Thursday 27 April 2017

Vincent Hogan: Miracles must be logical to truly great coaches

Miracle of Houston’ Super Bowl triumph by Belichick is latest in a long line of truly incredible sporting fightbacks

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick celebrates with Danny Amendola after the game. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick celebrates with Danny Amendola after the game. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In the early hours of Monday morning, Bill Belichick had the miracle of Houston wrapped up tidily in a familiar, drill-sergeant's vocabulary.

Coaches are compelled to be unromantic souls because their industry depends on everything being governable, explainable, open to logic. So Belichick honoured an obligation to trace glory down to mundane places.

When his New England Patriots trailed the Atlanta Falcons 3-28 in that third quarter (a deficit more than twice the size of the greatest previous comeback in Super Bowl history), he might have had the face of a man waiting to hear if he'd got probation.

But in victory, he found the licence to write a different story.

So his fifth Super Bowl win was put down to the kind of qualities espoused every week in even the starkest, most humdrum settings. The Patriots won, he said, through an adherence to simple resilience.

Because they managed to "keep plugging away..."

Because they had the necessary "mental toughness..."

Because they "never flinched..."

"Because they "just kept fighting, trying to make plays..."

Belichick's record suggests a good deal more to his career than having the good fortune to consistently work with players armed with the above virtues. And it is hard to imagine that his trust in the potential of, essentially, just digging in, hadn't begun to waver wildly as his team fell those 25 points adrift of the Falcons.

Sometimes great sports events just fly eccentric paths and make heroes out of people who, half an hour earlier, understood how the captain of the Titanic felt when he saw a looming shape in the fog. Here are some examples of events that cartwheeled into history.

2005

Champions League final, Ataturk Stadium, Istanbul

To this day Liverpool supporters remain a little torn on the merits of Rafa Benitez, under whose stewardship they recovered from looming humiliation to be crowned champions of Europe for a fifth time.

The Spaniard's initial team-selection backfired dreadfully through the opening 45 minutes in Istanbul as a star-studded AC Milan team cut through Liverpool at will. Two goals from Hernan Crespo and one from Paolo Maldini had the Italians 3-0 up at the break, with TV pundits excoriating in their assessment of a Liverpool game plan based on Benitez's trust in the ineffectual Harry Kewell.

Confronted by disaster, Rafa is said to have remained relatively composed in his half-time team-talk, telling the players that Didi Hamann would be coming on to buttress a struggling midfield. He also, reputedly, told striker Djibril Cisse to strip off, the plan being to take a defender (Djimi Traore) off and commit an extra body to attack.

It was subsequently discovered that Steve Finnan had an injured groin, so Traore stayed on and, just as the team prepared to leave their dressing-room, Jamie Carragher is said to have queried Benitez's arithmetic. With Hamann and Cisse coming on and Finnan going off, was Liverpool's plan to play the second-half with 12 players?

There followed a moment of mild comedy as Rafa did the sums before telling Cisse to put his tracksuit back on.

No matter, Liverpool would score three goals in what Milan manager, Carlo Ancelotti, later described as "six minutes of madness" to take the game to extra-time and, eventually, a penalty shoot-out settled by Jerzy Dudek's save from Andriy Shevchenko.

1994

All-Ireland Hurling final, Croke Park, Dublin

It has gone into history as the 'Six Minute Final', the remarkable story of how an Offaly team, seemingly lurching towards inevitable defeat, ended up breaking Limerick hearts.

Their late scoring surge of an unanswered 2-5 actually only took 4 minutes and 14 seconds to complete and turned a five-point deficit into a sensational six-point win. That surge was triggered by Johnny Dooley goaling from a 20-metre free, having defied an instruction from the line to take his point.

Within seconds, Pat O'Connor had another Offaly goal, with Limerick essentially collapsing. Their manager, Tom Ryan, was quoted in Henry Martin's book 'Unlimited Heartbreak' as saying his players "started goul acting around the field".

The defeat still haunts the Limerick hurling community to this day, as they have to go back all the way to 1973 for the last time they won the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

1985

World Snooker final, The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

Steve Davis had won all but two of his previous 14 matches with Dennis Taylor and, streaking into an 8-0 lead against the Northern Ireland man, he seemed a certainty to win his third consecutive world title.

In his autobiography, Davis recalls looking across at an ashen Taylor: "He sat motionless in his corner and could be seen talking to himself on occasions." Taylor would subsequently reveal that he was actually having a conversation in his head with his late mother.

What followed would certainly suggest some other-worldly influence, as Taylor stormed back in the first evening session to narrow the deficit to 9-7. To this day, Davis believes a missed green on his part when eight frames up may have altered the course of history.

No matter, he could never put much daylight between himself and Taylor again, snooker's most epic final eventually coming down to the black ball in the 35th frame. Davis' father had long since retreated to the dressing-room unable to watch by the time Taylor made the most storied pot in snooker history.

A stronger nerve prevailing?

"Dennis wasn't playing any better than me," Davis would suggest later. "We were like two men having a game down the working men's club, knocking the balls around for the price of a pie and a pint in front of one man and his dog."

2011

Heineken Cup final, Cardiff

The exact detail of Jonathan Sexton's half-time battlecry will never be definitively known by anyone other than those who were present in a shell-shocked Leinster dressing-room.

But what followed suggests the outhalf's words must have borne Churchillian authority, given how they are still spoken of so reverently since. Suffice to say, Leinster came back from the dead against Northampton Saints and Sexton was at the epicentre of everything good they did.

Down 6-22 (and zero tries to three) at the mid-point, they would score an unanswered 27 points in the second-half, 22 of them (including two tries) coming from their remarkableNo.10.

Leo Cullen described it as one of the most amazing individual performances ever witnessed in the tournament. And Sexton's brilliance begat arguably Leinster's greatest victory. "We brought Northampton in the 20 minutes after half-time to a place they'd never been before," said Cullen. "We'd spoken about that, about bringing them to that place.

"But we'd planned to bring them there in the first-half."

2012

Ryder Cup, Medinah Country Club, Illinois

Conventional Ryder Cup wisdom suggests the US will always have the edge in Sunday's singles matches, so Europe's hopes are dust if they don't arrive at that final morning with a lead.

In 2012, they didn't. Actually, Jose Maria Olazabal's team turned up with a 6-10 deficit that seemed to foretell only disappointment and regret in their efforts to honour the late Seve Ballesteros with a successful defence of the trophy.

However, what would become known as the 'Miracle of Medinah' would traumatise a US team that turned up in cruise mode looking for just four-and-a-half points out of a possible 12.

They lost the first five matches on the board and, though rescuing the next two, never recovered, to forsake as big a final day lead as any team had in the then 85-year history of the competition.

Afterwards, Spain's daily sports newspaper, 'Marca', ran a headline: "This one is for you Seve!"

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