Friday 24 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney picks eight of the most spectacular sporting collapses ever

‘Blair Walsh is good, he holds the all-time league record for both the most field goals from 50 yards or over made in a season and the most consecutive field goals made from that distance. But he missed’
‘Blair Walsh is good, he holds the all-time league record for both the most field goals from 50 yards or over made in a season and the most consecutive field goals made from that distance. But he missed’
Devon Loch
Jean van de Velde

Eamonn Sweeney

Last weekend was quite the treat for connoisseurs of sporting catastrophe. In the early hours of Monday morning, our time, the Minnesota Vikings drove deep into Seattle Seahawks' territory in the NFC wild card round play-off game to set up a 27-yard field goal attempt for kicker Blair Walsh. With seconds left the kick would give them a famous upset 12-10 victory in front of their home fans.

A 27-yarder is pretty much a tap over for an NFL kicker. And Walsh is good; he holds the all-time league record for both the most field goals from 50 yards or over made in a season and the most consecutive field goals made from that distance. But he missed. In fact, he missed horribly, shanking the ball so badly to the left it wasn't even close. Exit Vikings.

The night before, the Cincinnati Bengals were on the verge of scoring a first play-off win since 1990, and against bitter divisional rivals Pittsburgh Steelers too. Leading by a point and on the Steelers' 26-yard line, all they needed to do was hang on to the ball for the minute and 45 seconds which remained. Instead, running back Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball and the Bengals then committed two ludicrous personal fouls which enabled the Steelers, whose quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was pretty much crocked, to get up the field and kick a winning field goal with 18 seconds left. "We won that game, and then we didn't," said Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton.

Colossal mishaps like this are different from your ordinary defeat. They belong to another universe of suffering altogether. They make you clap your hands over your eyes and wonder how exactly fans of the team or player are going to get over this one. Above all they make you very glad you're not the player involved. Because while treating triumph and disaster just the same sounds great in a poem, it's not how things work out in real life.

They're the kind of things which often get described as a 'tragedy'. But we won't use that word out of respect for those who have genuinely suffered through Steps' cover of the Bee Gees song. Perhaps the recent neologism 'omnishambles' describes them best. Here is the definitive list of the very worst. You can call them The Hateful Eight. Those of a sensitive disposition can look away now.

1 Devon Loch

The Devon Loch incident is to sporting disaster as Shakespeare is to the theatre and Lord of the Rings is to books with elves in them, the one which towers above the competition, the one which seems to epitomise the entire art form. It has become proverbial and is invoked not just to describe sporting collapse but any kind of calamitous failure with the winning post in sight, Sean Gallagher's 2011 Presidential election campaign for example.

It is March 24, 1956 and Devon Loch, owned by the Queen Mother, is five lengths clear with just 40 yards left in the Grand National. And that's when he rears forward and collapses on his stomach as his back legs seem to go from under him. Second-placed ESB goes past him to win and Devon Loch, though able to struggle to his feet, can't make the winning post. He will, however, remain more famous than not just ESB but many other National winners.

Why did the horse fall? Cramp has been posited as an explanation and it's been suggested that the horse was spooked by the unusual volume of noise as the Aintree crowd prepared to acclaim a Royal victory. There are those who insist he caught a glimpse of a fence on the other side of the rails and was trying to jump that. But no definitive reason has ever been advanced and you'd wonder if the affair gave Devon Loch's jockey a taste for mystery. He would, after all, become one of the best-selling crime writers of the 20th century. His name? Dick Francis.

2 Jean Van de Velde

You can't ask for much more than to be at the final tee of a Major knowing that even a double-bogey won't be enough to stop you from winning. And that was the happy position a relatively unknown French journeyman found himself in as the 1999 British Open apparently drew to a close at Carnoustie. Given that Van de Velde's previous best showing at a Major had been a tie for 34th and that his only previous Tour triumph had been in the scarcely stellar Roma Masters, it would have been the ultimate fairytale victory. Unfortunately, the fairytale was about to turn Grimm.

