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Dublin: 10 °C Friday 28 November, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: sporting upsets

Before Crawley Town get spanked at Old Trafford tomorrow evening, we decided to engage with the fairytale atmosphere by reliving seven magical occasions on which David slayed Goliath.

Image: SADAYUKI MIKAMI/AP/Press Association Images

1. Hereford United 2-1 Newcastle United

5 February, 1972

If Crawley Town are looking for a worthwhile way to spend a few hours this evening, they could do a lot worse than buying some popcorn and sticking on a video of the ultimate FA Cup giant-killing – Hereford United’s 1972 victory over First Division big boys Newcastle.

After all, there are some parallels. At the time, Hereford were stalwarts of the Southern League, the 1970s-equivalent of the Blue Square Bet Premier in which Crawley currently find themselves.

As with Crawley, the gods of the draw were kind enough to allow Hereford their big day out at a First Division ground. In Hereford’s case, it was St. James’ Park rather than Old Trafford. Somehow, the non-leaguers managed to come away with a 2-2 draw.

Crawley should be so lucky.

When the third round replay finally took place on 5 February, the footballing world wasn’t massively concerned. The “magic” of the FA Cup had since been reassigned to the fourth round.

The BBC cared so little that they sent one of their most junior members to cover the game, a 26-year-old trialist. His name? John Motson.

What happened on that soggy Saturday afternoon has since become the stuff of legend. With just eight minutes left to play, it seemed certain that Newcastle’s star Malcolm McDonald had finally dealt with the non-league irritant and given Newcastle a laboured 1-0 victory.

That wasn’t quite how Ronnie Radford saw things panning out though. Just three minutes later, he managed to extricate his feet from the muddy mass for just enough time to bury a thirty-yard scorcher into the top corner of Willie McFaul’s net.

Cue mayhem.

When the exultant Hereford supporters finally cleared the pitch, the game wound into extra time. Then, as the first fifteen-minute period neared its end, up stepped Ricky George who somehow managed to squeeze a winner across the face of the Geordies’ goal and into the bottom corner.

Cue mayhem. Again.



2.Munster 12-0 New Zealand

31 October, 1978

Check the official attendance records for the 1978 visit of the All-Blacks to Thomond Park and it says 12,000.

However, speak to any Irish rugby fan who was of match-going age on that day, and many more who probably weren’t even born, and they’ll tell you that they were there.

The figures don’t really match, but who cares? This was possibly the greatest moment in Irish rugby history. It takes a brave person to admit that they weren’t there.

I claim to have been there and I wasn’t even born.

The story has been told many times before, but it never loses its magic. The New Zealand team which lined out in Thomond Park that night was practically full-strength. Munster, on the other hand, had struggled in their two September warm-up matches, losing 33-7 to Middlesex and struggling to a 15-15 draw with London Irish.

Yet, when they came together on that autumn evening, something happened. The whole transformed into something more than the sum of its parts.

The All-Blacks left the door ajar and Munster barrelled their way through it, wave after wave of tackle suppressing the New Zealand attacks until the moment finally came when they could give their own backs a chance.

In the end, Christy Cantillon’s try was the only one of the game, with fly-half Tony Ward adding two-drop goals as well as the conversion. On any other day, 12 points wouldn’t have been nearly enough to beat a grand-slam winning New Zealand side.

On this particular evening, all rule and reason went out the window.



3. James “Buster” Douglas def. Mike Tyson

11 February, 1990

It should have been just another routine title defence for “the baddest man on the planet”.

At just 23 years of age, Mike Tyson had earned his nickname, and he had earned the right to be referred to as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

His opponent in Tokyo on that fateful February evening was no slouch. James “Buster” Douglas had taken some big scalps in his time, including a ten-round decision over Oliver McCall. Without question, the 29-year-old had earned his right to step into the ring with “Iron Mike”, winning six consecutive bouts to cement his position as the number one challenger.

Put the two of them side by side, however, and there was no contest. Tyson was en route to becoming one of the sport’s greats; Douglas was unspectacular at the best of times, referred to as a “plodding fighter” by HBO commentator Jim Lampley.

As the fighters entered the ring in Tokyo, over the other side of the world the Vegas casinos had made their minds up, giving Douglas a 2% chance of upsetting the fighter as they offered odds of 42-1.

Douglas had come to fight though, and a 2% chance was still a chance. For eight rounds, he gave Tyson everything that he had in his arsenal but it still wasn’t enough. As the clock wound down in the eighth, Tyson landed a huge uppercut and that, it seemed, would be that.

Somehow, the challenger managed to recover his composure. Two rounds later, he delivered a stunning four-punch combo and Tyson was on the canvas, pathetically scrabbling for his gumshield.

Stunned. Beaten. Shocked.



4. Offaly 1-15 Kerry 0-17

21 September, 1982

The 1982 All-Ireland football final has come to be regarded as one of the best ever, as Eugene McGee’s Offaly became the only obstacle between the great Kerry footballing dynasty and an unprecedented fifth successive title.

Offaly were no minnows, nor were they likely to suffer from stagefright. They had been here before twelve months previously, falling to the Kerry sword in a 1-12 to 0-08 loss.

If sides learn a lot in victory, they unquestionably learn more in defeat, both about themselves and about their opponents. As the 1982 final entered its second half, however, it appeared that any lessons which Offaly had taken from the previous year would ultimately count for naught.

A point in front,  Kerry were awarded a penalty by referee PJ McGrath. Had Mikey Sheehy upheld his part of the bargain, today’s history books might tell a very different story. Alas, he couldn’t.

