The best losers


Many great teams and athletes have failed to achieve the success their ability has threatened to deliver, writes Shane Corbett


When sports stars train so hard for the ultimate prize only to be constantly toppled at the final hurdle, it can be understandably deflating. But for some, that deflating feeling is all-too familiar and there are many who are considered great in their respective sports but have been unable to claim the greatest prize on offer time and time again.

In snooker there is Jimmy “The Whirlwind” White, who lost six World Championship finals, including an amazing five in a row between 1990 and 1994. In golf, you have Colin Montgomerie, who has won the European Tour’s Order of Merit eight times but has never won a major.

Amazingly, he has finished runner up in a major on five different occasions. Paula Radcliffe is the women’s marathon world record holder. In fact, she holds four of the five fastest times ever, but she has never won an Olympic medal.

Then there is the Brazil team that failed to shine at the 1982 World Cup. Brazil have won the World Cup five times and produced arguably the world’s greatest ever soccer player in Pelé, however it is their 1982 team that is often considered one of their best of all time.

With the likes of Zico and Socrates at their disposal, many fancied them to win the tournament, however, they bowed out 3-2 to eventual winners Italy in what was then the second group round. Similarly, the Dutch “Total Football” team of 1974 are also regarded as a team that failed to follow through.

Renowned as one of the best football sides of all time, the Dutch team at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany beat Brazil, East Germany and Argentina by a combined score of 8-0. In the final against West Germany, they scored a goal after 80 seconds without the opposition ever touching the ball, but West Germany eventually triumphed 2-1.

An excellent example of a great team who struggle for silverware is Mayo. Their loss to Dublin in this year’s All-Ireland football final was their sixth since 1996 and their second in a row. This ensured that their wait for an All-Ireland title will stretch into its 63rd year.

In the quarter-finals, Mayo produced the performance of the season to destroy the then reigning All-Ireland champions Donegal by sixteen points. Even before that, the signs were looking ominous for the other teams in the championship.

It seemed Mayo were intent on revenge after losing out to Donegal in the 2012 final. In the Connacht championship, Mayo defeated bitter local rivals Galway by 17 points, then Roscommon by 12, before demolishing London in the final by 16 points.

In contrast, Dublin, the 2011 champions, had come from behind to beat Kerry in the semi-final courtesy of two late goals. This led many to believe that this just might be Mayo’s year at last. In the final itself Mayo were leading at half-time only to lose by a single point.

After contesting four of the last ten finals, this Mayo team is undoubtedly very talented. Yet, after failing once more at the final hurdle, you have to wonder was that the last chance for this current generation of Mayo players?

The team that lost the final faded badly in the second half and looked a poor shadow of its former self. One theory for these consistent defeats at the final stage is overconfidence after being so dominant in the previous rounds and reaching the final without being pushed hard in any of the previous fixtures.

The pressure and weight of expectation on a team or athlete’s shoulders grows when losing at the final stage becomes so regular. Mayo were no different and had a 62 year bridge to gap since they last lifted Sam Maguire.

Perhaps they were just unlucky, or maybe it’s a mental block now after losing so many finals. In 1996, Mayo had led by six points in the second half, only for Meath to come back and in the dying seconds and score a long range point to force a replay.

Ten years later, in 2006, they seemed to suffer stage fright and lost to Kerry by a massive 13 points. They also appeared to freeze initially last year after failing to score in the opening fifteen minutes.

Another popular theory is the curse. Mayo’s last All-Ireland winning team was the team of 1951. At that time Mayo had just won back to back All-Ireland’s and had contested three of the previous four.

The story goes that on their victory drive home the team of ‘51 passed through Foxford where a funeral was taking place and they didn’t pay proper respect to it. This enraged the local priest who swore that as long as any member of that team still lived, Mayo would never win another All-Ireland title.

Now 62 years later, three members of that team survive and yet again Mayo have failed to win. Whatever the reason for their latest setback it will be very tough for Mayo to pick themselves back up to try again next year.

How well they manage to regroup will show us just how good this Mayo team is. If this current generation of Mayo stars fail to win an All-Ireland they will rank high on most peoples list of the greatest sporting teams to never win a title.

Clearly many great sporting teams and individuals seem to fall just short when the pressure is on. Whether or not they were cursed is debatable, but one thing’s for sure, these unlucky few may have been disappointed in terms of silverware, but their contributions to their respective sports cannot be understated.