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The FFT Alternative Awards: Crowning the heroes, goals and even most disappointing moments of 2021

FFT awards
(Image credit: Future)

That famous Mitchell and Webb sketch came true. There really is so much football on TV. You can't move for the stuff.

2021 was the year that the beautiful game came back roaring: fans returned to stadiums, the Euros stretched across the continent and Arsene Wenger – to the pleasure of absolutely no one – desperately tried to push through biannual World Cups.

Come on, Arsene. We have a difficult enough job at FFT getting an entire Gregorian calendar's worth of football to fit neatly in the pages of a magazine: namely, our awards issue, out now. And even then, we miss things. 

And we're not too clever to admit that. In fact, here are all the awards we did miss from the issue, with our trusty writers putting forward their contenders for each.

Performance of the Year

This is the award given to the individual or collective who provided one single display of brilliance across the past 12 months, in any competition. And your nominations are...

Chris Flanagan, Senior Staff Writer (@CFlanaganFFT): Denmark, for their performance against Russia at Euro 2020

It's hard to look past the Danes' 4-1 triumph over Russia in the final group game at Euro 2020. True, Russia weren't actually much good, but Denmark had been through hell following Christian Eriksen's collapse and looked doomed to an early elimination, with zero points from two games. Then came that emotional night at the Parken, Andreas Christensen developing a foot like a traction engine, and the beginning of the Danes' incredible run to the semi finals.

Ed McCambridge, Staff Writer (@edmccambridge): Switzerland, for their performance against France at Euro 2020

Switzerland's victory over France in the last-16 of Euro 2020 takes some beating. After fluffing a second-half penalty that would have put them 2-0 up over the reigning world champions, the Swiss found themselves 3-1 down with 15 minutes to go. Yet two late strikes saw them force a pulsating extra-time, before the flawless 5-3 shoutout triumph which culminated in Yann Sommer saving from Kylian Mbappe to send his team through. A massive display of guts and togetherness... and they almost repeated the feat against Spain in the next round!

Conor Pope, Online Editor (@conorpope): Ruben Dias, for his performance for Manchester City against PSG in the Champions League

Mbappe may not have been playing and Messi was yet to sign, but Manchester City still had to defend a 2-1 first-leg lead against Neymar, Mauro Icardi and Angel Di Maria – no mean feat. Sometimes there’s real joy to be gleaned from simply observing a perfect example of competence (if only we could see that on the news, eh reader???).

That was Dias against PSG. He was imperious, impervious and, erm, impressive. As the Parisian artillery grew more desperate, Dias became more collected, carrying out heart-in-mouth blocks and and last-ditch clearances with all the apparent concern of someone taking the bins out. It was just a job to be done, and he nailed it.

Mark White, Staff Writer (@markwhlte): Pedri, for his performance for Spain against Italy

Perhaps we're numb to the achievements of teenagers, thanks to Lionel Messi, Michael Owen, Bukayo Saka and goodness knows however many more youngsters capable of genius but unable to rent a van. Pedri's performance for Spain at the Euros, though, felt slightly different to a kid flung into attack and asked to spark something. 

100% pass completion against the best midfield in the tournament and he looked genuinely dangerous when he carried the ball. If Barcelona don't wear him out by the time he's 23, he'll be unbelievable. 

The Most Improved Award

The Most Improved Award is given to the person or team who have exceeded expectations simply by... getting much better at what they were doing. The nominations in this category, are...

West Ham players celebrate a goal | West Ham v Tottenham live stream

(Image credit: PA)

Chris Flanagan: West Ham

Remember when everyone thought David Moyes was finished? This was the year that the Scot came back with a vengeance and turned West Ham into the new Everton, while Everton continued to turn into the new West Ham.

Under Moyes, the Toffees were the ones with the sensible recruitment policy and solid team structure, while the Hammers often used to sign whichever big name was available, no matter whether they fitted into the squad or not. Now, the Londoners are in the Premier League's top four, and already into the last 16 of the Europa League - their best run in Europe for 40 years. It's been hugely impressive.

Ed McCambridge: Jordan Pickford

Three Lions 'keeper Jordan Pickford faced calls for his no.1 shirt heading into Euro 2020, following a wobbly first half to the Premier League season which included a horror challenge on Virgil van Dijk in the Merseyside derby. He responded like the cocksure scallywag he is, with a fresh short back and sides and a series of imperious displays for Gareth Southgate's boys. 

England didn't concede a goal until the semi-final win over Denmark and his distribution allowed Gareth Southgate's side to play out from the back in a way they previously hadn't managed at a major tournament. Saving Jorginho's spot kick in the final shootout – after muttering, "You've got this!" to himself several times – was simply lovely. He deserved a winner's medal more than anyone. 

Ben Brereton Diaz, Pepsi Chile advert

(Image credit: Pepsi)

Conor Pope: Ben Brereton (Diaz)

Brereton (as he was then) was certainly improving towards the latter end of 2020, but it was really the summer when he exploded. Returning from the Copa America, he seemed a different player – scoring more goals in his first 11 Championship games of 2021/22 than he had in previous three years at Blackburn combined.

