Christmas is not only the season of joy but also the season of year-end lists and, once again, I’ve compiled my own list featuring the best 11 players I’ve seen on my groundhopping adventures in 2018. The formation has changed slightly – from a 3-5-2 last year to a 3-4-3 now – and is an indication of the increase in attacking prowess this year.
Like the Ballon D’Or awards conducted earlier in the month, the HST XI recognises many female footballers for the first time. It’s pretty embarrassing to admit that it took me until 2018 to attend my first women’s match. But I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning about new teams, players and managers and I’m looking forward to increasing my knowledge further in 2019.
For now though, here is a rundown of the HST XI for the year just gone, with a bench for those who didn’t quite make the cut, as well as the best manager and stadium.
Goalkeeper | Jordan Pickford (Everton)
After Pickford saved two spot-kicks in England’s World Cup penalty shootout win over Colombia – he carried that form into his club football with Everton. The Blues took on Crystal Palace when I visited Goodison Park and England’s number one produced the game-defining moment when he stopped Luka Milivojevic’s penalty in the second half.
At 1-0, Palace could have kicked on or battled to a tight away victory. Instead, the game remained goalless until the home side snatched three points with a couple of late goals from the bench.
Defender | Charlie Mulgrew (Blackburn Rovers)
Mulgrew looked a certainty to make my end-of-year list from as far back as January following his two goals in Blackburn’s top-of-the-table clash with Shrewsbury. Not only did his exquisite free-kick and well-placed penalty bring his League One goal tally to 11 – a remarkable number from the centre of defence – but the 3-1 win he helped orchestrate closed the gap between second-placed Shrewsbury and the chasing Rovers to two points.
The brace proved crucial in deciding the outcome of the season too. Blackburn eventually overtook the Shrews and secured the second automatic promotion place to the Championship, while Salop lost in the play-off final. Mulgrew also went on to score 14 in League One – breaking Blackburn’s club record for goals from a defender.
Defender | Shaun Pearson (Wrexham)
Wrexham’s talismanic captain has been a fan-favourite ever since he signed in the summer of 2017, sharing the fans’ passion and helping in the community with voluntary acts such as raising awareness for inclusive swimming and refereeing local youth matches. But it’s his exploits in the heart of Wrexham’s defence which have made him a legendary figure in North Wales and he showed his importance in my four Wrexham away days in 2018.
Pearson played every minute of every game and didn’t concede a goal until the final minute of the last game at Chesterfield (and even that wasn’t his fault). He also helped equal the club record for clean sheets in a single season with a shutout at Solihull – which was eventually broken comfortably – and has already taken big strides in smashing the record again in this campaign.
Yes, there have been other phenomenal performers in the back four and goalkeeper combinations we’ve used. But no-one has been as consistent – or has shown as much leadership, on and off the field – as Shaun Pearson.
Defender | Jen Beattie (Man City)
When I arrived for Manchester City’s clash with Arsenal in the Women’s Super League, I was expecting goals from both sides. The home side had the competition’s all-time top scorer in Nikita Parris, while Vivianne Miedema was looking to become the highest goal scorer in a single WSL season for the opposition.
It’s testament to the City back four that the goal-fest didn’t happen. Demi Stokes, Jen Beattie, Steph Houghton and Gemma Bonner were all immense in stopping Arsenal from getting on the scoresheet – with Beattie impressing me the most. The Scottish international won countless headers in her team’s 2-0 win and also put in a number of important blocks and tackles, including a last-ditch challenge on Miedema when she was through on goal.
The result ended Arsenal’s 100% winning start to the season and reduced the gap between them and City to three points.
Midfielder | Lauren James (Man United)
Much like Mulgrew, it was hard to dislodge James from my year-end list after her two goals for Manchester United in the FA Women’s Championship. The United side were making their first league appearance in women’s football for over decade. And it was James who scored their first two league goals since reforming, setting them up for an incredible 12-0 win over Aston Villa.
Teammate Kirsty Hanson also grabbed a brace and set up many of the team’s goals in the second half. But James’ first half display – including a stunning 20-yard strike for her second goal – broke the Villa spirit and allowed United to run riot. Her feat was even more remarkable considering she was 16-years-old at the time. She later won the player of the month award for September just after turning 17.
Midfielder | Renato Sanches (Swansea City and Portugal)
If there was an award for the most improved player to make the XI then Renato Sanches would win hands down. The contrast in performance levels from seeing the Portuguese play for Swansea in January, to pulling on his national team jersey in November, was stark.
After looking feeble in the centre of the park during the Swans’ FA Cup third round tie at Wolves, he ran the show for Portugal in their Nations League encounter with Poland 11 months later. He controlled the tempo of the game, looked strong in possession and even provided the assist for Andre Silva’s goal. Quite simply, he looked a man reborn.
Midfielder | Reece Brown (Forest Green Rovers)
In a match where I was stood in Forest Green’s open-terraced away end while the rain poured for nearly two hours, I have to thank Reece Brown for being the star man and providing the assist for the game’s only goal. Brown dictated much of the home side’s attacking play against Crawley Town, particularly in the second half when the heavy rain set in. His long-range pass to Reuben Reid with 20 minutes remaining enabled the Rovers striker to get a deflected shot on goal that floated in and proved to be the winner.
Midfielder | Natasha Harding (Reading and Wales)
Harding featured for Reading in my first ever women’s match and put in an impressive shift. But her showing for the national team a month later was even more significant. After setting up Kayleigh Green to open the scoring for Wales in their World Cup qualifier against Russia, Harding sent the home fans delirious by scoring the team’s third goal.
