a breakthrough, long overdue maiden major title in the US Open, this song was playing in the background. Johnson had entered the final round in a familiar position: second. It's the position he somehow contrived to fill one year earlier, when three putts from 12 feet saw him drop the trophy into the hands of Jordan Spieth. This time, Johnson was in pursuit of Shane Lowry, untried in such a situation, and it was clear early that DJ felt this was an opportunity he was not going to miss. So when the decision-makers at the USGA decided not to decide whether Johnson should be penalised for an incident on the fifth green until after the event had finished (!), Johnson did what he does best: he forgot about it, got his driver out, hit it 350 yards and swaggered after it, John Wayne dressed in Taylor Made. Less than three hours later, he would hit a towering six-iron to within a few feet of the hole to close out victory with a birdie only he could make – a shot which was taken back when the USGA finally, absurdly, concluded that he was to receive a penalty which we now knew would not affect the outcome. How many f**** does DJ give? None.
Rory v Reed at the Ryder Cup
There is nothing particularly subtle about Rory McIlroy, and there is nothing particularly subtle about Patrick Reed. McIlroy is right there in front of you: the purity of his swing, the firmness of his chest. And so is Reed, in his own way – he's bold, brash and nothing if not ballsy; he wears an old-fashioned trouser and swings an old-fashioned swing. So when these two went head-to-head on Sunday at the Ryder Cup, it was no surprise that they produced a brilliantly brazen demonstration of modern golf, punch and counter punch, all played out to the soundtrack of a raucous US crowd. The highlight came on hole eight, a testing par three on which neither man had been able to hit their tee-shot close. First to putt was McIlroy, fully 55 feet away, and never anywhere but dead centre. He lost it, screaming "I can't hear you!" like the beast he is. Briefly, Europe could win this Ryder Cup. How could they lose it, with Rory at this, his unbeatable best? Reed, in a moment which defined both this match and the week, responded with a 25-footer of his own to halve the hole and from that moment on was never behind, making another incredible birdie on the last to put a red point on the board. On 18 as on seven, Rory could do no more than laugh, applaud and then shake hands with his opponent. It was an electrifying performance from McIlroy, yet somehow Reed had beaten him. Hours later, when Ryan Moore sealed victory for America, the event that always delivers had somehow exceeded the hype which now precedes it, Team USA had found their Ian Poulter, and Rory had somehow, even in defeat, confirmed that there's still no one quite like him in this sport.
"'They don't come back', they say – well, Sprinter Sacre did and he did it with all the pomp and majesty that we'd come to expect from one of the game's greats."
By Simon Crawford
Top of the world
From the moment Anthony Joshua won Olympic gold back in 2012 and then opted to turn professional, he was being groomed for super-stardom – it was just a question of how soon it would happen. But not even the Watford heavyweight could have dreamed that his first title would come in only his 16th outing in the paid ranks. The Watford heavyweight had blasted aside 15 opponents and only bitter domestic rival Dillian Whyte had been able to ask any serious questions of him. So when it was announced that AJ would challenge American southpaw Charles Martin for the IBF belt back in April, many onlookers believed the opportunity had come too soon in Joshua's fledgling career. However, the 26-year-old dispelled any doubts about his credentials by dethroning the champion inside two rounds. He has since defended it twice and now look forward to a meeting with Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium next April. 2016 was a sensational year for Joshua – 2017 promises to be even better.
Controversial judging undermined what had been an absorbing boxing tournament at the Rio Olympic Games. Irishman Michael Conlan was just one fighter who emotionally spoke out about the standard of those scoring at ringside and has since opted to turn professional. But one undoubted ray of sunshine in an otherwise disappointing showing from Team GB was provided by Leeds flyweight Nicola Adams. Defending the gold medal she won in London four years previously, the pressure was very much on the popular fighter from Yorkshire. After battling her way through to the final, the 33-year-old won a unanimous points decision to beat France's Sarah Ourahmoune to become the first British boxer to retain an Olympic title for 92 years. It seems likely she will now turn over, but her contribution to British sport can't be understated.
By Nick Hext
Ice Ice Baby
Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. I'm sure that was the reaction of kids TV favourites the Chuckle Brothers to England's exit at the hands of Iceland in the last 16 of Euro 2016. Three Lions boss Roy Hodgson fell on his sword immediately after the match as the glory belonged entirely to Iceland, the smallest nation ever to play in the European Championships. You couldn't move for condemnation of England as they returned from France but it's time for some hearty praise to Iceland as we reflect on the summer's action. The tiny Nordic island reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2016. That's a remarkable achievement. They drew with eventual champions Portugal, leading to a memorable outburst from Cristiano Ronaldo, and it was an unbeaten four-match run before coming up against a rampant France in the quarter-finals. There was certainly nothing lucky about the win against England. All the scoring was done in the first 18 minutes as Wayne Rooney's opener from the penalty spot was followed by goals from Ragnar Sigurdsson and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. It wasn't even as though Iceland had to hold on. They should have won by more as England's Three Lions were tamed in humiliating fashion. The Viking thunderclap followed and it hasn't stopped since.
