Is there luck in football? The Man Utd case study

By Richard Johnson





Because it was the FA Cup weekend, I sat in front of my television last Saturday and watched a tape of the 1999 Treble-winning Manchester United season. Though I followed the team’s progress religiously in that epic season, I’ve also seen the tapes of their triumphs in the three competitions times without number since then.
However, on Saturday, a fresh perspective on the team and its success hit me and left me wondering. Contrary to the impression one would have about a team shot full of confidence and swagger, cantering to one victory after another, United’s road to victory was strewn with near-misses, hair-raising swerves and heart-stopping moments. It was not a ride in the park. Not for United and, certainly, not for the fans.
So, naturally, I asked myself if United had just been lucky to achieve so much that season considering the many banana-peels that could have tripped them over but which they were able to negotiate sometimes deep into stoppage time times without number.
Okay, let’s take a trip down memory lane to see some of the games which defined United’s treble win and a couple others which defied any logical explanation as at when they happened. We’ll look at United’s treble win as well as the 2008 UCL final and the Damman Miracle of Saudi ’89.   
United won the Premier League, edging close rivals Arsenal by just one point. The Gunners, defending champions from the previous season, at one point looked as though they were on the brink of winning the title again, after beating Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 while United had drawn 2-2 against Liverpool.
However, Arsenal choked and fell to a 1–0 defeat at Leeds United in the penultimate match of the season which allowed United, who even trailed one-nil at a point, to stage a comeback to win 2-1 at against Tottenham on the final day. If United had failed to win that crucial match, Arsenal would have been crowned champions once more.
So, do we say Arsenal were unlucky when it mattered most and that United rode their luck?
The week after winning the league, at Wembley Stadium, the Red Devils won the FA Cup after defeating Newcastle United 2-0 with goals from Teddy Sheringham and Paul Scholes but United would not have been at that stage of the competition if circumstances had not conspired in their favour.
They breezed through the 3rd round (3-1 against Middlesbrough) but nearly came unstuck against old foes Liverpool in the 4th round.  Liverpool took an early lead through Michael Owen as early as the 3rd minute and though United were to hit the woodwork twice and dominated most of the second half, they were unable to break through until the 88th minute when Dwight Yorke finished off a move started by David Beckham’s free-kick. And, deep into time added-on, Ole Solskjaer scored to end Liverpool’s journey while keeping United’s dream alive. Sir Alex Ferguson later reflected that defeating Liverpool was the pivotal point which set up the treble season.
After squeezing past a surprisingly difficult Fulham in the next round, United drew Chelsea in the quarter-finals. First game ended 0-0 and the replay could have gone Chelsea’s way had Peter Schmeichel not denied Gainfranco Zola when through on goal. United won 2-0 but were battered and bruised by Chelsea.
Then came the famous semi-final pair-up with Arsenal which, more than any other game, typified the numerous lucky escapes Man United got in the course of the season. The first game ended in a draw, even though United could have been knocked out by the Gunners, so there was a replay which United won with Ryan Giggs’ famous solo goal in extra time despite playing with 10 men.
As a matter of fact, Schmeichel saved a last minute penalty from Dennis Bergkamp (of all people) which dragged the game beyond regulation time. Had Bergkamp scored that penalty, it would have signaled the end of United’s treble dream.  So, I want to ask, were United lucky to win or Arsenal unlucky not to have scored that penalty?
Five days later, in the final of the Champions League against Bayern Munich, Mario Basler put the Germans ahead as early as the 6th minute and United trailed all through the game until the 89th minute when a fortuitous Sheringham flick steered the ball in for the equalizer. Moments later, Solskjaer scored again to complete an amazing turnaround and left Bayern hearts broken.


United lifted the UCL but, in the first place, nearly failed to qualify for the final if not for a huge slice of fortune in the semis against Juventus.  The Old Lady forced a 1-1 draw at old Trafford in the first leg and raced into a two-goal lead at home before United, once again, turned the tide to win 3-2. Was that luck or just mere happenstance?
Do you still remember that cold night in Moscow in May 2008 when Chelsea where just one penalty kick away from a first-ever Champions League win but John Terry tripped up from 12 yards and blasted the ball away to hand the trophy to Man United. Was Terry, and Chelsea, unlucky?