However, Kerry didn’t become the immovable object of GAA by letting setbacks knock them off stride. They got back down to business and kicked their way into the four-point lead which they had expected Sheehy’s penalty to bring.

Game over? Not so fast. As the clock neared the 70th minute, Seamus Darby intervened on Offaly’s behalf with one of the most dramatic strikes in the history of the GAA.

Watch the goal again. Charlie Nelligan in the Kerry goal does nearly everything right. His innate positional sense had left him well prepared to face Darby’s drilled shot, whether it went to the left or to the right.

But Darby didn’t drill it. As he pivoted, his left foot arced and caught the bottom half of the ball, delivering it perfectly to the one place that Nelligan couldn’t reach, over his head and into the left-hand corner of the keeper’s net.

There was no time for a Kerry riposte. Their dream of five-in-a-row was dead.



5. New York Giants 17-14 New England Patriots

3 February, 2008

It seems somewhat ridiculous to be describing a Superbowl win as one of the greatest sporting upsets of all-time.

After all, isn’t the greatest show on earth contested by two of the top teams from any given season. Teams which have won their respective conferences, if not the teams with the best regular season records. I mean, they’re hardly minnows, are they?

This one, however, is all about the context.

One the one hand, we have one of the greatest footballing machines ever to take to the turf. In the pocket sits one of the greatest men ever to throw an American football. On the line, one of the all-time great coaches.

In 2007/2008, Bill Belichek and the New England Patriots were men on a mission. That mission was perfection.

Yup, the Pats wanted to win all sixteen of their regular season games as well as their two playoff ties and the Superbowl.

19-0. It had never been done before.

By the time February came, the Patriots had done what they had promised and won 18 consecutive games. They were perfect to that point. Now all they had to do was complete the formalities on the greatest stage of all.

To their credit, the Giants were no slouches, although they had lost six regular season games on their way to a 10-6 record in the ultra-competitive NFC East division.

Against the Patriots, however, nobody gave them a chance. The good people over in Las Vegas predicted that the Pats would win by 12. If the wisdom of the crowds was to be taken as gospel, that margin erred on the generous side.

It was by no means a vintage game. When Randy Moss caught a short pass to put the Patriots 14-10 up with just over five minutes to play, it looked as though they would stumble over the line to perfection.

The Giants’ quarterback, Eli Manning, so long in his brother’s shadow, had one drive to become a hero.

He blew it.

Or, at least that’s how it seemed when he was engulfed by the Patriots’ rush defense with just 1:15 left on the clock. Had Manning hit the deck, as everybody who had ever watched a game of American football expected him to do, the game was effectively over.

What happened next needs to be seen to be believed.



6. Wimbledon 1-0 Liverpool

14 May, 1988

“If Wimbledon can make it to the First Division, there is surely no achievement that is beyond our reach.”

Those were the words of British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, greeted with much laughter. That sort of response would have sat well with Wimbledon’s “Crazy Gang”. After all, they had made their name by being the jokers in the pack.

In 1977, Wimbledon had been a mid-table side in the bottom tier of English football, not a million miles away from dropping out of the league altogether. In May of 1986, they did what few people believed could ever have happened, winning promotion to the First Division where they would rub shoulders with the cream of English footballing talent.

Not only did they manage to get there, but they managed to stay there. For fourteen years.

Wimbledon’s reputation as a bunch of rag-tag practical jokers was slightly deceptive. Admittedly, the football which they played was rarely pretty, but they knew how to get in amongst their opponents and throw them off their game. Remember, this was a side containing Vinnie Jones and Dennis Wise.

The 1988 FA Cup Final was to be their crowning moment. Up against the kings of British football, Liverpool, the game had been expected to be little more than a formality. Even when Lawrie Sanchez gave the Crazy Gang a rather unexpected lead after 37 minutes, nobody could see them holding the league champions at bay.

Somehow, they did, goalkeeper Dave Beasant assuming the role of hero as he became the first player ever to save a penalty in an FA Cup final.

In toppling Liverpool, the Crazy Gang had pulled off the biggest practical joke of all.



7. USA 4-3 USSR

22 Feburary, 1980

There is something immensely satisfying about a group of amateur players trumping top professionals, no matter what the context.

In 2011, it is difficult to conceive of the American national ice hockey team as anything but one of the world’s greatest. After all, the National Hockey League has become synonymous with the sport, featuring stars who would challenge for a place on any all-time roster.

That wasn’t always the case though. In fact, back in 1980, the team which the US sent to the Winter Olympics was made up of amateurs and college players. When they were paired against the best team in the world, the Soviet Union, in the competition’s semi-finals, it seemed that a valiant defeat was the best possible outcome.

In the context of the Cold War, the game took on a heightened significance. With the 1980 games being staged in New York, America steeled itself for a famous Soviet victory in their own back-yard.

After all, the Russians had won Olympic Gold in 1964. And in 1968 and 1972. And then again in 1976.

Simply put, on the Olympic stage, they were practically unbeatable.

As with most great underdog stories, the favourites took an early lead, Krutov giving the Soviet Union a 1-0 advantage. America equalised. And so the pattern repeated itself until Mark Johnson tied the game at 3-3 mid-way through the final period.

Even when US captain Mike Eruzione gave America a single-goal lead with ten minutes left on the clock, few believed that the United States could pull off the most unlikely of upsets.

The clock kept ticking. The Americans defended as though their lives depended on it. Their nation’s honour did.

And the clock kept ticking, the Soviets panicking with each passing second.

With eleven seconds remaining, and the 8,500-capacity Field House on its feet in anticipation, the stage was set for Al Michaels to deliver some of the most memorable sporting commentary of all time.

“Eleven seconds, you’ve got ten seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles?…YES!”


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