Mark White: football

Yeah, I'm going to give my nomination to football. I've enjoyed it a lot more this year and I can't work out whether that's because of crowds, the improvement in refereeing, teams just getting better or a mixture of all three. But well done football, keep it up. 

Goal of the Year

In one such FFT awards ceremony, Ed McCambridge thought outside the box and gave 'Manager of the Year' to relegated Sam Allardyce on account of 45 minutes of laughing at Chelsea. As such, the panel have decided that any kind of goal – whether spectacular, splended or stupid – should be considered. 

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Chris Flanagan: Ryan Broom, for Plymouth Argyle against Bolton Wanderers

If you're looking for the slapstick comedy goal of the year, look no further than Ryan Broom's strike for Plymouth against Bolton in October. The Pilgrims were already 2-0 up when rain heaved down in the closing stages - the ref was understandably reluctant to abandon the game with just minutes left, so players waded through the water until they could wade no more.

Bolton's attempts to pass it out from the back were probably ill-advised, and it needed three separate Plymouth players to have a go before they finally managed to put the ball into an empty net. The most bizarre goal I've ever seen in person.

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Ed McCambridge: Luke Shaw, for England against Italy

I had the pleasure of representing FFT at Croydon's Boxpark for the Euro 2020 final and have never celebrated a goal as much as Luke Shaw's early opener against Italy. The fact Kieran Tripper crossed to the Manchester United left-back was testament to Southgate's decision to go for a 3-5-2 in the big games and I was certain we'd won the tournament at that point. What followed still hurts, but for a few sweet moments, I experienced true nirvana.

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Conor Pope: Edinson Cavani, for Manchester United against Fulham

It’s a universal truth – though sadly disputed by some shock-jock contrarians – that a goal’s worth is almost directly correlated to how far away the shot was, and how hard it was hit. For that reason, Edinson Cavani chipping Alphonse Areola from 45 yards out in the first game at Old Trafford with fans back takes it for me.

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Mark White: Mohamed Salah, for Liverpool against Manchester City

It's not just that it was scored against the best team in the country. Or that Mohamed Salah beats three or four Manchester City players. It's not just that's a piece of aesthetic beauty, rifled in on his weaker foot. This goal alone ascended Salah to 'Is he the best player on Earth?' conversations for the first time. This is his Ronaldo vs Portsmouth; his Henry vs United. The goal itself is absolutely sublime but it's symbolic of everything the Egyptian King has become. 

Disappointment of the year

It's not all been good in 2021. Your disappointment nominees are...

Chris Flanagan: Lionel Messi not coming to England

For years, Manchester City had been linked with Lionel Messi, then when he actually became available, they didn't go for him.

The timing was awkward - Messi was expected to stay at Barcelona, so City had just activated a £100m clause to sign Jack Grealish. They were also hoping to sign Harry Kane, but when that fell through, they ended up going for Cristiano Ronaldo. With hindsight, should they just have gone for Messi? It may have been the last chance of the Flea turning up in the Premier League.

Robert Lewnadowski, Champions League betting odds

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Ed McCambridge: Bayern Munich's continued dominance in the German top flight

While Serie A, Ligue 1 and La Liga threw up big surprises in 2021, the Bundesliga remained its predictable self, with the Bavarian giants romping to a ninth-straight title last season. They're on course to make it an unprecedented 10 in a row this term as well. It's not Bayern I blame – they're a wonderful team with some world class players – but the likes of Dortmund, Leipzig, Gladbach and Leverkusen. For the love of god, someone please put together a credible challenge next year?

Conor Pope: Barcelona

There’s obviously a great feeling of satisfaction that comes from big clubs playing poorly, whingeing about their self-inflicted financial woes, and generally making incomprehensible decisions – particularly ones who style themselves as “more than a club”.

But actually, watching Barcelona these days is quite a sad experience. At their best, they delivered the highest footballing highs of the last 15 years, and to see them as a middling Spanish side losing their best player to petro-state funded superclub while they blame La Liga’s financial fair play model is like watching Lear rage incoherently in the storm.

Pep Guardiola Manchester City FourFourTwo season preview

(Image credit: PA)

Mark White: Pep Guardiola

Yes, he won a title. Yes, he also bagged a League Cup and reached the FA Cup semi-finals. And yes, his brand of football is as unique as it is fascinating, using false nines in a way that they've never been used before, moving Bernardo Silva into a complete midfield role and turning the outside of Joao Cancelo's right foot into the most dangerous weapon of any left flank in the country.

But is it so much to ask for him to not overthink the Champions League? This was your year, man.

The 2022 One To Watch Award

It's not just backwards that we're looking. 2022 has all the potential to be better than 2021 – and not just because 2021 wasn't very good. 

