England was gripped by Gareth Southgate’s young team exceeding expectations in the World Cup. In the process Harry Kane was backed down to as short as 1.44 and Jordan Pickford into 6.0 for his goalkeeping heroics.
Croatia spoilt the party in the semis and England were outclassed by Belgium in the 3rd/4th playoff. So there was an inevitable feeling of anti-climax, although Kane won the golden boot, emulating Gary Lineker in Mexico 86. There was no airport homecoming celebration like the one that greeted Paul Gascoigne after Italia 1990 but the general feeling was that England football fans could feel pride about their team again.
Kane settled as clear SPOTY favourite after the tournament fluctuating just above evens on Betfair.
A challenger has quickly emerged from the pack in the form of Geraint Thomas, who on Sunday became the first Welshman to win the Tour De France. It was his first grand tour win coming in the autumn of a stellar career but one that many assumed would see him fall short of a major.
Wales is proud of its son and well wishers have been out in force for someone who clearly has the full respect of his fellow professionals and is very popular. He’s been front page news and has been happy hitting the breakfast and daytime TV and radio circuit in the glow of his victory. I hope followers managed to pick up some of the 14/1 advised on the spotybet Twitter feed.
At this stage the bookies have Kane at 11/10 v Thomas at 5/2 (2.1 v 3.8 on Betfair).
My feeling is that the prices should be much closer than that, possibly with Thomas as favourite. It’s really Southgate who was the darling of England’s campaign in Russia (but managers/ coaches have historically not been eligible for the main SPOTY award). Winning the golden boot is a great achievement but is that in itself enough to drive enough people to vote. Lineker didn’t make the top three in 1986 and nor did Euro 96’s top scorer Alan Shearer. These were a long time ago though and with different competition but it’s worth noting.
England footballers have done better on other occasions – Gazza won SPOTY in 1990 and Michael Owen in 1998 when he scored that mesmerising goal in the classic match against Argentina (he was also joint Premier League top scorer for the 97/98 season). David Beckham won in 2001 for that last minute winner at Old Trafford against Greece to take England to the World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
These examples all had stand out moments when the stakes were high that live long in the memory. That doesn’t seem to be quite the case with Kane this year. When club rivalries renew and the football season approaches the key festive fixtures there must be some doubt whether fans can collaborate enough to get him over the line on SPOTY night. The main hope would appear to be if there’s plenty of goodwill for England during the show (Southgate could win coach of the year) and viewers want to reward them through Kane.
Cycling’s popularity has been weakened by the Lance Armstrong admissions, Team Sky’s controversial TUE usage and the case against Chris Froome for using too much of his inhaler (the case was dropped just before the Tour). Thomas’s price may be holding up as a reflection of this and that Froome has won the Tour four times previously but not even made the SPOTY podium.
The key and obvious difference is the Wales factor. And this is arguably the country’s greatest sporting achievement. Welsh votes would have been important in Ryan Giggs (1999) and Joe Calzaghe (2007) winning the award. Perhaps most strikingly they lifted Leigh Halfpenny to 2nd in 2013. The message to be read from social media in the last week suggests that Wales will be willing to show masses of support for G on SPOTY night. Significant multi-voting could be in play.
When Froome first won the Tour in 2013 it was in the shadow of Armstrong’s doping confession’s on Oprah in the January of that year and also came hot on the heels of Wiggins the year before. After that the novelty factor in his wins had gone. He won the Vuelta last year as well as the Tour and indications were that he was set to poll very well but the salbutamol case leak put paid to that.
Thomas appears to connect more warmly to audiences and for those who have followed his career from Olympic gold in 2008 there could be a wider willingness in the UK to vote for him not just for his Tour win but in recognition of his career as a whole. Thomas regularly played the role of super domestique on the road so there is an underdog feel to his win which also appeals.
As ever this far out there is still plenty of opportunity for leftfield challengers to emerge and campaigns to build. It’s difficult though to envisage a stronger candidate coming out of the Ryder Cup or the European Championships coming up in Glasgow and Berlin. Boxing is still bubbling away yet to really explode. A Tyson Fury win over Deontay Wilder in December could be entertaining and interesting in its timing but it remains to be seen. Anthony Joshua fights in September but any unification bout is still stuck on the horizon.
Lewis Hamilton is odds-on to win a 5th F1 title but his popularity appears to have peaked. Of the rank outsiders Tai Woffinden of speedway may be worth keeping an eye on.
I’m keen to know what people think on Kane v Thomas and whether I’m being too optimistic about the latter – please let me know in the comments if you get the chance.