A Losers' Game?

9th March 1995

(970 words)

Copyright (C) Mike Taylor, 9th March 1995
All rights reserved.

You know the feeling all too well. Your team is playing out of its skin. That donkey of a centre-half that you've wanted to sell all season has somehow managed to come good when it counts. Your dodgy goalie is pulling off saves that Gordon Banks would have been proud of. And against all the odds, you're holding on for a nil-nil draw against the top team in the league. A valuable point in the yearly struggle against relegation? Or better still, your lot are an Endsleigh league team, holding the Premiership leaders in an away cup-tie with the promise of a replay at home.

In the end, it makes no difference what the scenario is. The outcome is always the same, though it comes in many forms. It might be a mis-hit shot that deflects into your team's goal; or maybe a weak header that somehow slips through that dodgy keeper's hands -- or worst of all, the donkey at centre-half reverts to form, and scores an own goal in the last minute. But one way or another, your lot have lost. Again. What makes it even worse is that it's probably Man United who've scraped the three points, but that's another story. Complain all you want about the state of the pitch, your team's bad luck in front of goal, and of course the biased refereeing. Cast around for excuses, but it won't make any difference. You lost. It's probably raining too. Or snowing.

We might as well admit it. The quintessential footballing experience is abject, depressing, mind-numbing defeat. Oh sure, there are odd moments of success, but even in the burst of euphoria, even at the moment of ecstasy, you know deep down that it's an aberration -- that this is the exception, and not the rule. That it's not right to be the winners. It doesn't fit.

Honesty compels me to admit that I have less cause for complaint than most football fans, because I'm a Liverpool supporter. And I know I won't get much sympathy for this, but it still feels like moments of success are few and far between. Even for us. OK, in the twenty odd years I've been a supporter, we've collected twenty domestic trophies. But that means that we've missed out on forty others -- we've failed to win twice as often as we've won! Am I being negative to the point of bloody-mindedness? Maybe. But that's the footballing mentality -- focus on the defeats.

So what's my first football memory? No question -- the glorious season of '77 when we won the League and the European Cup. But what particular match from '77 is the one I remember clearly? Yes, you guessed it. It's that dreadful FA Cup final where we lost out to Man United -- Jimmy Greenhoff's goal. Damn. Makes me cross just thinking about it.

It's all to do with being English, of course. It's a cliche, but a true one, that there's nothing we love more than a gallant but inevitable defeat. England's glorious performance in Italia '90 is an obvious example. Going out on penalties in the semi-final was a definitively English way to lose. Maybe going out of the '86 finals because of that little sod Maradona punching the ball into the net is an even better example. We feel a perverse satisfaction at our heroic failures, a kind of "told you so" pleasure that no amount of mere winning can ever produce.

Do Americans feel this way about unsuccessful baseball teams, or basketball teams, or American-so-called-football teams? I think not. Do the Germans feel a strange moral triumph when Bayern Munich go crashing out of the European Cup in the first round? Hardly. Then there's the Italians. It's true, they know how to mourn in times of national disaster -- like Baggio's World Cup final penalty miss -- but you can bet it didn't make him a kind of inverted national hero, like Chris Waddle was, along with Paul Gascoigne, after Italia '90. Only in England do we treasure our defeats. Ironically, it was a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, who first said, "It's not the winning that counts, it's the taking part". But it's a rallying cry that the French have proved unable to respond to. Only in England does anyone really believe it.

Where do we get this obsession with supporting the underdog? What on earth possessed me to side with Chelsea in the '94 FA Cup final? It surely wasn't because I thought they'd win! No, there's only one explanation. I knew they'd lose, and I wanted to feel that delicious sense of identification with their defeat. I wanted to be able to join the chorus of millions, all saying that Hoddle should have put himself in the team; to be part of the seething mass of humanity who all knew, deep down, that Cantona's historic hat-trick wasn't really a hat-trick, because, well, penalties don't count, do they? (And by the way, that was never a penalty!)

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, let us join together in a toast to Stockport County, who make the play-offs every year, but never ever actually get promoted. And another toast, Ladies and Gentlemen, to Dean Saunders, whose immaculate timing allowed him to play his worst ever game just when it really mattered, in the home leg against Trabzonspor last season. And most of all, Ladies and Gentlemen, let us raise our glasses to the several hundred supporters of each of those dire bottom-of-the-Third-Division teams -- the die-hard few who follow them week in, week out, even though they finish in the bottom six every year, even though they know full well that any half-decent Conference team would wallop them. To these gallant men and women, the game of football -- or English football at least -- truly belongs.

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