The Beauty & Glory Of Missing An Open Goal
He shoots, he scores! Or, if you happened to be Fernando Torres yesterday afternoon, you didn’t. There are several reasons why a Premier League match which had, as they say, a little bit of everything will most likely remembered for one moment of aberration, some connected to the eye-watering amount of money that Chelsea played for said player, others through a sense of a relief that it effectively ended much chance of a tight finish to a match that Manchester United should have long since wrapped up, but most for reasons of good, old fashioned schadenfreude. The effect, however, remains the same – hooting derision aimed at a player that is starting to rediscover a hint of the form and confidence that once made him such a terrifying prospect for the supporters of all other Premier League clubs. Like an active volcano which hasn’t erupted for a few centuries, Mount Torres might be about to rain down goals upon the Premier League, and some of the laughter at his miss may even just have been coated with a thin veneer of relief.
Before I say anything else, though, a confession – I have felt that pain. Well, kind of. About twelve years ago or so, I was playing in the quarter-final of a Sunday League cup when, with just a few minutes left to play and the score tied at 1-1, my team broke forward. With the opposition defence nowhere to be seen, our winger drew the goalkeeper out and rolled the ball past him to me, three yards out and with the goal, as commentators are apt to say, at my mercy. Now, I can’t remember exactly what happened next – possibly I was stretching slightly for the ball, there may even have been a small bobble – but what I do distinctly recall is that the ball suddenly and quite unexpectedly pinged from the end of my foot, took on the qualities of a helium balloon and sailed harmlessly – almost serenely – about ten yards over the crossbar. Had we been playing rugby league, I would likely have ended up a hero. On this occasion, however, I wasn’t – by the end of extra time, with the chance having passed, we had lost by four goals to one.
The feeling of wishing the earth to open up and swallow you alive in front of around twenty or thirty spectators is bad enough. Quite how that must feel in front of seventy-six thousand supporters and with the knowledge that there are tens of millions of people watching live on the television as well, I can’t say. More or less any other movement that I could have made with my right foot would have resulted in a goal, either through (most likely accidentally) controlling the ball and tapping it in or by poking it over the line, even if via both posts and the crossbar. Had a similar situation have occurred at the other end of the pitch, we can be reasonably certain that the dread phrase “King O.G.” would have been appearing in that week’s local newspaper. It was a freak moment wrapped in my own relative incompetence – I was, in my own defence, a full-back inexplicably hurled forward to try and win a tight game without an energy-sapping extra thirty minutes – but all it cost my team was, at best, a small silver cup and an afternoon match at a local village ground. I was seldom permitted to cross the half-way line again, though.
Fernando Torres, however, is different, of course. Torres is paid £175,000 per week to play football for Chelsea and it could be argued that there is no room for mistakes when a player is earning that sort of money. Paying the best players vaster and vaster amounts of money, however, cannot completely eradicate human infallibility and it is worth remembering that yesterday we also saw the very best of Torres, in the sumptuous way in which took the goal that he did score as well as the dummy that he threw at David De Gea before shooting wide with ten minutes to play. The tolerance of the modern football supporter towards failure may have become desensitised by the amount of money that is thrown around in wages and transfer fees and the resultant effect that this has had on the cost of ticket prices and television subscriptions, but this heightened sense of expectation doesn’t alter the aspect of human fallibility involved, and the modern media culture merely, if anything, magnifies the amount of attention that such mistakes attract.
As this compilation shows, the best players in the world miss open goals (the Cristiano Ronaldo miss for Manchester United at Sheffield United, thirty seconds into that video, is particularly astonishing), and some of the most notable mis-kicks and miscues in the history of the game have become iconic in their own right. Ronny Rosenthal’s open goal miss for Liverpool at Aston Villa in 1992, for example, has taken on a life of its own and has come to be one of the defining moments in the career of a player that won league championships in three different countries. This doesn’t just happen in football, either. Don Fox’s last minute penalty miss for Wakefield against Leeds in the last minute of the 1968 Rugby League Challenge Cup Final at Wembley is one of the most famous kicks in the history of the game, for example. This fallibility isn’t even limited to the human species – the name of Devon Loch has become synonymous with the astonishing sudden sprawl which cost the horse and its jockey the 1956 Grand National.
Every change that we see in modern football, from the shape of goalposts and balls through to talk of introducing goal-line technology, seems directed towards standardisation and rationalisation. The stakes, it sometimes feels, are now too high for things to go wrong. On Sunday afternoon, however, in front of an audience of millions and in a match featuring two of the wealthiest clubs sides that the world game has ever seen, two of the finest strikers in the world, Fernando Torres (and, let us not forget, Wayne Rooney, whose penalty kick at the other end of the pitch earlier in the match wasn’t so much a shot at goal as warm-up for an appearance on Stars In Their Eyes in the role of “John Terry in Moscow”), reminded us all that in football, just as in life, there can be points at which rational analysis fails and all that we can do is move our palms hastily in a face-wardly direction. To err is human, and some of the events of Sunday afternoon demonstrated, in the clearest terms possible, that, no matter who tries to perfect our game, football will always have a human face.
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