The summer of 2016 was an incredibly rough period for many people of these fair shores. On the 23rd of June, 17,410,742 people decided that they no longer wanted to be a part of the European Union, and with that, the painstaking process of Brexit had begun. Then, only four days later, the English national football team performed a similar exit from Europe, where they were humiliated by minnows Iceland.
No longer having a horse in the race, I decided to turn my support towards our neighbours to the West and cheer on the Welsh. I’m aware this isn’t a sentiment people from Wales share with their English cousins, but due to the familiarity of many of their players (with a particular affection for Joe Allen’s under-appreciated time at Liverpool) and my fondness for holidays in Pembrokeshire as a child, I pinned my flag to their mast.
Their trouncing of the much fancied Belgium in the quarter-finals was sublime, with the (at the time) clubless Hal Robson-Kanu Cruyff turn in the penalty area for the second a particular highlight. While they made it through to face Portugal in the semis, they were cruelly robbed of Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies, both picking up yellow cards, meaning they’d be suspended. Both had been in imperious form throughout the tournament and without them, a difficult task became that much harder. Cristiano Ronaldo crushed the Welsh dreams, and while the fans of the Dragons were overjoyed about making it so far in their first international tournament since 1954, there must have been a section of fans left wondering, ‘What if?’
That question, of what if things had been slightly different, had luck and fortune been in favour of teams instead of against them, is a running theme throughout From the Jaws of Victory: A History of Football’s Nearly Men. Compiled by Adam Busby and Rob MacDonald, known for Falling For Football: The Teams That Shaped Our Obsession, readers are treated to 23 separate heartbreaking, yet thoroughly captivating tales of teams falling short at the final hurdle. Starting with Bolton Wanderers in the 1953 FA Cup final, and going right up to Liverpool in the 2013/14 season, the book contains a great blend of domestic and international teams. While every side talked about is unique, as is the style of the chapters written by the many different authors, they all are linked by the fact that each set of men didn’t quite achieve the title or trophy they were aiming for.
Many of these teams mentioned have been romanticised and eulogised for decades, such as the Hungarian side of 1954, who’s only loss in over two years was in the World Cup final, or Cruyff’s Netherlands who famously played such captivating football in the 1974 World Cup, but ultimately lost out to West Germany in the final in Munich. Arguably, both of these teams, including many others detailed in this excellent book, are spoken about in more glowing terms than the sides who beat them. The passage of time can be kind to the losing sides, effectively healing wounds that seemed so sore at the time. I don’t know about you, but while I had a reasonable knowledge of Puskas and his national side during their heyday, especially their 7-1 victory over England, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you who beat them in the ’54 final.
The book’s stall is set out in the foreword, written by the Guardian’s Baney Ronay. As with much of his work, the entire passage is endlessly quotable, but a line that really stood out was ‘Victory and defeat are often a kind of chimaera, that real glory comes from something else.’ This made me think of England at Euro 96, who appear in Michael Gibbon’s chapter of the book. Here was a team that united the whole country behind a positive force, and had us all believing in something again. While we were left wondering what could have been had Paul Gascoigne connected with Alan Shearer’s cross, and had Gareth Southgate converted his penalty, Terry Venables’ team are more fondly remembered than any other English side since, despite them never technically achieving anything.
As a Liverpool fan for the last 25 years, I will always look back fondly to the 2013/14 campaign, which is written about here by the Anfield Wrap’s Neil Atkinson. Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Brendan Rodgers were inches away from lifting the title that had so painfully eluded the club for such a long time. And while they would go on to lift the Premier League under Jürgen Klopp, with a side that played attractive football and was also very likeable, I’m not sure they captured my imagination quite like Rodger’s side did.
Maybe this is because we enjoy the theorising behind the unanswerable question of ‘What if?’ What if Gerrard hadn’t slipped, would they have beaten Chelsea that day? And if so, this would have meant they wouldn’t have thrown such caution to the wind against Crystal Palace, and wouldn’t have conceded three goals in the space of ten minutes. Of course, it is something we’ll never be able to answer, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about that scenario two to three times a week.
Not only did I thoroughly enjoy reading From the Jaws of Victory, and would recommend it to any football fan, but I believe anyone who has an affection for the underdog. It’s for anyone who doesn’t believe that any side or player who didn’t achieve everything they could have, should be ultimately remembered as a failure. As Busby and Macdonald put it themselves in their introduction, ‘remember, it isn’t all about the winners. Sometimes immortality requires the harsh reality of defeat.’
From the Jaws of Victory, compiled by Adam Busby and Rob MacDonald is available now.