The new year has started like the old one ended, as controversial sports retailer Sports Direct continues to hit the headlines.

But the sports specialist that should really stand out is JD, whose shares were the best retail sector performers of 2015 – and the second best in the entire FTSE-350.

They climbed by more than 100% during the course of 2015, while Sports Direct’s fell by almost 19%.

JD Sports has succeeded, to adapt a phrase of Waitrose boss Mark Price, by being everything that Sports Direct is not.

At JD there have been no headlines about alleged warehouse conditions or zero-hour contracts. The focus has instead been building upon its strengths.

Strong supplier relationships, in contrast to Sports Direct’s occasionally spiky dealings with its suppliers, mean JD gets access to exclusive deals.

An emphasis on high standards of visual merchandising, as opposed to the sometimes jumble sale approach at Sports Direct, creates a store environment premium brands like and that helps persuade shoppers to pay appropriately premium prices.

The retailer, which made profits of more than £100m in its last full year, looks as if it is on track for another championship performance.

When it updated at the start of last month, JD signalled that earnings would come in about £10m ahead of the consensus then of £125m.

A trading statement next week (Thursday January 14) will show how it fared over Christmas, but there seems no reason to think that JD will not rank among the festive period front-runners.

JD’s share price success versus Sports Direct is telling. It wasn’t just the rows that dogged Sports Direct, although some big shareholders did voice their unease about them. The City became increasingly downbeat about business performance, pure and simple.

There are, however, signs that Sports Direct may turn over a new leaf in 2016.

Founder Mike Ashley surprised the industry at New Year by revealing he intends to make his business “the best retail employer after John Lewis”.

After ignoring his critics for so long, he seems willing to take at least some of their concerns on board. And if there is change on that sort of scale, it would not be unreasonable for a similar new energy to be applied to all aspects of the business.

Because of his frequent portrayal as a cartoon villain, it is easy to overlook Ashley’s prowess as a retailer – a prowess that has enabled him to see off just about all comers over the years.

In that context JD’s achievements are all the more impressive. Even if the competition heats up, its retail Premier League status looks assured so long as its Alex Ferguson-style focus is maintained.