Harding was also a major player during the scenes of celebration at the final whistle, which have since been highlighted by many of the Wales squad as their best moment of the year. After seeing Harding run around with a camera she’d picked up from the local media, and then lead the crowd into performing the Icelandic thunderclap, it certainly makes it difficult to argue with that assessment.
Striker | Kayleigh Green (Wales)
Harding may have unleashed the wild scenes for Wales fans in Newport but Kayleigh Green was the one who started the party. She opened the scoring early in the second half when she tucked away Harding’s pass from a tight angle. Then she scored my favourite goal of the year.
It was a move sparked by Jess Fishlock’s incredible challenge to win back possession. And after great work from Angharad James, Rachel Rowe and Helen Ward, it ended with Green’s beautifully-weighted chip over the Russian goalkeeper. In the space of 10 seconds, Wales had won the ball back and scored. It was stunning and it put us in control of the game, as well as our own fate in reaching the World Cup finals for the first time since 1958.
Striker | Jessica Sigsworth (Man United)
It was pretty impossible to leave Sigsworth out of this team following her five-goal haul for Manchester United in the 12-0 win over Aston Villa. A 10-minute hat-trick in the first half should probably have been emulated with a second half hat-trick as well. Honestly, considering that the last United goal was scored in the 69th minute, it’s amazing how the score only reached 12.
But you can’t really knock the team, or Sigsworth, for not being clinical enough. The former Doncaster Rovers Belles player only signed for United in the summer and marked her league debut with a stunning array of finishes. She’s only managed to add four more goals to her tally since but still shares the top goal scorer accolade in the Women’s Championship.
Striker | Michael Wilde (Connah’s Quay Nomads)
At the Welsh Cup final in Newtown, Michael Wilde scored two goals to help Connah’s Quay Nomads to their first ever triumph in the competition. Aberystwyth Town had only been behind for four minutes when Wilde’s header bounced into the goal and doubled Nomads’ lead. Then, 10 minutes later, he killed the game off completely. After being played through one-on-one, he slotted the ball through the keeper’s legs and the whole contest felt finished inside 37 minutes.
There was a mini-comeback attempt by Aber but their goal before half-time proved to be a consolation and Nomads wrapped up the win with a late effort to make it 4-1. Wilde was also denied a hat-trick when a headed goal in-between his brace was disallowed for a very soft push. But I’m sure winning silverware made up for not taking the match ball home.
Jayne Ludlow (Wales)
Although Marco Silva produced the best tactical switch – his substitutes combining to score late on and snatch three points for Everton – Ludlow managed to transform a sporting landscape. For many years, the women’s team in Wales was under the radar. Ludlow, herself, was an outstanding player for the national team but never experienced a qualifying campaign quite like the one she masterminded as a manager.
The 3-0 win in Newport saw the side go seven games unbeaten without conceding a goal and also set up a winner-takes-all contest against England for a place at the 2019 World Cup. They failed to win the showdown but the game sold out in 24 hours, drew a record attendance for a home fixture and pushed the interest in Wales’ women’s team to new heights.
Goalkeeper | Rob Lainton (Wrexham)
Perhaps one of the more surprising performers in Wrexham’s excellent start to the 2018/19 season has been goalkeeper Rob Lainton. After just 52 appearances in eight years as a professional, the Bolton academy graduate has amassed nearly half that total at The Racecourse already, producing a number of important saves that includes a penalty on debut at Dover Athletic.
He dropped the ball in the final minutes of that game and Dover equalised. However, the referee thought he’d been fouled and disallowed the goal – a lucky escape, in my view, and for that reason he misses out on the starting line-up.
Defender | James Chester (Aston Villa)
For much of the game between promotion rivals Aston Villa and Cardiff, the defence was on top. Centre-back counterparts Sol Bamba and James Chester were having stellar games and if it wasn’t for a late screamer from Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, the contest would have ended goalless. Chester finished with the clean sheet and Bamba didn’t play great in Cardiff’s other promotion clash with Derby soon after, so the Welsh international makes the bench.
Defender | Sophie Ingle (Wales)
Such was the level of performance from the whole team in Newport, many could have claimed to be the best player. Angharad James and Rachel Rowe were very effective in midfield but the defence that kept their seventh clean sheet in a row can’t be undervalued. Rhiannon Roberts, Loren Dykes and Hayled Ladd were all outstanding in the back four but captain Sophie Ingle shone the brightest.
Striker | Cameron Jerome (Derby County)
The former Cardiff frontman helped turn the game around for Derby County with a brace in the second half against his old club. The Bluebirds had been 1-0 up in the re-arranged fixture before Jerome muscled his way through the Cardiff box and slid the ball past Neil Etheridge in goal. Matej Vydra then gave the Rams the lead and Jerome sealed the three points in the closing stages.
Striker | Georgia Stanway (Man City)
It proved very difficult to leave Stanway on the bench after her brace ended Arsenal’s winning streak in the Women’s Super League. Her second goal in that game was class, as well. But I just felt Michael Wilde’s double warranted a place in the starting line-up because it was in a cup final.
Tynecastle Park (Hearts)
This year, I thought I’d add a stadium for the HST XI to play in. It’s selection is based on my favourite new ground visited in the year and the winner is Tynecastle Park.
Just the maroon seats were enough for me to fall in love with the place. But the hostile environment created by the Hearts fans – along with the waves of passion they showed for their own players – really put the champions, Celtic, off their game. And I loved it. Along with the city of Edinburgh too.