From Portugal to Scotland, and with Torquay in-between, this year’s groundhopping journey has seen 24 new grounds visited on the blog.
Here, I look back at the players who stood out most for the 40 different sides I watched in 2019. There is also a bench of five players who didn’t quite make the main XI, while a manager and ground of the year are also named.
Welcome to my Team of the Year.
Starting XI (4-4-2)
Joe Bartl (Church Stretton)
I wasn’t expecting much from my autumnal trip to see 10th-tier side Church Stretton Town but my first foray into grassroots football was an absolute joy. The views around the ground were stunning, the activity on the touchline was raucous and the action on the pitch was thrilling.
Five goals were scored as the hosts edged Walsall Town Swifts but it could have been a different outcome were it not for some last-minute heroics from goalkeeper Joe Bartl.
With the visitors 3-2 down and throwing everything at Stretton, they nearly found an equaliser in the dying moments. However, captain Bartl produced a stunning point-blank save and the final whistle blew seconds later.
[Read more: RUSSELLS MEADOW: Hills and Thrills]
Sam Miniham (Stockport County)
Another five-goal thriller occurred at Edgeley Park in February but this one had even more of a narrative. Looking to stretch their unbeaten league run to 14 games, title-chasing Stockport fell two goals behind at home to Southport. The Hatters pulled one back just before half-time and the momentum of their hot streak carried them to an incredible 3-2 comeback win in the second half.
One of the main forces in that turnaround was Sam Miniham. The right-back constantly drove Stockport up the field with powerful touchline runs that also gave the crowd belief they could turn things around. His fine attacking play eventually set up Darren Stephenson for the equaliser, while he also won the free-kick which Sam Walker scored the winner from.
[Read more: STOCKPORT COUNTY | Anticipation Blossoms]
Marvin Ekpiteta (Leyton Orient)
Wrexham travelled to title rivals Leyton Orient in early March hoping to take a huge step toward claiming the National League trophy. A win would have sent them five points clear at the summit but one man’s unorthodox display proved key to the match and both clubs’ seasons.
Wearing a mask to protect his fractured nose, defender, Marvin Ekpiteta, struggled to scare off Ben Tollitt in the first half, receiving an early booking and almost letting the winger find the net. He then continued to ride his luck in the second half by going up the other end to score the game’s only goal – via a deflection and the post.
However fortunate Ekpiteta’s performance was, though, the importance of his strike was monumental in the title race, as Orient eventually won the league by three points.
[Read more: LEYTON ORIENT | A Sickening Defeat]
Ben Heneghan (Blackpool)
Blackpool were on the cusp of producing a classic away performance at Burton Albion in October. Centre-back pairing Ben Heneghan and Curtis Tilt weathered the early Brewers storm and the Tangerines were looking for a killer goal in the second half.
However, things changed when Tilt received a second yellow card, forcing Blackpool to retreat with the home side having half an hour to break the deadlock.
Thankfully for the visitors, though, Heneghan was still on the field and doing the defensive duties of both himself and Tilt. All the blocks, tackles and clearances that kept the net from bulging in front of us were from Heneghan. He was colossal.
[Read more: PIRELLI STADIUM: Tilting Towards Disaster]
Nicola Doherty (Scotland and Glasgow City)
I first watched Nicola Doherty at the Women’s World Cup in June. Playing at left-back for the Scottish National Team, it was her handball which gave England the lead from the penalty spot. Things didn’t improve, either, as she was torn apart by two of the best right-sided players in the world (Nikita Parris and Lucy Bronze) and was eventually subbed off after 55 minutes.
I watched Doherty for the second time five months later, though, and she shone for Glasgow City during their 9-0 win over Motherwell, creating a number of chances from the left-flank and scoring a couple, as well.
City were given the Scottish Women’s Premier League trophy after the game – their 13th consecutive title triumph – and it was nice to see Doherty end the year in a good place, along with other members of the Scotland squad, following their World Cup group stage exit in the summer.
[Read more: PETERSHILL PARK: History Repeating]
Joe Lolley (Nottingham Forest)
The day before Wrexham’s early-season clash against Notts County, I took in a match on the other side of the River Trent. I didn’t know much about Nottingham Forest’s team but I knew of Joe Lolley and told an uncertain Forest fan next to me that he’d net a hat-trick.
The home skeptic said he was out of form but, 15 minutes in, he opened the scoring and folded his arms in front of the travelling Birmingham fans in celebration. The Aston Villa fan and former Blues academy player then set up Lewis Grabban to double the lead and the visitors never recovered from there, eventually losing 3-0.
[Read more: CITY GROUND / MEADOW LANE: Nott A Bad Weekend]
Visiting Lisbon in February was very memorable, especially after attending Benfica’s record-breaking 10-0 win against Nacional. Haris Seferovic and Jonas grabbed a brace apiece but Pizzi played the biggest part in securing such a staggering scoreline.