Van de Velde could have played safe but instead he took a driver off the tee and landed in the rough. It would still have been OK had he laid up with his second shot but instead he went for the green and saw his shot rebound off the grandstand, hit the wall surrounding the Barry Burn and land in knee-deep rough. Shot three took him into the Burn and gave rise to the famous image of him, socks and shoes discarded and trousers rolled up, splashing around and wondering if he might try a shot from the water. Instead he took a drop and put shot number five into the bunker.

He actually finished the hole well, getting up and down from the bunker to at least preserve a play-off against Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard. But his chance was gone, not just for 1999 but forever. His best Major finish after that was a tied 19th in 2008. The really great sporting disappointment often involves the spurning of an opportunity that won't come again. Which is why Greg Norman self-destructing at the 1996 Masters will never touch the heartstrings like the memory of poor Jean Van de Velde getting everything wrong at the Open always will.

3 Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson

In 1972, Hart and Robinson weren't just the fastest men in the world that year, they were the joint fastest of all time, having equalled Jim Hines' 100m world record when finishing first and second at the US Olympic Trials. It seemed all they needed to do to take gold and silver at the Munich games was turn up. Unfortunately, this proved a more difficult task than anyone had foreseen.

On the first day of the athletics programme the duo easily won their first round heats and headed back to the Olympic Village, having been informed by coach Stan Wright that their quarter-finals would be taking place at 7.0pm.

At 4.17pm they were at the ABC studio in the Village, watching that they thought were highlights of the first round when suddenly Hart shouted, "Hey! Those are our races!" as it dawned on him that they were actually watching live coverage of the quarter-finals. They might have been the fastest in the world but even Hart and Robinson weren't speedy enough to make it to the stadium on time and the way was cleared for Russia's Valeri Borzov to score a surprise victory in the 100m, just ahead of third string American Robert Taylor.

There has been speculation that Wright was confused because the times on the schedule used the 24-hour clock though he claimed himself that he'd been given one which was a year out of date. The cost of the mix-up became even more apparent when Hart anchored the US sprint relay team to gold in a world record time. Robinson didn't even have the consolation of featuring in the relay. Neither man ever appeared at the Olympics again.

4 Martin Sludden

July 11, 2010. As the Leinster final enters its final seconds, Louth lead Meath by a point. All they have to do in order to claim a first provincial title in 53 years is repel one last Royal attack. A high ball is lashed in by Graham Reilly, Seamus Kenny catches it but his shot is blocked by Paddy Keenan. It spins across goal which is when Meath full-forward Joe Sheridan grabs it and leaps across the line like a rugby player scoring a try. Given that he hasn't kicked but carried the ball into the net, it seems like a clear free out.

Enter Martin Sludden. And his umpires. The Tyrone referee should have disallowed the goal but he awarded it and then didn't change his mind after consulting with the aforementioned umpires who you would imagine had a perfectly clear view of the goal. It remains perhaps the worst refereeing decision in the history of the GAA and certainly the clearest case of injustice. Poor Louth then had to endure condescending articles telling them that the best thing for them to do was move on and concentrate on the future.

But they, and everyone else, knew that their chance had gone. Right now it's not hard to imagine another 53 years passing before they get another one like it.

5 Hearts

Hearts wouldn't have held out much hope of winning the Scottish Premier League at the start of the 1985-'86 season. Reigning champions Aberdeen, managed by a promising boss named Alex Ferguson, had broken the Old Firm monopoly in recent seasons but Hearts hadn't won the title since 1960 and looked a long way behind not just Glasgow's big two but also Aberdeen and Dundee United. After eight matches they had just seven points and relegation looked more likely than honours.

But inspired by manager Alex MacDonald and young stars Craig Levein, John Robertson and Gary Mackay, Hearts proceeded to put together an astounding 27-match unbeaten run which took them to the top of the table. Going into the last day of the season they were two points ahead of Celtic and were four goals better off on goal difference. All they needed was a draw at Dens Park against Dundee, a mid-table side with little to play for.

The Hearts players had, however, been hit by a virus during the week and the pressure mounted on them when Celtic wiped out the goal difference advantage by half-time of their match against St Mirren. Yet it looked as though they'd make it until seven minutes from time when Albert Kidd scored from close range for Dundee after a corner before adding a second to rub salt in the wound.

