Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Sporting what ifs of the 1980s

The life of That1980sSportsBlogger has produced enough what if moments to fill a blog or two, albeit probably not that interesting to anyone who doesn't know me (how does that differ from this blog I hear you ask). What if I hadn't gone to that nightclub in Northampton on that fateful evening of December 1, 1995, where unbeknown to me, the future Mrs That1980sSportsBlogger was located? What if my parents had decided to move to New Zealand when I was barely out of nappies, as they were carefully considering? What if my dad had been a Tottenham supporter? All of those what ifs, and in particular the last one, are quite scary to comprehend, as my life as I know it today would be very different indeed.

Sport naturally lends itself to the what if moment. Many a time I have been caught in a daze, going over and over sporting incidents in my head, such as Bergkamp's last minute penalty at Villa Park in 1999, or Henry's chance at 1-0 in the Champions League final of 2006. What if? Two small words, with huge meaning.

So this week I have decided to list a few of the what if moments from sport in the 1980s. This isn't a definitive list, they were simply the first ideas that popped into my middle-aged head. This could well turn out to be an interesting repeat series in future blogs, hopefully more Coronation Street than Eldorado.

What if Manchester United had sacked Alex Ferguson?

As footballing what ifs go, this is right up there. United may well have beaten reigning champions Arsenal 4-1 on the opening day of the season, but from that point on there was little cheer for anyone associated with the club in the rest of 1989. By September 23, United had lost four out of seven in the league, including a soul destroying 5-1 derby defeat to Man City at Maine Road. Ferguson's expensive squad was torn to shreds by City, prompting Harry Harris to write in the Daily Mirror: "From boardroom to dressing-room United are showing all the classic signs of a club cracking up - and the man being singled out as the scapegoat is manager Alex Ferguson. United's disgruntled supporters angrily chanted 'Fergie out,' while the rival fans rivals taunted 'What a waste of money!'" Believe it or not, there was worse to come.

A 3-0 defeat at home in the League Cup against Tottenham was bad enough, yet United managed to plumb new depths with their league form between November 25 and December 30. Their record of P 7 W 0 D 3 L 4 left United in 15th place, and just two points above the relegation zone. During a particularly shambolic 2-1 home defeat against Crystal Palace, it appeared that the end was nigh. Only 33,514 turned up to watch United's latest debacle, one fan unfurling the now infamous banner: "Three years of excuses and we’re still crap – Ta ra Fergie." Bob Russell's comments in the Mirror, under the headline 'FERGIE READY TO GO!', highlighted the predicament Fergie found himself in: "United boss Alex Ferguson has just four weeks to get his Old Trafford act together again - otherwise he will surely go." William Hill had Fergie as 2/5 favourite to be the first managerial casualty of the new decade, and the knives were out.

Fergie out!

We all know how this story ends though. Mark Robins' crucial goal at the City Ground saw United through to the next round of the FA Cup in January 1990, and the rest is history. People quite rightly point to that Robins goal as a major turning point in Fergie's tenure, but looking back it is apparent that he was lucky to remain in charge even until that moment. If Fergie had been sacked then the whole history of English and European football would have turned out very differently, he would most probably remain as plain old Mr Alex Ferguson, and who knows, United may still be waiting for their first league title since 1967 (doubtful, though we can but dream). You do have to grudgingly take your hat off to the man, but it is a tantalising prospect to consider that all this could have all been nipped in the bud many years ago.

What if Craig Stadler had made that putt in the 1985 Ryder Cup?

Although the Europeans had come very close to ending the US domination of the Ryder Cup in 1983, it was still apparent after the first session of the 1985 matches that the Americans were going to be a tough champion to topple. All talk of a European victory looked cheap after the visitors stormed into a 3-1 lead after the morning foursomes, and come the end of day one, European skipper Tony Jacklin would have been relatively happy to sleep on a 4½-3½ deficit. The Saturday fourballs were nip and tuck, and with just one match left on the course, the Europeans had pegged the score back to 5½-5½. Langer and Lyle were struggling though, with Craig Stadler and Curtis Strange dormie two-up, and it would take a Lyle eagle on 17 just to get the match down the last. And then came the moment that would haunt the Walrus forever.

