The dynamic of football offers a unique capacity to entertain which is unmatched by other sports, and has the ability to rival the drama offered by the finest works in the arts. Unlike cinema, however, it is the often corniest footballing stories which create the most brilliant and memorable moments. Carlisle United centre-half Peter Murphy dished out the latest serving of slush by netting the winner against Brentford in yesterday’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final.
To the casual onlooker, the result won’t mean a lot – but a little delving below the surface reveals an intriguing and evocative back-story for Carlisle and Murphy. For the defender, it was a tale of redemption – he helped the Cumbrians to last year’s final, but it was his needless handball that resulted in a Southampton penalty and began the rout that ended with a 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Saints. For the third time since 2003, the travelling Carlisle fans made the long journey back to the north without the Football League Trophy, with Murphy being used as the scapegoat.
This year, Carlisle returned with last year’s failure still firmly etched in their conscience. With a deft first-touch and a clinical volley, Murphy finished more like a centre-forward than a centre-half, making amends for his role in last year’s defeat by scoring the only goal. Carlisle couldn’t have had a more fitting match-winner than someone that has made over 400 appearances for the Cumbrians during a decade with the club.
To sprinkle even more cheese onto proceedings, Murphy’s girlfriend Lisa was in attendance and was celebrating her first Mother’s Day with their two-day-old baby boy, who hadn’t yet even been given a name. Murphy travelled alone by train to London after being forced to miss the team coach – he had only spent an hour with his newborn on Friday morning, but his nipper was present for the 90 drama-filled minutes at Wembley.
“To have played, scored the goal, been named man of the match, it was incredible,” said Murphy. “You can’t write the script.” Well, quite conversely, you can write the script – and many have tried. But there is a reason why 2005 film Goal! was received poorly by critics, despite having a whopping $10 million budget. Even the wartime context and star-studded cast of 1981 film Escape to Victory couldn’t prevent it from being widely derided. And when it comes to Sean Bean’s depiction of his beloved Sheffield United in When Saturday Comes – well, the less said the better. Football doesn’t translate well from reality to fiction.
Football offers drama purely because it is unrehearsed. In the arts – music, literature, film, theatre – interpretations can change and performances can differ in quality. But football is complicated by its competitive nature, and it exists in the present – once the final whistle is blown, there is no erasing the outcome or rewriting the history books. Each moment is carved into footballing lore. Football isn’t choreographed to fit a tear-jerking script. It is only the influence of a handful of individuals on their stage that can affect the way events unfold (… Italian match-fixing scandals aside).
Naturally, therefore, it isn’t every day that stories play out like Murphy’s. There are thousands of professional footballers registered with the English FA, but most will hang up their boots at the end of their career without an outstanding individual moment to cherish, and without any meaningful newspaper clippings to show to their grandkids. Plenty of players – at all levels of the game – spend their entire career battling away in mid-table drudgery and falling short in cup competitions. There must be a point when all players see the curtain descending on their playing-days and become rather melancholy when they start recounting all their ‘what if?’ moments.
By principle, football is a team game anyway – so none of this personal glory should matter. However there will always be at least an element of selfishness in the way that players conduct themselves – but that isn’t a criticism, of course. We could all empathise with Paul Gascoigne’s tears in 1990, when he received a booking that would have ruled him out of the World Cup final had England progressed. Similarly, Laurent Blanc was unable to captain France to World Cup victory on home soil in 1998 when he was sent off in the semi-final for elbowing Slaven Bilić, even though it became evident that the Croatian defender had feigned the injury.
Often, it is the most selfless of players whose consistent performances never lead to personal accolades or recognition. Despite captaining Manchester United throughout their period of world dominance and collecting countless medals, Gary Neville always swore he wanted to score an important goal on the big stage for the Red Devils – but that never came about for the modern legend of Old Trafford. His United teammate Ryan Giggs had his outstanding moment with one of the all-time greatest FA Cup goals in the semi-final against Arsenal in 1999, and it wasn’t for another decade that the Welshman received his long-overdue personal accolade in the form of a PFA Player of the Year award.
Steve Bruce admitted once that he would “always be a little disappointed” that he was never capped for England, and his career passed without realising that particular dream. Stuart Pearce will probably wake up in cold sweats reliving his chance to reach a landmark career tally of 100 goals, only to steer a penalty over the bar four minutes into injury time in his final game for Man City – not to mention his decisive miss from the spot for England against West Germany. Zinedine Zidane let his temper get the better of him on what should have been his swansong in the 2006 World Cup final.
It would be impossible – and pointlessly exhaustive – to recite all of the near-misses where players could have put their stamp on football’s rich history. Indeed, most players will bear their own cross and be their own harshest critics when it comes to missed opportunities. One consolation that those players can take is they’re in good company – some of the most gifted footballers to have ever lived don’t have an iconic moment to call their own.
Modern football being what it is, most major finals tend to be damp squibs anyway – so we have to look far and wide for some of the most inspiring moments of recent times. Despite having an incredibly average club career, David Healy has plenty of individual moments to savour from his international career with Northern Ireland: he scored the only goal in an historic 1-0 victory against England in a World Cup qualifier in 2005, and followed up the next year by bagging a hat-trick in a 3-2 win against Spain.
Rivaldo’s incredible hat-trick for Barcelona against Valencia on the final day of the 2000/1 season – topped off by an acrobatic overhead kick in the final seconds – is an iconic sporting moment as it sealed a crucial 3-2 to secure a place in the Champions League ahead of their opponents. Perhaps he had taken inspiration from Jimmy Glass, who scored a goal just as important two years previous at the other end of the footballing spectrum. On loan from Swindon, the goalkeeper scrambled home a corner for Carlisle against Plymouth in the last seconds of the 1998/9 season to keep the Cumbrians in the Football League. The fact that Glass remains a household name, despite having a mediocre journeyman’s career, is an ode to the heart-wrenching moments that football can throw up.
So, with Peter Murphy moving in next-door to Jimmy Glass in Carlisle’s avenue of stars, the Brunton Park faithful have more than their share of modern heroes. The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final yesterday proved there is plenty of romance left in football yet, and that the excitement of the lower leagues can’t be outshone regardless of how much money is sluiced into the top level of the game. That kind of sentiment can’t be purchased.