Sport Editor Adam Robertson and Deputy Sport Editor Sam Mitchinson give their views on whether or not winning is always everything when it comes to sport.
Sam – Yes, it is everything.
1966, 2003, 2019. These are the last times England won the World Cup in Football, Rugby, and Cricket respectively. These teams and the players playing within them have and will be remembered for decades to come as the peak of sporting prowess and for unifying a nation behind them. They will be remembered as such for one single reason. They won. To answer the question posed shortly and bluntly, yes, professional sport is, and always should be, about winning.
For better or for worse, the development of top-level sport from an amateur to a professional pursuit – a dichotomy perhaps most famously highlighted in the legendary sports film Chariots of Fire – has changed the very nature of sport from the activity of hobbyists wanting to foster teamwork, fitness and healthy living into a multi-billion-pound industry employing not only the sportspeople themselves, but also the huge logistical and administrative apparatus that surrounds these teams. Athletes are now payed extraordinarily high wages funded by billionaire owners and fans who expect one thing: to win.
Cast your mind back and try to remember some FA cup, Premier League/First Division, or indeed any other sport runners up of the past. Perhaps you can remember quite a few in the last 10 years, maybe even the last 20, but go any further and quite rightfully the only people you remember will be the winners. The Liverpool teams of the late 70s and the early 80s, Celtic’s legendary Lisbon Lions who triumphed in the 1967 European Cup final, Schumacher in any of his World Drivers Championship wins. These teams and people are remembered for their ability to win.
On a national level, the 1966 World Cup winning side are revered as heroes, and the teams of today are consistently compared to that all-conquering side, with anything less of ultimate success a failure. Yes, England did adequately in 2018 to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, causing national celebration and good feeling, but they’ll be lucky to be remembered with any veneration in fifty years’ time, if they are even remembered at all (hopefully because they’ll have won it in 2022). The same goes for the England Rugby World Cup side that masterfully dismantled the All Blacks in 2019 in the semi-final only to lose to South Africa in the final. The South African side will go down in history, the English team will not.
At the end of the day, when teams are going out to play any match, they go there with the aim of winning in mind. Teams such as Cambridge United or Gateshead FC will never win top glory, but they still aim to go out and perform on the pitch for the fans and stakeholders who pay them to do exactly that. Even then, miracles are possible, as Leicester proved when they won the Premier League in 2015-16, and Wigan demonstrated when they beat Man City in the FA Cup final in 2013.
Tottenham Hotspur are the clearest example of the necessity of winning. Despite being one of the best teams in the country for many years, the legacy of managers such as Pochettino and players such as Kane will forever be called into question until they actually manage to win something. Ultimately, despite all his goals, Kane can’t truly be called a great of the game until he and his team step up and succeed on the biggest stage of all. Reaching the Champions League final is a commendable and lofty achievement, which most clubs can only dream of, but the fact that they lost resigns them to the trash heap of sports history.
UCLA Bruins football coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders perhaps put it best when he said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” The whole reason anybody keeps score is to determine who won, so can you really say it’s about anything else?
Adam – It’s not quite everything.
One thing’s for certain about what I’m about to write – I’m looking to the heavens to ensure that Roy Keane never sets his sights on it. As the jubilant scenes of the Aston Villa dressing room celebrating their Premier League survival cut back to the Irishman, the mentality which dominated his playing days shone through once again. Disgusted at the fact there wasn’t a trophy in the room, the legendary Man United captain, now famous for his somewhat cold-hearted punditry, couldn’t quite fathom the need for a celebration after what had been a poor return for Dean Smith’s side.
In the highly unlikely event Keane was to peruse his omniscient footballing eyes over this (it is 2020 after all), I imagine he’d take the same approach he took to Kyle Walker’s defending last week and just call me an idiot. At this point, it’s like a badge of honour. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with Roy’s reaction to a certain extent and with my counterpart in writing this article. Winning might be everything to the athletes, but it’s not everything to sporting history. Hell, it feels at times like the England team are more famous for their semi-final defeats and their penalty shortcomings than they are for their triumph in 1966.
The majority of footballers have as many, if not more, stories of what could have been rather than what was. The majority lose more big games than they play – some of which are remembered, for better or worse, by millions across the world. Gazza’s tears alone have spawned numerous books and documentaries which people can’t quite seem to resist despite knowing what’s coming. England’s anthem of “It’s Coming Home”, whilst offering hope, only exists because of the precise lack of hope in the first place.
In the interest of balance, one of Scottish football’s most treasured moments was their journey to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina where, in typical fashion, they failed to beat Peru, were held by Iran and then beat eventual finalists Holland 3-2. On a side note, anybody who has not seen Archie Gemmill’s goal from that game, do stop reading and get yourself on YouTube. Remaining in Scotland, Ask any Celtic or Rangers fan and they’ll tell you they’d probably relive their routes to the 2003 and 2008 UEFA Cup final’s respectively despite just falling short in the final to Porto and Zenit St. Petersburg.
Sporting narratives, Britain in particular, absolutely love a comeback story. There’s nobody who epitomises it better than Sir Andy Murray. After four Grand Slam final losses, Murray finally triumphed over arch-rival Djokovic at the 2012 US Open. It was his shortcoming at Wimbledon that same year though that really captured a nation’s hearts. After breaking down in tears against Roger Federer, the Scot returned to centre court the following year and dispatched Djokovic again in straight sets.
I know this might seem a bit contradictory. In the end, Murray won and will always be a winner. He wouldn’t have got there though without his heartbreaks, without tearing up on national television as he succumbed to another defeat. I suppose what I’m trying to say is winning might be everything, but it often only comes after some serious lows – Murray’s tears have their place alongside his victories.
To use one final example, Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United side of the 1995/96 Premier League season are as much a part of 90s culture, at least to football fans, as the Spice Girls or Oasis were. A goal-scoring side like no other featuring the likes of Les Ferdinand and star-studded talents like David Ginola had put Keegan’s side in pole position for the Premier League title. Sure, they fell short, but they’re not discarded in the way some might suggest. Would David Ginola prefer a Premier League medal in his collection? I’d imagine so. His side still have their place in the history books though and indeed their 4-3 defeat to Liverpool has been voted the best Premier League game of all time despite it being a crucial factor in them falling one short of a Man United side featuring, ironically, Roy Keane himself.
I imagine there’s many out there that might disagree with this, who think that history only remembers the victors. Maybe that’s the case but at times it’s worth remembering that, when it comes to sport, stories of losing sometimes share the spotlight.