Langer and Lyle both missed birdie attempts on 18, and as Stadler stood over a putt of no more than 18-inches for the match, it looked as if the Americans would go into the afternoon foursomes 6½-5½ up. It was so close that it was quite conceivable that the putt could have been conceded. What followed was a quite staggering miss from Stadler, so bad that his putt didn't even hit the hole. A surprised cheer of delight surrounded the 18th, as Stadler walked away in disbelief at what had just happened, no one else quite able to digest how the 1982 Masters champion had blown his lines in such a spectacular fashion. It was the tipping point of the 1985 Ryder Cup. It was such a seismic moment that it could be argued that it was the tipping point of the Ryder Cup full stop.

Stadler's miss seemed to galvanise the Europeans, whereas the shell-shocked visitors were unable to shake themselves out of their stunned state. Europe took the Saturday foursomes 3-1, eventually running out 16½-11½ winners on that unforgettable Sunday. Post-Stadler, the Americans only took 5½ points out of the remaining 16. But what if Stadler had made that putt? That extra bit of self belief that the Europeans needed may well have been missing going into the Saturday foursomes, the result of these matches in turn could have been altered due to a different mindset for both sets of players. The subsequent European lead of 9-7 going into the singles might not have existed, the captains could have selected their singles order differently, and who knows, things could have been a lot closer come the Sunday. Maybe.

I think I'm playing devil's advocate here. I may well be a biased European, at least for three days every two years, but surely even if Stadler had made that putt, the Europeans were so strong that they would have still ended 28 years of American bullying. But we'll never know for sure of course, which is the whole point of this blog.

What if Mike Gatting had not played that reverse sweep?

Google 'Mike Gatting reverse sweep 1987' and be prepared to be submerged in a sea of sorrow (if you're English that is). The 1987 World Cup final was going swimmingly for England; Australia had set a target of 254, and after losing Tim Robinson early on, England had progressed to 135/2 after 31 overs, with captain Gatting in the middle aiming to add World Cup glory to his Ashes triumph in Australia the winter before. Australia's desperation was such that skipper Allan Border decided to bring himself on for a bowl. His slow left arm spin wasn't the worst in the world, but it was hardly likely to cause Gatting and Athey any concern, even in a World Cup final. And then cricketing disaster.

Gatting took Border on immediately, trying a reverse sweep straight up. As the ball clipped Gatting's ample shoulder and looped up in the air, the England skipper must have had his heart in his mouth and an impending feeling of gloom. Wicketkeeper Greg Dyer gleefully pouched the simple chance and the Australians were understandably cock-a-hoop. Gatting and the rest of England were not however. When Wisden described the incident as "a moment too crass to contemplate," you know you've blundered in a massive way.

England eventually lost by just seven runs, and it wasn't hard to find a scapegoat. 'CAPTAIN COCK-UP' declared the Daily Mirror, as Gatting was roundly criticised for his abysmal shot. Within just a month of the final, Gatting found himself embroiled in an on field slanging match with Pakistani umpire Shakoor Rana, and by the summer of 1988 his time as England skipper had ended. It would be far too simple to put all of Gatting's travails down to just one shot, though it is interesting to note that from that moment onwards his England career nose dived alarmingly. Even if he hadn't played that shot, all that unravelled afterwards may still have done so. But it is quite possible that had Gatting left the reverse sweep in the locker on that fateful day in Calcutta, that at least we would now look back on his time as England skipper in a much fonder light. An Ashes and World Cup winning captain; now that would be seriously impressive. It simply pains me to type this stuff 25 years on, so I wonder what Gatting does to cope with one of the most annoying what ifs of English cricket history?

What if Eric Bristow had not developed dartitis?

It seems a bit odd to analyse the career of a five-time World Champion and add a what if to the findings. On the face of things, Eric Bristow could be extremely happy with his lot, as he dominated world darts in the 80s, and helped bring the game to millions of households up and down the country. The Crafty Cockney was the king of the oche in the early to mid-80s, and it looked as if no man could beat him, as he won world titles in 1981, 82, 84, 85 and 86. As it transpired, the man most likely to topple the great man, was Bristow himself.

In 1986 Bristow developed a condition known as dartitis, an affliction that prevents a darts player from releasing their dart, rendering them a psychological mess on the oche. Speaking in The Observer in 2004, Bristow detailed his dartitis torment: "It was around 1986. I brought my dart back, got halfway through throwing it and could not let go. I don't know how I got it, or how I got rid of it, but I had it for about 10 years." Just at a time when Bristow appeared to be ready to set all kinds of records, he was stripped of his powers, a darting Samson for all the world to see.

