‘Fan’ (n): an ardent devotee, an enthusiast. From ‘Fanatic’ (n): a person marked by an extreme unreasoning enthusiasm, as for a cause.
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Bill Shankly’s famous quotation is clearly a ludicrous statement. Football, and sport in general, is never a matter of life and death; something brought into clearer focus by Gary Speed’s recent tragic demise. That opener was assuredly not intended as an attack on Shankly – one must presume that he didn’t truly believe the remark himself – but merely an introduction to our frequently disproportionate passion and zeal for sporting causes.
For sport’s hardcore fundamentalists, it can produce moments of unequalled emotion and feeling. Moments where there appear to be truth in Shankly’s words. Moments even, where the ecstasy or agony seems more profound than for the competitors themselves. A favourite team or athlete’s failure on the biggest stage can lead to devastating disappointment for the fanatics.
I can recall three particular moments when this utter desolation of sporting defeat enveloped me. Surprisingly, as an occasional fanatic of Manchester United, none of these moments involve the Reds. Why? I am undecided. Too young to truly, passionately care pre-2003 – the FA Cup final defeats to Arsenal and Chelsea in ’05 and ’07 respectively, inspired sadness; the 6-1 loss to City this season, rage. Barcelona nearly inflicted depression in 2009 and 2011 but these moments were tempered firstly by simply attending the European Cup final and the sheer occasion of the evening, and secondly the realisation this year that there is no shame in losing to potentially the greatest team of all time.
So what sporting situations did manage to provoke inner turmoil if the sporting institution closest to my heart could not? Three seemingly random and certainly unrelated sportsmen: Colin Montgomerie’s final hole meltdown at the US Open in 2006; Andy Murray’s defeat to Andy Roddick at Wimbledon in 2009; and the Brett Favre’s loss in the 2010 NFC Championship game. A motley crew indeed; their inherent flaws perhaps the reason for my unyielding support.
Montgomerie; Monty rather, stood in the middle of the 18th fairway at the climax of the final round at Winged Foot needing to get down in three shots to finally secure that elusive major championship. Needless to say, for my favourite long-faced lothario, it wasn’t to be. A stuffed seven-iron into thick rough short of the green; a heavy handed chip; followed by another; and two putts. Last chance saloon: empty. A par would have won the title; a bogey would have at least secured a playoff. A double bogey? Nowhere.
Listening to Iain Carter and Jay Townsend on Radio 5 Live so eloquently describe the drama late into the night it was impossible not to share in Monty’s anguish. After a decade of heartache, immortality was finally in the Scots’ grasp and he managed to choke it away from position A. Cue a night of sports-induced insomnia.
The second event was Andy Murray’s only shocking semi-final defeat at Wimbledon. After another crushing day on my summer job chasing bits of litter around the countryside, Murray was all set to make life seem that bit more bearable. His four set failure was an utter travesty. Murray should have gripped Roddick by the throat and never allowed him to play the clichéd “match of his life”. He probably still wouldn’t have beaten Federer in the final, but after 71 years of hurt, this was the chance to have a British representative in the Men’s Singles final at Wimbledon.
The chief reason for the depression that followed this match was possibly the nagging realisation, even at the relatively early stage of his career, that Murray might just not be quite good enough or mentally tough enough to win a Grand Slam.
However, the most soul-destroying sporting moment I have ever encountered didn’t involve a particularly long-cherished sporting favourite or a fellow countryman (the link between Monty and Murray). The tiredness resulting from watching the game in the middle of the night possibly contributed to the profound, intense emotion inspired by Brett Favre’s game losing interception in the Louisiana Superdome against New Orleans.
My love of Favre was mostly due to his reputation as the ultimate competitor. In the most brutal of sports, Favre started a quite incomprehensible 321 straight games over 18 seasons. An absolutely mind-boggling stat. The greatest streak in sports history. He seemed like he would do anything to win a football game.
Unfortunately, and Joe Posnanski (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/joe_posnanski/01/25/brett.favre/index.html) summed up the moment itself better than I ever could with a peerless piece of sports writing debunking the myth of Favre, the toughest man in sports made the stupidest decision I’ve ever seen on any field of play: throwing the ball back across his body into the middle of the field and the waiting arms of Saints corner Tracy Porter, despite there being an easy five yards on offer had he pulled the ball down and run it. The Saints subsequent winning of the overtime coin toss, and Garrett Hartley’s 40 yard field goal nailing the fleur-de-lis between the uprights, were utterly inevitable.
There is no mention of Favre’s team – because the 2009/10 season was all about him. As inappropriate as the use of this metaphor seems, Favre’s season, career even, lived and ultimately died by his cannon of a right arm.
These three events caused more emotional distress than any others I can remember but the only common factor apparent between the three situations is the ‘choke’ aspect and the defeat wrested away from the jaws of victory. Monty should have made par from the middle of the fairway but choked his iron approach as his ultimate dream dared to become reality; Murray was heavy favourite to beat Roddick but the pressure of the situation caused him to choke; and Favre suffered a catastrophic choke from an game-winning position, undoubtedly caused by the tension and fervour of the moment.
In sport there is nothing that can be completely relied on – even the greatest will fail on occasion. It is the manner of the failure that can occasionally inspire rational individuals to the total irrationality of sport-themed sadness.