Erling Haaland

(Image credit: PA)

Chris Flanagan: Erling Haaland

If you're going to avoid the obvious, then keep an eye on Red Bull Salzburg's Karim Adeyemi or Benfica's Darwin Nunez in 2022 - they both could be on the move.

But the big story of the year is surely going to be Haaland's next destination. He looks like he's done as much as he can with Borussia Dortmund, so where next? Real Madrid and Barcelona have inevitably been linked, although the former seem to have prioritised Kylian Mbappe, and the latter are notoriously skint.

Would Bayern Munich oust 33-year-old Robert Lewandowski to make way for the star of the future? If it's the Premier League, Manchester City look the most likely - they need a striker, Haaland needs a club with the chance to win trophies, and Mino Raiola needs one with deep pockets.

Ed McCambridge: Dele Alli

Not a youngster – but a player many felt might be finished at the top level. Dele Alli's best days appeared to be behind him after ineffectual displays under successive Spurs managers. There have even been questions asked about his commitment, but a recent spike in form under new Spurs boss Antonio Conte hints that there's still plenty of fight in the forward yet. If he can recapture his magic, the 25-year-old could become a leader again for Tottenham in 2022, and maybe even make England's World Cup squad by the end of the year. It'd be a marvellous comeback story. 

Euro 2020

(Image credit: PA Images)

Conor Pope: Sandro Tonali

We all know the young attackers to keep an eye on over the next few years, and Jude Bellingham and Pedri are the two midfielders commanding most attention, but 21-year-old Sandro Tonali is worth keeping an eye on.

A central midfielder, who custom dictates must be compared to Andrea Pirlo at every mention, he’s a pivotal part of the Milan side who are genuine title contenders this season. While he didn’t make the Italy squad for Euro 2020, expect him to make the team for the World Cup in November.

Mark White: the Qatar national football team

In 2019, Qatar won their first national trophy, the Asian Cup. In 2022, they host their first World Cup. If South Korea, Japan, Russia are anything to go by – hell, even Brazil and Germany, to an extent – average hosts do pretty well in big tournaments.

I've got a funny feeling Qatar are going to knock out a giant at the World Cup next year. I just hope it's not England. 

Hero of the year

For all the doom and gloom, there are some who rise taller than mere mortals. Hero of the Year is awards to the one person (or some people, we're not fussy) who have done more for 2021 than any other. Your nominees...

Chris Flanagan: Ben Brereton Diaz

Yes, 2021 was the year when Italy won the Euros and Chelsea won the Champions League, but it was also the year when a previously unheralded Championship striker from Stoke who doesn't speak Spanish somehow ended up playing for Chile at Copa America, and got a draw on his debut against Lionel Messi.

Back when he was boring old Ben Brereton, the striker took eight months to score his first goal for Blackburn Rovers after joining the Ewood Park side in 2018/19. Now, Senor Brereton Diaz is a hero in Santiago, a star of Chilean Pepsi adverts, and had scored almost 20 goals for the season for Blackburn by early December. Life is weird.

Ed McCambridge: Sam Kerr

For putting that pitch invader on his arse in December's Women's Champions League clash with Juventus. The Chelsea forward might have picked up a booking for her actions, but it was the perfect response to the moronic behaviour. It'll be a long-time before anyone thinks of interrupting one of Chelsea Women's games again. 

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Conor Pope: All the footballers who spoke out against the European Super League

Yes, the Super League was this year. And while plenty of credit should go to fans who quickly mobilised and pressured their own clubs to do the right thing, as well as the likes of pundits like Gary Neville who quickly used their platforms to denounce the idea, footballers and managers who spoke out against it deserve to be remembered too.

RICHARD JOLLY In praise of the footballers who helped stop the European Super League

James Milner, Pep Guardiola, Bruno Fernandes, Hector Bellerin, Kevin De Bruyne and more all made statements – some bluntly and some not-so-coded – revealing their opposition to the plan. To publicly condemn your own employers is risky for anyone, and it’s worthy of applause.

Ander Herrera’s reflection that it was “the rich stealing what the people created” was the kind of line that reminded us that footballers are fans, too.

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Mark White: Aaron Ramsdale

Even the sunniest, most gurning optimist would have hoped Aaron Ramsdale to simply keep a low profile at Arsenal. The bar was literally on the floor for his impact – but oh, how naysayers, football nerds and most of all, Gooners, were wrong.

It's great that Rambo has been in super form. That he's also become an absolute cult loon (in the best possible way), who goads away fans, plays chicken in build-up and screams until his tonsils are blistered, is just about the cherry on the told-you-so. Were he to be handed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's cold skippership, you wouldn't be shocked. 

Ramsdale for England? I want the man to be king, let alone replace Pickford.

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Mark White has been a staff writer on FourFourTwo since joining in January 2020, writing pieces for both online and the magazine. Over his time on the brand, he has interviewed the likes of Aaron Ramsdale and Jack Wilshere, written pieces ranging on subjects from Bobby Robson's season at Barcelona to Robinho's career, and has been to the FA Cup and League Cup finals, working for FFT