1. Keegan’s Newcastle implode
(Premier League, 1995/1996)
On Christmas Day 1995, Newcastle United boss Kevin Keegan sat down to his dinner without a footballing care in the world.
His side’s nearest rivals, Manchester United, had crumbled to a 3-1 defeat against Leeds United at Elland Road the evening before and now found themselves ten points adrift at the table’s summit as the Premier League took a short festive break.
Such was United’s inconsistency in the early part of the 1995/96 season that even when they beat Newcastle 2-0 at Old Trafford later that week, it seemed that it would only be a matter of time before they surrendered the impetus and carelessly dropped more points.
As long as United kept squandering opportunities, Newcastle were comfortable. Sadly for the Magpies, that was never going to last forever, and as United began to mount their post-Christmas charge, Newcastle began to falter and fritter away their lead.
By the time United visited St. James’ Park at the beginning of March, that seemingly-insurmountable ten-point advantage had been reduced to four. A Cantona volley later and the two sides were separated by just a single point.
The pressure of expectation can do funny things to the mind. Keegan realised that there was a very real danger of his side throwing away a league title which they thought they had in the bag, while Fergie began to crank up the mind-games in the hope that his opponents would choke.
They did, both on and off the field. The first cracks began to show after a 1-0 victory over Leeds which had kept the Geordies’ title dreams alive. Keegan gobbled up Ferguson’s bait, losing the rag in a post-match interview as he combusted into his now-infamous “love it” rant.
That weekend, his charges followed his example, drawing 1-1 away to Nottingham Forest to hand United their tenth league title.
2. Devon Loch slips out of contention
(1956 Aintree Grand National)
If you thought that humans were the only ones to suffer sporting meltdowns, the tale of nine-year-old gelding Devon Loch might cause you to reconsider.
The safe navigation of Aintree’s testing fences is generally considered to be the most critical step on the road to Grand National success. The horse which clears the final flight and faces the uphill climb to the finishing post with the most left in the tank is usually a worthy winner of racing’s most famous steeplechase.
In 1956, Devon Loch, wearing the colours of the Queen Mother, ticked both of those boxes. Over four miles and thirty fences, the horse had stayed standing. Now, on clearing the final flight, jockey Dick Francis asked him to pull away to victory and he gamely obliged.
Passing the Aintree grandstand with just 50 yards to the finishing post, there is no doubt that the horse comfortably had the beating of his nearest rival, ESB. Yet, for a reason that will never be known and can never be completely explained, the horse reared up and collapsed onto its belly just short of the line, allowing his pursuer to canter past him for a victory that was easy and unexpected in equal measure.
Reporters and commentators later described the incident as Devon Loch jumping an “invisible” final fence with a number of different explanations proffered.
Had it been a cramp which had caused the horse to seize up? Had he been confused by the shadow of an adjacent fence? Or had the roar of the expectant Aintree crowd, welcoming home their first royal winner in over 50 years, caused the horse to spook?
Sadly, the idiom “straight from the horse’s mouth” is exactly that – an old saying and nothing more. The real reason behind Devon Loch’s untimely demi-jump will never be known.
3. “The Five-Minute Final”
(Offaly vs Limerick, 1994 All-Ireland SHC Final)
Twenty-one years after they had won their last Liam McCarthy Cup, Limerick’s senior hurlers felt that they had a hand-and-a-half on the sport’s most coveted prize once again.
With just five minutes left on the clock in the 1994 All-Ireland final, the Shannonsiders led by five points knowing that a complete implosion was the only thing standing between them and an eighth inter-county crown.
For the opening 60 minutes of the game, there had been no indication that Limerick would even slow slightly as they neared the finish line. They had outpassed and outplayed a sub-par Offaly side and were value for their lead as the endgame approached.
That level of dominance was fairly typical of the side’s performances under manager Tom Ryan so far that season. Though it was only his first year in inter-county management, Ryan had instilled a drive and belief in his squad, backing it up with clever tactics which allowed his players to pinpoint and exploit their opponents’ flaws.
The approach had served them well until, with five minutes to go, the players appeared to forget that there was still a game to be played.
The game was turned on its head within the space of 40 seconds, the Limerick defence still reeling from the shock of Johnny Dooley’s drilled free when Pat O’Connor opportunistically nipped in to steal a second and give Offaly an unlikely one-point lead.
What happened thereafter was largely immaterial. While Offaly’s tails were up, Limerick were a spent force who knew that their nonchalance had cost them dearly. As John Troy and the brothers Dooley continued to pop over point after point in the game’s closing minutes, all Limerick could do was watch and wait to be put out of their misery.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
4. White bottles the black
(1994 World Championship Final)
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to refer to Jimmy White as the “nearly man” of World Championship Snooker – but it didn’t always have to be that way.
On four successive occasions between 1990 and 1993, the Whirlwind found himself perfectly placed in a Crucible final only to come up short each and ever time.
Without doubt, such persistent failure has psychological effects. Coming off the back of four successive final defeats, it can be difficult to shake the loser’s tag, both in the public perception and in your own head.
