Football is a game of fine margins and the differences between success and failure, glory and despair, exaltation and scorn can sometimes be very finite indeed.
For example, Graham Taylor is remembered, perhaps unfairly, as a failure as England manager while Sir Bobby Robson is revered yet the labels could quite easily have been reversed.
Had Des Walker not lost out in a footrace for the first time in living memory against Holland’s Marc Overmars in the 87th minute of a World Cup qualifying match at Wembley, then England’s subsequent 2-1 victory would have qualified Taylor and his men for USA ’94.
Similarly, had Gary Lineker either managed to stay on his feet in the 83rd minute of England’s 1990 World Cup quarter-final clash with Cameroon or missed the resulting penalty, then England’s resulting defeat at the hand of the African minnows would have seen Robson retire from the England post with a very different legacy to the one he subsequently enjoyed.
Football is littered with many similar ‘what-if’ moments. Some could be said to have resulted in a wide-reaching but short-term effect, such as altering the destiny of a trophy, while others, it could be argued, affected the game in general, or at least large swathes of it.
Every game perhaps has ‘what-if’ moments in the sense that there are missed chances or scrambled goals, controversial refereeing decisions or split-second decisions going on all over the field and it is too simplistic to simply state, ‘If so-and-so had taken his chance, we would have won the game,’ because there are a whole bunch of variables that also have to be taken into account.
For example, a controversially disallowed goal in the tenth minute of a match that finishes goalless hasn’t necessarily affected the outcome of the match and ‘robbed’ one side of victory. Rather it has merely been but one point in a game.
A last-minute incident would, of course, be a different matter.
As a Liverpool fan, a number spring to mind, as the following examples signify.
Everton and Clive Thomas – FA Cup semi-final 1977.
Maine Road, Manchester, and a rainy April day in 1977 sees the Merseyside rivals clash in the semi-final of the FA Cup. Twice Liverpool have taken the lead and twice Everton have pegged them back so that with the last couple of minutes of the 90 approaching, the scores are locked at two apiece. Everton are finishing stronger and with the Liverpool defence stretched, a cross is swung over from the left-hand side and met by Toffees’ midfielder Bryan Hamilton in the six-yard box.
Twisting himself so that the ball deflects past Ray Clemence in goal, Hamilton scores what will surely be the winner and sends Everton to Wembley. Clemence looks on in horror as Hamilton and his teammates celebrate.
Enter Clive who inexplicably disallows the goal to the mystery of 51,250 people in attendance and millions watching on Match of the Day that evening.
To this day, nobody, not even Thomas, knows why he disallowed the goal and it is safe to say it was a game-changer in every sense of the expression. It deprived Everton of a place at Wembley, it possibly ended up costing Everton manager Gordon Lee his job, it arguably stalled Everton’s progress as a club when a cup final appearance would have perhaps been the springboard to greater things, and (he writes, tongue-in-cheek) it gave Everton fans something justifiable to complain about for the next 43 years.
West Ham and Clive Thomas – 1981 League Cup Final.
Ah, Clive again. This next incident was similar to the Maine Road mayhem in so much as it involved a contentious decision in the dying minutes of a big match. Where it differed, however, was that firstly it involved a goal controversially given and not one disallowed, and, secondly, it didn’t prove fateful on the day.
There are other differences between the two decisions and we’ll get to them shortly, but first a recap of events at Wembley that day.
Liverpool and Second Division West Ham met in the final of the League Cup in a dour match with little goalmouth action. 90 minutes saw no goals as did the first 27 minutes of extra-time. Then, with time running out Liverpool won a free kick on the edge of the West Ham area. The ball was half-cleared by the West Ham defence and in the process, little Sammy Lee received a clout on the head that left him sprawled and prostate on the penalty spot. The ball bounced out of the area and Alan Kennedy struck a left-footed shot that whizzed over the now offside Lee’s head and past Phil Parkes in the Hammers’ goal.