What makes this particularly poignant is that in the 30 years since, not only have Hearts not won a Premier League title, no team outside the Old Firm has. Like Louth, Hearts won't be expecting to end the famine any time soon.

6 Steve Bartman

You are a fan. You go to your team's biggest match in years. The one thing you don't expect is that by the time it's over you will not only be blamed for their loss but become such a hate figure for your fellow home supporters that the police have to be guard your house against them.

That's what happened to Chicago native Steve Bartman in 2003 as he watched his beloved Cubs take on Florida Marlins in game six of the National League Championship Series. The Cubs went into the game leading the best-of-seven series 3-2. And when they took a 3-0 lead into the eighth inning they looked certain to win and reach their first World Series since 1945. The first Marlins batter was quickly dispatched and the second, Luis Castillo, looked certain to follow when a ball skewed high off his bat and Cubs outfielder Moises Alou seemed set to take the catch before it reached the stands.

And that was when Bartman reached out from his seat in an effort to catch the ball and knocked it away from Alou. Reprieved, the Marlins rallied to score eight runs in the innings and level the series before winning the deciding game and going on to win the World Series. Bartman was spat at and had beer thrown at him when he left Wrigley Field the night of the game and six police cars were stationed outside his home. He remains a Cubs' fan but has never gone to a game since. The Cubs haven't come within an ass's roar of making a World Series.

7 Jana Novotna

The 1993 women's singles final at Wimbledon. Jana Novotna of the Czech Republic has played the best tennis of her life to stand on the verge of a shock win over Steffi Graf. She leads 4-1 in the final set and is 40-30 up and serving. She faults. Then her second serve goes out for a double fault. And the game is basically over after that because within 15 minutes Graf has won the deciding set 6-4 as Novotna falls apart to an extent hardly ever seen in a major sporting event.

By the time of the presentation ceremony she is weeping so copiously that the Duchess of Kent takes pity and offers her a shoulder to cry on. Novotna actually bounced back to win Wimbledon five years later but it is that double fault and the heartache which followed that she'll be remembered for.

8 Deportivo La Coruna

The last day of the 1993-'94 La Liga season. Unfashionable Deportivo, who've only been in the top flight for three seasons, need to beat Valencia at home in their last match to take the title. The game stays scoreless and their chance looks to have gone until, in injury time, they are awarded a penalty for a foul on Nando.

There's one problem, regular penalty taker Donato has been substituted. And his deputy, Brazilian superstar Bebeto, refuses to take the kick. Eventually Serbian defender Miroslav Djukic volunteers. But he puts his penalty almost straight into the arms of Valencia 'keeper Jose Gonzalez and hands the title to Barcelona. There is a kind of happy ending in that Coruna did win the title six years later, but there surely can be no greater agony than to lose one by missing a penalty in front of your own fans in injury time. Unless it's one of the other agonies detailed here.

There were plenty of other candidates for the Hateful Eight. Dessie Dolan's missed free against Meath in 2003, Doug Sanders missing a three-footer for the Open title in 1970, Don Fox missing a conversion right in front of the posts for Wakefield Trinity in the 1963 Rugby League Challenge Cup final, Harry Bradshaw losing the 1949 British Open because his ball went into a beer bottle, Roger Loughran celebrating too soon in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown in 2005, Brighton's Gordon Smith proving the commentator who said, "And Smith must score," wrong in the final seconds of the 1983 FA Cup final, and many more.

Why mention them? Well, there's a statement by the great American Justice Earl Warren, "I turn to the sports pages first because there I find a record of man's achievements while on the front pages I only find a record of his failures." Sportswriters are fond of that one. But the truth is that there are plenty of failures in sport too, as there are in all walks of life.

It's no harm to be reminded of that. Because while we all strive to live our lives with the power and grace of Ali in Kinshasa, there are going to be more than a few Devon Loch moments along the way. Almost everyone mentioned in this column possessed extraordinary talent but that didn't stop them getting things wrong. To err is human, and to err so badly you wish the ground would swallow you up is inevitable.

So if you're having a bad day today, remember it could always be a lot worse.

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