When Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award was already a decade and a half old.
The prestigious annual accolade is decided by a public vote, handed out to the sportsperson, who is either British or operates mostly in Britain, to have ‘most captured the UK public’s imagination’ that year.
However, as recent high-profile events have shown, there can be dangerous consequences when the British public are tasked with voting, and footballers have been oddly overlooked for this award for decades. In the 66-year history of the award, only five professionals at the peak of the nation’s – and the world’s – favourite sport have ever claimed the trophy.
So, here are a selection of the fine footballers throughout Britain’s long history in the sport who should have a four-turret lens camera trophy sitting proudly on their mantlepiece.
One of eight people to have twice finished second in the voting for Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) but never claimed top spot, there aren’t many trophies worth having Sir Bobby Charlton can’t lay claim to.
The World Cup winner was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 but we all know that is very much not the same thing.
Manchester United and England’s all-time top goalscorer. Not much more to be said really. Other than it is a mystery as to how Wayne Rooney has never even finished in the top three for SPOTY votes.
Incredibly, there have only ever been 13 female winners of BBC’s SPOTY and not a single women’s footballer has ever featured in the top three.
Admittedly, Ben Stokes did his darnedest to claim the 2019 prize. However, Lucy Bronze has been the best female footballer in England for some time and if you listen to Phil Neville (sometimes) the buccaneering right-back is the best player in the world in her pomp.
In 2019 she scooped all four trophies on offer with Lyon, helped England win the SheBelieves Cup and then steered her nation to the World Cup semi-finals.
Gary Lineker has been part of the presenting team for the SPOTY awards night since 1999 yet can perhaps feel aggrieved never to have won the top prize himself.
Back in the halcyon days of 1986, Lineker was unquestionably in the form of his career. Having finished the 1985/86 season as top scorer in the First Division, Lineker became the first Englishman to win the World Cup golden boot that summer before moving for a hefty fee to Barcelona.
A rare footballer to trouble the top three SPOTY votes was Sir Kenny Dalglish, who came third behind Nigel Mansell and Fatima Whitbread in Lineker’s year of 1986.
In a playing career with Celtic and Liverpool which spanned four separate decades, Dalglish’s generational talent helped him amass a trophy haul so large there would hardly be space for the iconic SPOTY award had he deservedly won it.
In his debut season for Liverpool, John Barnes ensured the Kop didn’t mourn the departure of their goalscoring icon, Ian Rush, for too long.
Throughout a career littered with a myriad of peaks, Barnes was practically unplayable in 1987/88, as Liverpool sauntered to the league title and their bewitching wide man picked up the PFA and FWA Player of the Year award.
However, Steve Davis claimed that year’s SPOTY ahead of England’s greatest ever left-footer.
Kelly Smith was Arsenal’s talismanic striker during the single greatest season any English women’s club has ever enjoyed.
In 2006/07 Arsenal won all six trophies they competed for, including the English top flight (winning all 22 games) and the UEFA Women’s Cup, later named the Women’s Champions League.
Smith scored 30 goals in 34 games across all competitions and was voted FA Women’s Players’ Player of the year.
England’s all-time leading scorer may have been suspended for the final after flashing the v-sign to a jeering crowd following some rough treatment on the pitch, but one action doesn’t wash away a sensational season, and isn’t it fitting that the winner of Sports Personality of the Year actually has a personality?
While memories of ill-timed rants, calamitous defensive displays and unsuccessful bike races tend to linger, it can go forgotten that Kevin Keegan enjoyed a sensational playing career.
Sporting his trusty perm, Keegan became just the second player – after Johan Cruyff (not bad company) – to win back-to-back Ballon d’Ors in 1978 and 1979 while at Hamburg, but couldn’t add BBC’s SPOTY to that individual haul.
The inaugural winner of the Ballon d’Or was 39 when the Sports Personality of the Year award was first handed out, yet would still be a professional a decade later. He may be the only footballer to have been knighted while still playing but Matthews can’t count the SPOTY among his personal accolades.
Perhaps the ultimate personality in the history of British football, George Best at his blistering peak was a force of nature whose talents have only been heightened in the fog of time.