Luck in soccer

Look back to the qualifying games at Wembley against Israel and Russia, both won 3-0, and you will see how luck was very much on Steve McClaren’s side.

When Napoleon promoted a general to the rank of marshal, he would always ask, “Is he lucky?” By the same token, football managers who are lucky, at international level in particular, can often be more successful than managers of greater talent. All this came very much to mind when recently Bobby Robson announced that he was retiring definitively from management, and his last job as what you might call general manager of the Republic of Ireland. And this, concur rently with the ups and downs of the besieged and benighted Steve McClaren, whom Israel so unexpectedly and dramatically got off the hook in Tel Aviv by beating Russia.

McClaren, in his typically mindless way, pronounced that he had known it would all come down to the final Wembley match against Croatia. Known? How could the deluded fellow possibly have “known” anything of the sort? His England team, beaten in Moscow by Russia in no small measure, thanks to his ineptly negative tactics and the persistent dicing with death, choice of such a fallible goalkeeper as Paul Robinson, looked down and out. Israel had nothing but pride to play for. By sharp contrast, the Russians not only had a place in the European finals to gain, but also a reported £40,000 a man bonus from Chelsea’s Russian oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich.

Yet against all the odds and all the forecasts, the Israelis rose gallantly to the challenge, not only holding the Russians, but even, almost on full time, scoring the second goal which beat them. If that wasn’t luck, McClaren’s undeserved luck, after making such a fiasco of England’s qualifying group, then I would like to know what is.

Yes, he has had bad luck, too. The injury to Wayne Rooney which put him out of the last decisive game. The injury in Vienna which deprived him of Michael Owen; though surely he should have had the sense to talk the Football Association out of the folly of playing that meaningless Friday friendly in Vienna and thus putting players at risk; with Owen, indeed, falling out.

On the other hand, look back to the qualifying games at Wembley against Israel and Russia, both won 3-0, and you will see how luck was very much on McClaren’s side. The unavailability of David Beckham, who might be categorised as McClaren’s Magnificent Obsession, ludicrously recalled even when not fully fit from his sojourn in the bush league of America’s MLS. Injury to Manchester United’s Hargreaves meant a starting place at long last for the overlooked and under-rated Gareth Barry of Aston Villa, who proceeded to excel in midfield in both games. Injury to Rooney, which caused the highly successful gamble of recalling big Emile Heskey, who in time gone by had proved such a perfect partner to Owen in the 5-1 demolition of Germany, in Munich. The wheels turned sweetly round, the Russians (though they did have a valid equaliser ruled out for a phantom handball) were crushed. The future seemed bright and assured, only it wasn’t. You might say that McClaren signally failed to raise his luck. Until that supremely lucky moment when Israel scored their winning goal against Russia.

What of Bobby Robson and his eight uneven years in charge of England’s team? Could anything have been so unlucky as Diego Maradona’s so-called Hand of God, when the Argentine punched that goal against England at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in the 1986 World Cup, Argentina going on to win 2-1, almost wilting under late English pressure inspired by John Barnes?

But just how lucky were England to be there in the first place? Their two initial group games in Monterrey were embarrassingly awful. They lost to the Portuguese and, reduced to 10 men when Ray Wilkins untypically threw the ball at the referee and was sent off, were immensely fortunate not to be beaten by Morocco.

But luck would indeed be on Bobby’s side, not just because England somehow escaped defeat by a Moroccan team which simply seemed not to believe in its possibilities, but because his team now lost not only a pedestrian and negative Wilkins in midfield but also the captain Bryan Robson, whose shoulder dislocated for the umpteenth time. Now even Bobby Robson, who against all logic had persisted with keeping his captain in the team, had to omit him. This obliged him, in the face of a mutinous England team, to ring the changes which would suddenly make them formidable, bringing in such lively elements as Peter Beardsley, Peter Reid, Trevor Steven and Steve Hodge.

To this very day, Robson’s obstinate insistence on using Bryan remains a mystery. He had to admit in his subsequently, excruciating, World Cup Diary, that he had told what he himself indulgently called “a white lie” in Los Angeles, just before the finals, when in a friendly against Mexico, Bryan’s shoulder went out and Bobby denied it. I have my own idea of why, against all evidence, Bobby stuck to Bryan, but the law of libel prevents.

You might say that Bobby’s luck was out when, having reached the World Cup semifinals in Turin four years later, England lost to Germany on spot kicks, though their passage to the semis was far from easy. “We’ve got here, I do not know how,” Bobby was heard to reflect.

But what of his illustrious predecessor as manager of England, and for that matter, of Ipswich Town, Alf Ramsey? To this day, the Germans will insist that he and England had the luck of the devil when the linesman from Baku, Tofik Bakhamov, gave England a goal after Geoff Hurst had hit the underside of the bar and the ball may or may not have crossed the line. Yet weren’t the Germans lucky to be given the dubious free kick which led to their last gasp equaliser, at 2-2, in normal time?

And what of Ramsey and England’s wretched luck in Leon a World Cup later when Gordon Banks, an inspired goalkeeper, fell ill on the eve of the quarterfinal against West Germany (he still remains bewildered as to how it happened; was he poisoned?), leaving his place to a vulnerable Peter Bonetti, the Germans rising from 2-0 down to a 3-2 win?

(The column was written before the ouster of Steve McClaren)