“And Smith must score” – the worst misses are the ones that truly mattered

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There has been much talk about Neal Maupay’s miss for Brentford this weekend being one of the worst ever, but it is nothing compared to those in crunch games – as Cris Freddi described in WSC 151, September 1999

20 November ~ Right, let me do a quick mention of famous televised misses, to make it look as if I’ve seen them all, then we’ll move on to missed chances that mattered, because that’s all I know about.

On the screen, nobody missed a more open goal than Ronny Rosenthal, who hit the bar, or Roger Davies of Derby, who went past the keeper at Stamford Bridge, then knocked the ball past the post as he staggered after it. They’re probably on a video with all the others, accompanied by a They Think It’s All Over-type soundtrack.

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The best I ever saw, and one that made a difference at international level, was by John “Yogi” Hughes against England in 1968. Needing to win to reach the European Nations Cup quarter-finals, Scotland could only draw 1-1 thanks to Hughes’s miss. Gordon Banks palmed a corner on to the bar and the ball fell right in front of Hughes. Memory says (I was very young, of course) he was only about a yard out, and a photo confirms it: in front of goal with Banks still getting up and Peters, Moore and Newton just watching.

Another one from the archives had the TV camera right behind it, probably the last thing Peter Marinello wanted. A slim, baby-faced Scottish winger of Italian extraction, he seemed to be Arsenal’s token attempt at polishing up the Double side’s dull image but played only 32 League games in three years. When he picked up a stray back-pass against Ajax in the 1971-72 European Cup quarter-final, it was the first time he’d touched the ball in the first team for six months. Running clean through, he shot against the keeper’s legs. Arsenal lost and Marinello was transferred to Portsmouth the following year. Ajax went on to retain the Cup, which Arsenal didn’t play in for another 20 years.

If it’s any consolation to Marinello, far better strikers do it all the time. With the score still 0-0 in Belgrade in a European Cup tie in 1966, a cross from George Best found Denis Law two yards out against Partizan. The great Denis, scorer of 28 goals in Europe and a record 30 for Scotland, missed the ball with his foot, caught it with his thigh and hit the bar. “That dreadful miss,” he called it. United went out and Law missed the final when they won it two years later.

Possibly the most famous miss of all was Gordon Smith’s big moment in 1983. He’d had a few before, he kept telling us, playing in six cup finals with Rangers and so on, but we weren’t really listening. Not after what he did from eight yards. Earlier he’d done it much better from further out, heading lowly, already relegated Brighton into a half-time lead in the Cup final. Now, in the last minute of extra-time, the limited but persistent Michael Robinson battered his way into the Manchester United box and squared the ball to his right.

In the 1978 Scottish League Cup final, Smith had scored the winner against Celtic in the last minute of extra-time, but here he hadn’t expected to see the ball again (Robinson never passed, he claimed). The shock affected his aim and Gary Bailey made the save. United won the replay 4-0, Brighton were relegated, and a club fanzine was named And Smith Must Score.

Missed penalties would fill a book, let alone an article this size. But there’s just room for Dennis Bergkamp’s against Manchester United, and two that cost clubs their respective league championships for the only time in their history. Needing to win their last match of the 1923-24 season to win the First Division title, Cardiff City were given a late spot kick, apparently the first one their international inside-forward Len Davies had ever taken. His miss cost Cardiff the title on goal average.

In the last two minutes of their last match of the 1993-94 season, Deportivo La Coruña were awarded a penalty at home but had taken off their regular taker Donato da Silva, leaving the responsibility to Serbian sweeper Miroslav Djukic, one of the stars of their season. Like Davies, his weak shot was easily saved and the game ended goalless. Unlike Davies (probably), he fell to his knees. For the third season in a row Barcelona won the title thanks to a blunder by their closest rivals.

Missed chances that cost cup finals include Peter Rodrigues (“it looked easier to score”) and Andy Lochhead (“a sitter”) for Leicester City in the 1969 FA Cup, and Daniele Massaro’s two or three for Milan in the 1993 European Cup. Gianluca Vialli missed at least as many the previous year, including one when Attilio Lombardo put him clear on goal. Vialli captained Juventus when they won the cup in 1996 but even then he missed a chance to win it before the penalty shootout after going round the keeper, and anyway it was a fat lot of use to Sampdoria.

In the closing minutes of normal time against Manchester United in the 1968 European Cup final, Eusébio was sent clean through the middle only to shoot straight at Alex Stepney. “An expensive miss,” said Motty in a recent book, and Stepney agreed: “A bad mistake by Eusébio rather than brilliant goalkeeping.”..

Back in 1909 Frank Hilton missed from close range for Bristol City, who lost 1-0 and haven’t reached the Cup final since. And when the Arsenal keeper dropped the ball at his feet in 1936, England winger Bobby Barclay hit it straight back to him. Sheffield United lost 1-0, haven’t reached the final since, and haven’t won the Cup since 1925.

In the World Cup, honourable mentions for Steve Nicol’s weak prod against a ten-man Uruguay in 1986 and Julio Salinas’s poor finish against Italy in 1994 which stopped Spain reaching the last four for the first time since 1950. But the two worst misses, in some ways, were perpetrated by one of Holland’s finest, their leading scorer in all World Cup finals, who gets the prize for a portfolio and an individual cock-up.

Johnny Rep was a classic Dutch star of the 1970s: blond, skilful and arrogant. Impressively cool from the start, he was only 20 when he scored twice to win Ajax the World Club Cup in 1972 then headed the only goal of the European Cup final a year later. He scored seven goals in the World Cup tournaments of 1974 and 1978, Holland reaching the final each time. In the second, the scores were level when he ran on to Arie Haan’s free-kick, climbed way above Passarella and Galvan (a photo shows him getting in the header while they’re still grounded) and missed from close range.

Four years earlier, worse still. With the scores again level, Johan Cruyff ran through, drew Franz Beckenbauer, and sent Rep clear on the keeper. With time, space, and a good angle, he made it easy for Sepp Maier to save. Holland lost each time, of course.

After the 1974 match, Rep tried to pass the buck back to his captain, saying Cruyff had been afraid to take the Kaiser on. But it won’t wash. Imagine the criticism if he’d lost the ball by trying to go past the last defender while Rep was completely unmarked. No, it was just a poor, unimaginative piece of finishing. And, because it cost the most skilful team of their generation the World Cup, probably the miss of the century. Learn to live with it, JR. We’ve all had to. Cris Freddi

This article first appeared in WSC 151, September 1999. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here