West Ham were apoplectic, claiming that Lee was both offside and interfering with play. Thomas was having nothing of it and, sticking to his guns, awarded the goal. With less than three minutes to go, it looked like the destination of the cup was decided but West Ham had other ideas. Playing a revolutionary new 1-1-8 formation, West Ham stormed down the other end and forced a corner from which Alvin Martin’s header was handled on the line and Ray Stewart stuck the resulting penalty home to take the game to a replay.
After the game there was, invariably, much discussion and controversy over Thomas’s decision, with some quarters, most noticeably West Ham manager, John Lyall, stating that West Ham had ‘been robbed’. The thinking was no doubt that had Thomas disallowed the goal West Ham would have won the cup.
In all probability that argument was too simplistic. The train of thought that states, “The score was 1-1 thanks to a dodgy goal and if it had not been allowed we would have won 1-0,” doesn’t hold up to scrutiny because had the goal not been allowed, it is very unlikely West Ham would have thrown such caution to the wind with two minutes left in a cup final and the scores level.
Gudjohnsen – European Champions League Semi-Final 2005
In the mid-2000s Liverpool were struggling. A decade-and-a-half since the last title win and the false dawns of the Roy Evans and Gerald Houllier reigns had seen Liverpool at their lowest ebb since before the days of Bill Shankly some 45 years earlier.
Scrambling into the 2004-05 Champions League courtesy of finishing in fourth spot in the 2003-04 table some 30 points behind champions Arsenal, Liverpool had somehow confounded all the critics, and, surprising even themselves, had somehow made it all the way through to the semi-finals of the 2005 competition where they were engaged in a titanic all-England clash with new Premier League champions, Chelsea.
A scoreless stalemate at Stamford Bridge in the first leg set up a winner-takes-all second encounter at Anfield. The details of Luis Garcia’s fourth-minute ‘Ghost Goal’ are well-documented, with Jose Mourinho amusingly still complaining to this day that the ball didn’t cross the line for the only goal of the night and tie, and while this incident could be described as a ‘what-if’ moment, more fitting of the title would be what occurred some 92 minutes or so later.
With Liverpool hanging on at 1-0, the match was five minutes and 50 seconds into the allocated minimum of six added minutes when Chelsea striker Eidur Gudjohnsen was presented with a golden chance to not only equalise but to win the tie on away goals. A scramble in the Liverpool area in front of the Kop resulted in the ball sitting up for Gudjohnsen just eight yards out. Surely he couldn’t miss, could he?
Had he scored then the short-term effect would have been a Chelsea V Milan final and no ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ for Liverpool, but the long-term effects could have been wider-reaching. Liverpool wouldn’t have been in the following season’s Champions League at all and so talisman Steven Gerrard would have almost certainly moved to Chelsea in the summer. Rafael Benitez would have thus found himself in a different environment at Anfield without the goodwill his early success generated and may not have lasted the six years that he did.
Liverpool as a club may have continued to struggle both on and off the field under the previous owners of Hicks and Gillett, and without being an attractive proposition for potential buyers such as John W. Henry and the Fenway Group, may well have ended up heading into administration.
Chelsea may have found things panning out differently for them also. With the first Chelsea Champions League title potentially coming his way seven years before Roberto Di Matteo’s 2012 side managed it, Mourinho may well have stayed longer at Stamford Bridge the first time and not managed Inter Milan or Real Madrid.
Of course, these ‘what-if’ moments are not exclusive to Liverpool, What if, for example, 1991 FA Cup Final referee Roger Milford had arguable done his job and cautioned Paul Gascoigne after his first reckless tackle on Nottingham Forest’s Gary Charles? Just maybe Gazza would have got the message, calmed down and not made the second horrific challenge that changed the projection of both his career and possibly even English football in the 1990s in general.
What if, eh?
What if my Grandma had…..er, well, you know!