After great moments of sporting triumph, or disaster, many folks are paid to discuss the reasons behind such moments. Why did one side win? or one player has an edge on a certain day?
On some occasions, it really does not take an army of pundits to see the failure and the direct cause. The costly tactical blunder is as a true a part of sporting life as the sublime moment of gifted genius.
Here are six of the worst tactical or operational blunders, across a variety of sports, during my sporting life so far:
1. Eric Bristow v Keith Deller:
The final of the world darts championship of 1983 had proven a close affair, closer than many imagined, with multiple champion Bristow failing to shake off the challenge of the young pretender Deller. At 1-2 down in the final set (best of 5 legs) The Crafty Cockney fired in a superb leg leaving himself 121 after only nine darts. Still Deller had not let it go and had himself left 138. Eric had the throw hitting 71 with two darts to leave 50. Yet inexplicably he opted not to go for the bullseye to win the leg. For Eric, the great showman of darts, not to try to finish in style gives some indication of the pressure Deller had managed to create. Deller then stepped up and took out the 138 to claim the title! Whether Eric would have hit the bull or changed the dynamic of the match we and he will never know. To miss a shot to win a world title is one thing, but to gamble on letting the other man have a go first is truly shocking.
To this day Deller uses 138 as part of his autograph signature.
2. Aston Villa & Martin O’ Neil –
Shortly after taking over, at Aston Villa, new owner Randy Lerner drew up a plan of action with club manager Martin O’ Neil, the plan involved five years of development in order to restore the Midlands club to at least some of their former glory. Initially, all went well. Villa improved dramatically and began to threaten the champions league places in The Premier League.
However, behind the scenes disquiet was mounting, at the financial state of the club, due to the soon arriving financial fair play rules. Players were on high wages and the much-needed external income was not yet reaching its potential. The plans seemed likely to be a success however when during year four Villa seriously challenged for the final qualification place. O’ Neil however was guilty of a major blunder. In an effort to chase the Champions League spot he neglected the opportunity to win a trophy, sending a young and inexperienced side for a tough encounter in Moscow. Following the shock defeat and a very negative reaction from supporters, Villa seemed to lose momentum and again finished 6th in the league. Despite another 6th place finish the following season O’Neil new Villa needed a little more to make that final step.
Villa, Lerner in particular, chose that moment to compound O’ Neil’s earlier tactical blunder with one of their own. Instead of backing their manager, who had improved the standing of the club, and driven Villa to two cup semi-finals and one final, over the previous 4 years, they picked that moment to doubt him. So when O’ Neil asked for £7 million to buy Scott Parker from newly relegated West Ham, Lerner refused. The results were catastrophic. O Neil resigned on the verge of the new season, feeling, deeply undermined and, that Lerner had gone back on his word. Meanwhile, Scott Parker was bought by Spurs.
The season that followed was horrendous for Villa, in a desperate bide to fend off relegation they had to spend £17 million on a striker. Over at Spurs Scott Parker enjoyed a superb season he was voted footballer of the year and they qualified for The Champions League.
The situation has worsened for Villa in almost every season since. New managers and players have failed to arrest the decline and Lerner has become more and more disillusioned with the club. He is now asking £75 million to sell. At one point Villa was valued at double that or more!
The summer of 2016 featured Aston Villa looking for their seventh manager in as many years, this time he will be managing a championship club due to Villa’s relegation. Meawhile Martin O’ Neil, following a superb debut in International managment, will be guiding the Republic of Ireland at the Euro 2016 finals.
3. Rugby: England 1990 World Cup Final
Under the coaching of Geoff Cooke, and captaincy of Will Carling, the England Rugby Union team of the late eighties and early 1990’s were a formidable outfit. They had recovered from a disappointing world cup in 1987 and rebuilt well. Reigning Grand Slam Champions and a side who had worked incredibly hard to improve their fitness after a poor result against Australia the previous summer. Union was in a transition period between the old amateur code and a new professional game.
This England outfit was moving in that professional direction and was uncompromising in its approach, tough tackling, kicking for touch and dominating the opposition from the scrum and the lineout. Even the mighty New Zealand only overcame them by a single score in the pool game. England then defeated Italy and the USA well enough to ensure 2nd place and qualification for the knock out stages. The defeat, however, meant travelling to Paris for their next round. Despite it being a home world cup.
So the game against the French looked like a rerun of a recent five nations encounter when the sheer strength, and physicality, of England, overcame gallic flair despite the French scoring three tries. The game did not start out like that and the French side had the better of a struggling England. Then came the legendary moment when Mickey ‘the munch’ Skinner lifts the French number 8 into the air, in the tackle, and carries him back up the field before dumping him unceremoniously on the ground. Gamer changer! The French lose their discipline and the English run out 19-10 winners.
A Semifinal against Scotland was their reward, a superb performance from the passionate Scots resulted in them leading 6-0. With half an hour left Gavin Hastings, Scottish hero and skipper, missed a sitter of a penalty kick and the English machine simply steamrolled out the win again 9-6. Not pretty was the verdict of many, the English side was labelled dull, boring, attritional and much worse. But they had been superbly effective and reached a world cup final!
The English were convinced that they would not dominate the Australian pack as easily as they had done some others, they also thought that they had seen some Australian weakness in the flanks during their summer trouncing. Combined with the stick they had taken over their style, in a home world cup, they decided to play an expansive game and attempt to outplay the Australian side. The Aussie side included David Campese, Micheal Liner and other quality ball players. Despite a dominant first half from England, including huge possession that their normal tactics would have seen turned into a large lead, the Australian side adapted and England had to chase the game. The Australians had adopted a much more pragmatic approach, almost in the England mould, just as the hosts attempted the reverse and the Southern hemisphere side did the better job.