The Portuguese midfielder won and scored a penalty and also provided three assists, with Joao Felix scoring a header at the back post from one of his deliveries, meaning I could brag about seeing a European wonderkid find the net.
[Read more: SL BENFICA | Living It Lage In Lisbon]
Ji So-yun (Chelsea)
Chelsea’s South Korean playmaker, Ji So-yun, has been an FA Women’s Super League star since she first moved to England in 2015. She’s won the PFA Player of the Year award, been selected in the PFA Team of the Year four times and has provided plenty of sublime goals and assists along the way.
For this reason, I’d wanted to see her in action for a long time, and when I finally got my chance at Stamford Bridge in September, she didn’t disappoint.
She may not have added to her goal or assist tally during the 1-0 win over Spurs but her world class ability was on display throughout the 90 minutes. The passing, the dribbling, the touch and the vision were razor sharp. It was a pleasure to see such a great midfield performance.
[Read more: STAMFORD BRIDGE: A Glimpse Into England’s Future]
Ashley Hemmings (AFC Fylde)
I remember my January trip to AFC Fylde more for the purchase a plant after the game than for the dross served up by Wrexham on the pitch. But I must give credit to Ashley Hemmings, who may have rubber-stamped our right-back’s future summer release that day.
The winger scored two goals by tearing through Kevin Roberts, finishing from a tight angle both times. That gave us our fifth straight defeat and prepared Wrexham fans for a miserable 2019 supporting the team on the road.
[Read more: AFC FYLDE | New Year, Different Team]
Nikita Parris (England)
As eluded to earlier, Nikita Parris had a phenomenal game for England in their opening match of the Women’s World Cup. Her link-up play with Lucy Bronze and Ellen White put Scotland to the sword in the first half and eventually forced them to make a change at left-back in order to stop the onslaught.
Parris’ biggest contribution of the game was scoring the Lionesses’ opening goal from the penalty spot, confidently finding the top corner and giving Scotland keeper, Lee Alexander, no chance.
[Read more: ALLIANZ RIVIERA: Nice And Quiet]
Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain)
Back in August, Kylian Mbappe did things against Olympique Nimes that were simply outrageous. Standing with the ball on the touchline, the French forward would dribble his way into a scoring position in less than five seconds. It was football on a level I’d never seen before in the flesh.
His speed and vision on the wing should have killed Nimes off early on. However, his teammates lacked cutting edge and took just a one-goal lead into the break.
Mbappe made the game safe in the second half, though, with a goal and a perfectly-weighted pass for Angel Di Maria to make it 3-0. But even before that, Mbappe was cemented on this list.
[Read more: PARC DES PRINCES: A World Class Exhibition]
Becky Spencer (Spurs)
Only beaten by a spectacular dipping effort from Beth England, Spencer did a fine job between the sticks for Spurs at Chelsea. Smart saves were made throughout the match but her tip onto the bar from Drew Spence’s strike was the most impressive.
Dan Happe (Leyton Orient)
Officially named man-of-the-match in the National League decider at Brisbane Road, Happe prevented Wrexham from even creating a chance. It was no surprise that the O’s finished with the best defensive record in the division – one of the key factors in their title success.
John McGinn (Scotland)
Enjoying a career-best spell for club and country, McGinn scored two goals against Kazakhstan in Scotland’s dead rubber Euro 2020 qualifier at Hampden Park. Many Scots will be praying the Aston Villa midfielder will be fit for their play-off matches in March after recently suffering a fractured ankle.
Jamie Barjonas (Rangers Colts)
In an unforgettable, one-off experience, Wrexham took to the field at Ibrox Stadium in the Scottish Challenge Cup quarter-final against Rangers Colts. However, the youth team we were playing had a lot more ability. Barjonas took advantage, coolly scoring the opener and forcing our keeper to spill the ball so Nathan Young-Coombes could seal a place in the last four.
Ellen White (England)
Scotland were only a goal down and still in contention during their Women’s World Cup opener until White struck just before the break. She’d already missed a close-range effort and had a goal chalked off for offside before she finished with real class. It was the Lioness striker’s first goal of the six she scored at the tournament.
Justin Edinburgh (Leyton Orient)
Edinburgh masterminded Orient’s 1-0 win over Wrexham in March and then used that momentum to guide his team to the league title. It was the second time he thwarted a Wrexham promotion after beating us in the play-off final when in charge of Newport County back in 2013.
Tragically, Edinburgh lost in life in the summer at the age of 49 but he’ll always be remembered as one of the greatest managers we’ve ever faced.
Ground Of The Year
Stamford Bridge (Chelsea)
A capacity crowd was expected in West London for Chelsea’s first-ever FAWSL meeting with city rivals Tottenham Hotspur but only 25,000 of the 40,000 tickets claimed were in attendance. For the missing 15k, it was their loss, as the two teams produced an enthralling contest in a beautiful ground which felt modern but still had plenty of character.