It says a lot about the man that he was still capable of reaching four world finals and a semi-final post-dartitis, along with regaining his world number one status in 1990. But what might have been had the legendary Bristow and dartitis not crossed paths? Phil "The Power" Taylor has obviously taken the sport to a completely different level, yet it could be argued that Bristow may well have reached ten or more world titles, and Taylor's initial route to the top might have been obstructed by the rather imposing figure of the darting colossus from Hackney. That may sound far fetched, but it must be remembered that even in 1997, way after Bristow's peak, he was able to take Taylor to the brink in a thrilling 5-4 semi-final defeat at the WDC (now PDC) World Championships. He doesn't need our sympathy of course, and he did enjoy a superb career. But what if?

What if David Campese had not thrown that pass?

The 1989 test series between Australia and the British and Irish Lions could not have been more evenly poised. At half-time of the third test the series stood at 1-1 - Australia had won the first test 30-12, with the Lions roaring (sorry) back to take the second 19-12 - with the deciding match locked at 9-9. It was up for grabs, as Brian Moore once famously said. A moment of brilliance or madness could quite easily decide the series. Unfortunately for the Aussies, David Campese would provide a lot of the latter.

Rob Andrew has executed a few famous drop goals in his time, but this was not one of his finest efforts. Andrew's sliced effort ended up in the hands of Campese behind the try line, in no apparent danger. And then insanity struck. Campese threw a pointless pass to Greg Martin, who unsurprisingly was not expecting the ball at all, allowing Welsh winger Ieuan Evans to pounce for a crucial try. The Lions held on grimly for a 19-18 victory, taking the series 2-1, firmly establishing Ian McGeechan and Finlay Calder's men in Lions folklore.

It could have been so very different though. If Campese had just played it simple in a section of Sydney which is now known as Campo's Corner, then there is a strong possibility that the Australians would have gone on to win the game. That is a highly debatable point naturally, but if the Aussies had gone on to win that match, then the 1989 Lions would have been the first side from these shores to lose a full test series to Australia, and the 2001 rabble would have avoided their ignominious place in history. It is a cliche to say that the margin between success and failure is so small in sport. Another well worn quote is "There's a fine line between genius and insanity." Thankfully for the Lions, Campese's insanity proved the difference between success and failure, and made a 13-year-old boy watching in England a very happy chap.


  1. So many delicious possibilities with these 'what-ifs'. Here's one I'd like to add:

    What if Nigel Mansell's tyre had not blown up in Adelaide in '86?

    Obviously he would have been World Champion, but the ramifications go further than that. As World Champ, he would have had the lion's share of Williams-Honda's development in the 87 season...which would probably have given him the edge over Piquet, enough to make him World Champion. As a double world champ, he would have either been in a position to enable Williams to keep Honda power in '88, or alternatively engineer a move to McLaren. It is not inconceivable that he might have kept Senna out of a dominant McLaren-Honda and thus the history of F1 would look very different.

  2. Another football related one occurred right at the end of the 80's. Poland rattled the crossbar in the 89th minute of England's final qualifier for the 1990 World Cup. The game was still in the doldrums at the time and many people argued that England's eventual run to the semi-final and Gazza'a tears etc., sparked a revival which culminated in the Premiership and the global "product" that we see today. England needed a point to qualify so if that shot had gone in and they had lost 1-0, the game may have gone into decline once again.

  3. What if English clubs had not been banned from Europe. Everton would almost certainly have won the European Cup after winning the league in 1985. They're team would not have broken up with players - and manager - looking for European football. Who knows what they could have achieved and what sort of platform it would have laid at the club.

  4. Why would Everton "almost certainly" have won the European cup cup in 1986? Juventus (Platini et all), Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Anderlecht, Aberdeen and eventual winners Steaua Bucherest Bucherest were all tough teams to beat. Also, if English clubs had not been banned, that would have meant that the Heysel disaster wouldn't have happened, which in turn would have possibly meant that Liverpool had won the 1985 final, therefore also qualifying for the 85-86 European cup. Liverpool beat Everton to the league and cup double in 86, so the evidence would indicate that they would've beaten them in the European cup also.

  5. Can someone with a better knowledge than me speculate a "what if" Lineker hadn't missed that sitter against Argentina in the 86 QF, and Maradona's handball had been disallowed. Were England good enough to have gone on and won the World Cup? Could they have beaten Belgium, Germany or France?

  6. Surely the first one is a 90s what if (just), but anyway...

    I would like to write the definitive alternative timeline of this much debated topic and I believe I have discovered the crucial aspect of this story that everyone overlooks. But I'm not about to reveal it here.