Remarkably, White made a fifth consecutive final the following year where he came up against the young Scot Stephen Hendry – his vanquisher in ’90, ’92, and ’93 – one more time.
As Hendry raced into an early 5-1 lead, proceedings started to feel all too familiar. To his credit though, White stuck to the task, taking a 13-12 lead at one stage early on in the final day and then holding his nerve to make a break of 75, levelling the match at 17-17 and sending it to a final frame decider.
What happened next can only be explained as the actions of a man who sensed that his moment had finally come, ready to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
With the balls perfectly positioned and a title-winning break within reach, White stood over a straightforward shot on the black – the kind that he and any other professional would make 999 times out of 1,000 – and fluffed it.
The ball rattled the jaws, White’s shot at World Championship glory evaporating with it. The “nearly man” once again.
5. Don’t let the Red Sox win!
(New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox, 2004 ALCS)
In the autumn of 2003, two of baseball’s fiercest rivals, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, went head-to-head for a place in the sport’s showpiece – the World Series.
As the hype reached fever pitch in the days leading up to the first game, there was a very real concern that the whole event would collapse into an anticlimactic mess.
It didn’t – the Yankees snatched victory in the closing stages of a nailbiting seven-game series and the 2003 American League Championship Series was pencilled into the history books as one of the most dramatic ever.
In contrast, the renewal of the rivalry at the same stage in 2004 couldn’t have been more different. The Yankees strolled into a 3-0 lead, leaving Sox fans to face the prospect of an untimely whitewash at the hands of their foes.
Whether what happened next is seen as an amazing comeback or a stunning implosion is a matter of personal preference – or, more accurately, baseball allegiance.
With his side leading 4-3 at the top of the ninth, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera needed just three more outs to send his side to the World Series and send the Fenway crowd home with their tails between their legs.
He gave up a single, allowing the Sox to tie the game and then go on to win it in the third additional inning.
With the series now at 3-1, the pall of potential whitewash had been banished and the Sox believed again.
Ten days later, they were the World Series Champions and the 86-year Curse of the Bambino had been banished forever.
6. Van de Velde feels the Burn
(The Open Championship, 1999)
To reduce Jean van de Velde’s 18th hole at Carnoustie to the status of mere meltdown is to do one of the most incredible events in golfing history a huge disservice.
Knowing that a double-bogey six at the last would be sufficient to win him the British Open’s famous Claret Jug, the Frenchman made just one mistake before embarking on the most dramatic, heroic and completely zany rescue missions ever seen on a golf course.
The mistake wasn’t the act of taking off his shoes and socks, rolling up his trouser legs and clambering into the Scottish course’s famous Barry Burn. No, it had happened eons before that, back on the 18th tee box when van de Velde produced his driver.
A fifty-yard wedge shot off the tee would have been far less hazardous, a fact which the tournament leader must have realised as he watched his wayward drive skew horribly away until it found its resting place on the 17th fairway.
As tee shots go, it wasn’t ideal – but it was by no means fatal to van de Velde’s chances. What happened next was.
Abandoning all reason and logic, the Frenchman staunchly refused to play the percentage game and see the hole out with a series of short, ugly shots in order to secure his victory. His pride – the most Gallic of emotions – simply wouldn’t allow him to do it.
Instead, he went for the grandstand finish, the one which he felt that the gallery gathered around the 18th had paid for. Whether his decision-making process was coloured by a desire to produce a Hollywood climax or by his empowering sense of self-confidence – or whether there was even a decision-making process at play in the heat of the moment – is now largely irrelevant.
His second shot ricocheted into the rough, his third into the Burn.
As the water rose around the ankles, a hapless van de Velde stood and considered his prospects. Considered what he had just done. Considered what he may have just lost.
That he even managed to recover to see the hole out with a play-off clinching seven is a remarkable feat in itself. This was more theatre than sport, but for the fact that you couldn’t have scripted it.
7. Novotna hands Graf victory
(Wimbledon Ladies’ Final, 1993)
To this day, Jana Novotna must lie awake at night wondering how she managed to throw away her first Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon in 1993.
As a number eight seed up against the four-time Wimbledon winner and defending champion Steffi Graf, Novotna entered stage right as a firm underdog. Remarkably, considering the pre-match predictions, after splitting the difference in the opening two sets, she found herself 4-1 up and on serve in the final set.
Two holds from victory.
Having lost ten of the last 12 games at that point, even Graf felt that she was beaten, that her crown would pass on for this year at least.
But she had been here before. With 12 Grand Slam titles already under her belt, Graf knew what it would take to win and, equally, that the title wasn’t won until the last point had been played.
The 24-year-old Novotna had no such experience to draw on mentally. All of her previous Slam wins had come in the doubles tournament with a partner alongside her to share the burden and the pressure.
This time, she was all alone on SW19′s centre court, trying to make sense of the fact that in a matter of minutes, she would be Wimbledon champion.
Graf broke serve to make it 4-2. Novotna’s nerve slipped a notch. A hold and a break later and Graf had completely erased her opponent’s advantage.
For Novotna, the end was as brutal as it was swift.
Read more of Niall Kelly’s Magnificent Seven series here >