Despite this not being quite the great Aussie con job that is often suggested. The fact remains that management, captain and players all agreed to change a winning formula for a one-off final and it backfired completely. Would the more blunt and robust England have won their first world cup in 1987 instead of having to wait another 16 years?
4. Brentford Football Club 2015:
Another grim decision by those who should know better. Toward the end of the 2014/15 season, Brentford let it be known that their popular and successful manager, Mark Warburton, would not be offered another contract and would leave at the end of the season. The club was in position to qualify for the playoffs for a Premier League place at the time. Despite this decision seeming a little odd, most folk seemed content to let the rich owner who had bailed out the club and invested heavily, do things his own way. He had been successful in all ventures and seemed to have a plan to develop the club even further. The manager also seemed to accept the decision quietly and with little fuss.
Fast forward twelve months and the decision looks anything other than planned or progressive. Brentford missed out on the playoff places in 2015. In addition, they have dismissed their choice of replacement manager and are already debating another change. The 2015/16 season sees them struggling in mid-table and going backwards. In the meantime, Warburton has become the first Englishman to manage Glasgow Rangers FC. In his first season, he has gained promotion to the Scottish Premier League, won one trophy, their division and reached another final. In addition, he has defeated arch-rivals Celtic in his first old firm clash, despite being in a lower division with little money!
Should Warburton be, even moderately, successful in the top division those from Brentford may rue the day even more than they must be currently?
5. England Football Team 1970 World Cup: Sir Alf Ramsey
For a period of time, it appeared that Sir Alf Ramsey could do no wrong. As Ipswich Town manager he had overachieved with a small club, so much so that he was appointed the manager of England.
Ramsey’s tactics and team building technique had many critics early on and right up until the 1966 world cup in England he was regularly attacked for his style and manner. Yet he was proven right in some style. England won the event with superb wins of difficult sides including Argentina and Germany and Ramsey and his men were heroes throughout the land. A knighthood followed and many had to keep their powder dry.
By the time of the 1970 World Cup the confidence in the team was sky-high, could they defend the trophy and become the first European side to win the tournament outside their own continent? Despite being drawn in a group with the now legendary Brazil side England managed to qualify reasonably well. Even the game vs Brazil was tight and only decided by a single goal. Ramsey was beginning to worry about his player’s ability to deal with the heat. With some of the players nearer to the end of their careers than the start. The Brazil game illustrated this point, England had had to work very hard to stay in the game, whereas Brazil’s relaxed patient style suited the searing conditions.
The quarterfinals provided many talking points, Gordon Bank’s food poisoning proving a matter of intrigue as well as misfortune. Yet the ultimate decision fell to Ramsey. Having played superbly for the first half, England were 2-0 Sir Alf decided to rest his star players for the later games. The substitution of Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters seemed to change the game. Franz Beckenbauer’s influence grew and grew, without Charlton to dominate for England. As the Germans dominated the pressure increased and reserve goalkeeper Peter Bonetti made a number of mistakes. From 2-0 up the German side levelled at 2-2 forcing injury time. Thus the non substituted players would have to play an additional 30 minutes in the sapping conditions.
The incomparable Gerd Muller scored in the 108th minute to put an exhausted English side out of their misery and the competition.
Sir Alf’s clear blaming of Bonetti’s mistakes did not sit well with players and followers alike. Thus, having failed to qualify England for the 1974 world cup, Ramsey was dismissed with his stock far lower than his achievements deserved.
6. England Cricket: World Cup 1979
As if losing a world cup, through tactical errors, in both football and rugby was not enough, it could be stated that England possesses a unique hat-trick. Hosting the first three cricket world cups surely should have resulted in at least one triumph? To be fair, the one day game and world cups were in their infancy and England was not enjoying its strongest period at the time. However in 1979 they were beginning to put together a return to form. Ian Botham had established himself, Boycott & Gooch looked like a good pairing and of course, they were skippered by Mike Brearley one of the great test captains.
The resurgence was looking good when they played themselves to the final of the second world cup (some would say first genuine one) only to be faced by cricket’s new force, Clive Lloyd’s fearsome West Indies.
Despite the odds being against them England started well and made early inroads into the WI batting order. This served to bring to the crease a certain IVA Richards. ‘Master Blaster’ proceeded to illustrate why he carried that moniker. Hitting 138 runs in 157 balls, this without fielding restrictions, power plays or a friendly white ball, leading his side to an imposing total of 286 from their 60 overs.
Yet all was not lost for England, they had a good batting line up, were at home and on a decent wicket for batting. They started well using Mike Brearley, as a makeshift opener, with Geoff Boycott to ensure a solid start. Strength-in-depth, in the batting combinations, meant that hope was not yet lost. Indeed the skipper was quite optimistic.
Yet somehow, in the last minutes of the tea interval, one of the shrewdest captains cricket has ever seen, was talked out of the blatantly obvious plan of action. Derek Randall, Ian Botham (of all people) and others prevailed upon their skipper, stating that he and Boycott were doing fine and there was no need for the immediate all-out assault that was planned. Thus with a ‘steady as she goes’ policy in the place England fell more and more behind until the task became Herculean. Then, desperate for quick runs, the batsmen faced the incomparable Joel Garner. Five wickets fell in eleven balls and the contest was over.
It would never have been an easy job to chase such a total against one of the greatest sides. But the tactical blunder ensured that no pressure was ever applied and in the end, desperation was all on the home side.
The last case should illustrate that tactical blunders are not made only by fools or the incompetent. They can be made by almost anyone, even by the greats of the games or sport. Nearly always they can be easily explained or justified and had they have come off the decision maker would have been lauded as a genius. On such final margins, great sporting moments are built.