Worst luck of the century

Cris Freddi tracks down the players and teams fated to misfortune, in the latest part of his series on the dark side of 20th century football

Imagine it. It’s 1951. Australia lose to a touring English FA XI in Sydney and you’re the keeper who lets in the 17 goals. Naturally you don’t win another cap, but you can live with that; your worst bit of bad luck arrived at birth, when you discovered you had parents who thought they had a sense of hum­our. Their sur­name’s Conquest and they christen you Norman. Thanks a bloody bunch. They presumably get together with the parents of Norman Rule, who follows you into the Oz team.

Fast-forward 46 years. Your name’s Teuvo Moilanen and you’re no happier. You are another goalkeeper, except it’s the last minute of the match and you’ve kept a clean sheet. Finland have never reached the World Cup finals, but they are leading 1-0 in their last qualifier for France 98. Then Hungary win a corner and one of their defenders prods it towards your goal. Not to worry: your trusty attendant Sami Mahlio kicks it off the line. Except it hits you on the arse, rolls slowly over the line, and takes your international ca­reer with it. No consolation that Hun­gary are stuffed 7-1 and 5-0 by Yugoslavia in the play-offs.

Still, eh? As long as you’ve got your health. If Bryan Robson had had his all the time, he wouldn’t have had to drop out of two World Cup tournaments and England might have done even better than reaching a quarter-final and a semi. He had something like 20 serious injuries in his career, which puts him up there with Den­is Smith, the Stoke City defender of the 1970s who broke 11 important parts of his skeleton “plus several minor frac­tures to fin­gers and toes.”

From 1952 to 1965 the FA Cup final hoodoo struck almost every year, forcing somebody to leave the field injured in the days before substitutes. Some­times their team held out to win, but the likes of Ars­enal (1952), Bolton (1953), Man Utd (1957), Blackburn (1960) and Leicester (1961) found the handicap too much. So did Blackburn last season, when they would surely have stayed up but for that incredible rash of injuries. You have to feel for them. No, you do.

And for Walsall in 1962-63. On the last day of the season, to stay up, they needed to draw with Charlton, who themselves needed to win. Walsall lost Graham Newton (who hit the bar) with a broken ankle and goalkeeper Alan Boswell with a broken jaw, finished with nine men, lost 2-1, and didn’t get back to the Second Division until 1988.

In 1966 Colchester Utd’s Bobby Blackwood had his jaw broken by QPR’s Les Allen. In the return match four months later, he broke it again, again in a collision with Allen. Somebody up there likes a laugh sometimes.

Further proof of that: Plymouth Argyle finished second in the Third Division South six times in a row between 1922 and 1927 – when only the top team went up. An amazing run of misfortune, though Oscar Wilde might have raised an eyebrow. To miss out this way once might be called un­for­tunate, to do it six times… they finally went up in 1930.

Likewise, Cowdenbeath fin­ished second in the Scottish Second Division in 1921-22 but, uniquely, only one club was promoted that season. When they won the division in 1914-15 and 1938-39 they couldn’t be promoted because a world war began each time. Some things really are beyond your control.

Like the weather. Soon after the start of the first leg of the 1973 UEFA Cup final, Bill Shankly realised he’d picked the wrong team. (“Actually I was a bit annoyed with the men who’d vetted the team for us.”) With Mönchengladbach looking iffy in the air at the back, he was using little Brian Hall up front. Netzer & Co coped without much trouble.

Then it started bucketing down, so hard the game was abandoned after about half an hour. For the replay the following day, Shanks brought in big John Tosh­ack (Netzer: “We didn’t know him”) who caused all kinds of havoc and made one of Keegan’s goals. The 3-0 win was just enough to give Liverpool their first European trophy.

Back in 1904-05 Everton were leading Arsenal 3-1 with only 12 minutes left of their last match of the season, before thick fog rolled in and forced the game to be abandoned. Everton lost the rematch 2-1 and the Lea­gue title by one point.

But for me bad luck in football has always meant hitting the woodwork. All right, it’s not necessarily the worst thing that can happen to a club or player, but it can only happen in football, association or otherwise. Well, you know what I mean. And when it does you immediately think somebody was unlucky. So-and-so lost 2-1 but hit the bar twice and had a goal disallowed. It leaves a big if over any result.

None more so than when Yugoslavia went to Buch­arest in 1934. Needing to win to qualify for the World Cup finals, they lost 2-1 after hitting the post and bar no less than eight times. I’ve got only one source for this, but it’s not a misprint as far as I can tell, and anyway I want to believe it. To hit the frame of the goal once might be called unfortunate…

In May 1961 Barcelona were hot favourites to win the European Cup at the Wankdorf Stadium in Bern. They had ended Real Madrid’s five-year reign in the semis and their forward line consisted of a very good Brazilian, Evaristo, and four of the all-time greats: Czibor, Kubala, Kocsis and Luis Suárez. “We didn’t have players like that,” said Benfica’s coach (Eusébio was still to come).

Barcelona gave away two soft goals in a minute, lost 3-2, and had to wait until 1992 to win the Cup – but only after Kocsis had headed against a post,then fed Kubala, whose shot hit both posts and stayed out. Zoltán Czibor, who hit another post near the end, had played in the World Cup final six years earlier, again scoring in a 3-2 defeat – on the same ground.

In a European Cup final of a more recent vintage, Manchester Utd could not be classed as lucky because they scored twice in injury time (it showed some never-say-die), but they were lucky because Bayern hit the woodwork twice while they were in the lead. They have now lost in the final three times since winning the competition for the last time, back in 1976. Ferguson got his knighthood be­cause Mehmet Scholl hit the post with a chip and Carsten Jancker the bar with an overhead kick.

I’ll stick with the same theme for my unluckiest moment of the century. I’ve never heard anyone disagree, but then I don’t know many Argentinians. In the last minute of normal time in the 1978 World Cup final, Ruud Krol hit a long free kick deep into the left-hand end of the penalty area. We’ve all seen it a hundred times since: Rob Rensenbrink running in that hunched way of his, fingers flicking behind him, getting behind the defence to prod the ball past the keeper. It hits the near post and stays out. In extra-time, Holland become the first country to lose consecutive finals, each time against the hosts.

It’s the worst piece of luck this century because it meant the World Cup was handed to that intimidating Argentinian team by General Jorge Rafael Videla, whose regime “disappeared” thousands of its own people. A nightmare moment. No wonder that goal­post was once nominated as one of the all-time World Cup villains.

From WSC 150 August 1999. What was happening this month