Four years later, in 2012, Drogba dragged Chelsea back from the edge of defeat with a last minute goal which dragged the UCL to extra-time and the same Drogba scored the deciding penalty to hand the Blues the trophy on Bayern Munich’s own Allianz Arena home-turf. Were Bayern unlucky? Were Chelsea second time lucky? Who determines who gets the luck and who gnashes the teeth?
I’m privileged to be friends with many members of the Flying Eagles set of 1989 who participated in the famous Damman Miracle when Nigeria came from four goals down to equalize and eventually defeat the USSR at the WYC in Saudi Arabia. There is only one question I ask each one of them: what technical instructions did the coach give you at half time when you were trailing two-nil and from the sidelines when you were four goals down?
All of the players I asked this question gave the same answer: nothing new apart from the usual coaches instructions what they were told before and during their previous games. The players just resolved, they told me, to reduce the tally and make the scoreline a little more respectable.
According to Emeka Amadi, who was in goal for the historic match, 4-1 or 4-2 sounded more respectable than 4-0. Hear him: “At 2-0, it was difficult but four goals down appeared impossible to overcome. What kept us going was our resolve not to be disgraced. If we are going to be eliminated, we should leave the competition with our heads held high. Luckily for us, Christopher Ohenhen scored our first goal three minutes after the Soviets had scored their fourth. He got another one and we were happy that the scoreline was a bit respectable, after all, 4-2 was better than 4-0 but when Samuel Elijah got the third one for us, we began to see possibilities where there was doubt before. The Soviets panicked and we went all out. A minute later, Nduka Ugbade scored the historic goal that drew us level. We held on through 30 minutes of extra time before eventually winning on penalties.”
Dimeji Lawal also said: “Before we knew what was going on, we were already four goals down within 60minutes. The implication was that we had less than 30 minutes to either turn things around or pack our bags and head for home. Though we were four goals down, our heads never dropped because we knew it was not because we were not playing well. Luckily, our efforts paid off and we were able to equalize and eventually beat the Soviets on penalties. It was not exactly the way we planned it but it was sweet revenge that we beat them on penalties.”
Note that I spoke with Amadi and Lawal separately so you can appreciate the fact that they made the same point about “a collective resolve to reduce the tally” and they both mentioned the word ‘luck’.
When I put the same question to Mutiu Adepoju, the former Super Eagles captain said: “Playing the USSR, we came up against a very technically good team who were very efficient. They scored twice before we knew what was going on. They scored twice again in the second half and we found ourselves trailing by four goals with less than half an hour left. We came into the game wanting to win but, as it were, we had to struggle to do damage limitations. We resolved to reduce the tally and make the loss a little bit more respectable. We got a free-kick and our dead-ball specialist, Chris Ohenhen, stepped up and scored. We got another free-kick and he scored again. I think that was the point where we decided that we could try and get another goal and because the third goal from Samuel Elijah came immediately after the second, we went all out and got the equalizer through Nduka Ugbade. We held on in extra time and won on penalties.”
So, I want to ask, were the Flying Eagles lucky and the Soviets unlucky?
I know there’s no scientific basis to argue about the existence of luck but I’m sure there’s a certain ‘x-factor’ that rules the affairs of men which, most times, is inexplicable. It is because we cannot explain this phenomenon that we’ll call it ‘luck’ rather than subject our faculties to rigour.
The dictionary defines ‘luck’ as “events that are beyond control and seem subject to chance.” If this definition is correct then you ask yourself how is it possible to rely on luck in a given sporting situation when it’s beyond your control and could go either way?
In all the examples I’ve given, I’m not aware there’s any of those teams which just sat back and wished for ‘luck’ to win games. What they did, even when the odds seemed turn against them, was that they kept on working hard, sticking to a plan and with the knowledge that something was bound to happen sooner than later.
Of course, I concede, there are times when you work hard but you don’t get the result/outcome which you expect but it’s nearly impossible to sit down, do nothing and expect luck to be on your side.
To answer my own question, yes, there is luck in football BUT hardwork must meet opportunity before you can expect to get lucky. In other words, you make your own luck.
This is my own opinion and, as usual, you can agree or disagree with me. Do you agree with me? Do you disagree? Do you have another perspective to this issue? Let us know what you think

February 16, 2015

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