Iceland didn't provide Euro 2016's only fairytale. Wales' march to the semi-finals provided a success story for at least one of the British nations in action, although credit must also go to Northern Ireland's spirited run to the last 16 before coming up against Chris Coleman's men. Wales' reward for dispatching Northern Ireland was a quarter-final clash with highly-fancied Belgium. That's when the magic happened. Belgium went ahead through a cracking strike from Radja Nainggolan and it looked like this would be where the adventure would end. That reckoned without the Welsh wonders. Ashley Williams pulled Wales level and then came a moment of magic from Hal Robson-Kanu. The forward, without a club at the time before joining West Brom at the start of the season, left three defenders utterly clueless with a fantastic drag back and finish beyond Thibaut Courtois. Sam Vokes put the gloss on things to seal a 3-1 victory and a place as one of the best four teams in Europe. Eventual champions Portugal proved too tough a nut to crack in the last four but the homecoming parade in Cardiff showed just what a summer it had been for Coleman's collection of swashbuckling stars.
By Steve Bramley
Retirement stuns F1
Sensational! That's the only way to describe world champion Nico Rosberg's stunning, sudden retirement from the F1. The 31-year-old's bombshell to quit racing less than a week after winning his maiden world drivers' title took everyone by surprise, apart from team-mate and rival Lewis Hamilton it seems. The two former best friends have been fighting it out for titles ever since they first got behind the wheel in karting 18 years ago and now Rosberg has finally got the better of the Briton he's decided to bow out at the top. All the talk suggests the German expects Hamilton, who won the final four races of the season to close to within five points of his Mercedes rival, will come back even stronger next season. I think the added pressure of trying to defend his title against a fired-up Hamilton, in probably a quicker car, prompted Rosberg's decision to walk away. Whatever his reasoning, Rosberg has fulfilled his ambition, something he can be immensely proud of.
Going to the Max!
While Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton dominated the 2016 season, winning all two of the 21 races, it is Max Verstappen's victory in the Spanish Grand Prix that undoubtedly marked the dawning of a new star. The teenage sensation wrote his name into F1 folklore when he became the youngest-ever winner of a Grand Prix and even more remarkably he achieved it on his debut. Verstappen, who was only promoted from Toro Rosso to Red Bull the previous week, underlined his talent by holding off the challenge from Ferarari's Kimi Raikkonen to reign in Spain. The Dutchman attacking style of driving has come in for criticism from fellow drivers but he has also won wide-spread praise and is surely a future world champion in the making.
By Chris Hammer
He's only human
The year began with Gary Anderson firing in a nine-darter en route to the World Darts Championship final, which he duly won again, but since then 2016 has been about one man. I should therefore highlight one of his 25 tournament wins but instead I'm turning the clocks back to September in Cardiff when, live on BBC, Phil Taylor rolled back the years to remarkably thrash his arch rival twice in one weekend to win the inaugural Champions League of Darts. "It will be a completely different audience, we'll have the old ladies watching us again and those who can't afford Sky", he said before the event and it was clear that performing so well in front of a wider prime-time audience on the Beeb was a huge incentive for him. Whether you love the Power or hate him, the sport certainly needed someone to prove the mighty Dutchman is only human, if only for two days.
And it was for only two days. Since then, MVG went on to ruthlessly win all four of the remaining televised titles in 2016 to take his haul to nine majors for the year although the last of which – the Players Championship Finals – produced an unforgettable scare for those who were fortunate enough to watch. Full-time builder Darren Webster was appearing in the first TV semi-final if his career at the age of 48 and was given pretty much no chance of preventing MVG from winning his 34rd semi-final of the year. But within minutes a stunned – yet excited – kind of silence descended on the Butlins Resort in Minehead as Webster stormed into an unthinkable 6-0 lead and found himself just five away from achieving the shock of the season by far. All Webster had to do was just carry on and play the board just like he had been doing but unfortunately, as Wayne Mardle recently told me, "carrying on as if nothing special is happening when something special is happening is impossible". And so it proved as MVG, who was still odds-on favourite in-running, took 11 of the next 13 legs to avoid a real scare on his way to a 25th tournament triumph of the season.
"For all my doubt I'm now totally converted. Jones' target is World Cup glory in Japan is 2019 and after a remarkable 2016 there is growing belief England could fulfil his and England supporters' dreams."
By David John
It is the season of goodwill and all that but in a maverick move for a feature focusing on sporting highlights, I thought I would put the boot in instead on one of the NFL's biggest flops – the Rams and their return to Los Angeles. It was perhaps asking too much for a franchise mired in mediocrity during their stint in St Louis to immediately re-invent itself as a Super Bowl candidate in sunny southern California but their first season has been nothing short of a disaster. A prime time TV opening 28-0 loss at an even more dreadful San Francisco set the tone for a team who that has barely raised a gallop on offense and the whole sorry scenario reached an inevitable conclusion as perennial losing head coach Jeff Fisher was shown the exit. Who gets the gig remains to be seen but owner Stan Kroenke will move his team to a marvellous new facility in 2019 in Inglewood so let's hope he still has some fans to take there through the next couple of years – they deserve so much better.
For what we are about to receive
I have come to terms with the fact I will never play in the NFL. If I could, I would play wide receiver. It screams me – a flashy skill position with the ability to dominate and change the course of history with a leap Nureyev would have been proud of and a sure-handed snag of the football. While I can only dream, Atlanta's Julio Jones hit the heights in 2016 with an extraordinary performance in week four as he and quarterback Matt Ryan rewrote the record books against Carolina. Jones has been an elite player at the position for a number of seasons but his 12 grabs for 300 yards – capped by a 75-yard touchdown – was the very definition of the opposition facing a rival who was simply unplayable on the day. It is such a shame niggling injuries continue to hamper the Alabama graduate as I don't think he has reached anywhere near the limit of his ability – a 2,000-yard receiving campaign would be a stroll in the park given a clear run with his health.
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