It’s an oft quoted phrase in football “A penalty shoot out is the worst way to lose”. But I think you have to have seen your side ship seven goals at home to Cambridge United or to have seen your club lose 2-1 to an amateur side in the Welsh Cup Final to realise that’s not necessarily true. There are worse ways to lose.
I saw my side (Cardiff City) lose to Liverpool on a penalty shoot in the Carling Cup Final on Sunday 26th February, yet my overriding feeling on leaving Wembley wasn’t of disappointment, but of pride in a set of players who simply could not have given any more to the cause of their club. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that many of the players were more gutted than the supporters. Cardiff City have now lost in an FA Cup Final, a Play-off Final and a League Cup Final within the space of four years but I think it would be very harsh to pejoratively label them “nearly men”, I think most fans would rather support nearly men than never men. After all, Cardiff lost to a Liverpool side where each starting player (excluding Steven Gerrard) cost the Reds more than the entire Cardiff City squad combined. There’s no shame in that.
The final will live long in the memory of neutrals. The game will probably be remembered a lot more vividly by TV viewers than the entire seasons of Burnley, Hull or Bradford spent in the Premier League. Yet many of these viewers will probably feel in hindsight that Ben Turner’s 118th minute equaliser was in vain, a pointless act that merely delayed the inevitable defeat for Cardiff. I think that opinion misses the point slightly. When analysed deeply many moments in football are pointless, Ronnie Radford’s 35 yard strike for Hereford United was in vain as the Bulls didn’t win the cup that year and David Platt’s winner against Belgium in World Cup ’90 was pointless as England failed in the semi finals. Sport isn’t really like that, sport is about moments of perfection and Turner’s goal was just that, a moment of total footballing beauty.
It may seem odd to call Ben Turner’s scrambled equaliser a moment of perfection, but from a supporter’s point of view it was just that. It may not have had the technical excellence of a long distance strike or the tactical beauty of a sweeping passing move but it had all the ingredients of a wildly celebrated goal. Let me explain. The problem (if there can be one) with many goals is that they either catch the supporter by surprise – a long distance strike – or the supporters are expecting it -a penalty. Turner’s goal fell into that beautiful median where the fans were excited by the prospect of an about to be taken corner, then had the build up of excitement intensified by the ball bobbling around in the six yard box before the jubilation of the ball nestling in the back of the net. It was, in my opinion, the perfect supporters goal. It simply wouldn’t have been as marvellous a moment had the goal been scored via a long range shot or a penalty, despite the outcome being the same.
There’s an obvious gulf between clubs such as Liverpool and Cardiff City that extends beyond the fact that Liverpool can afford to spend £35m on Andy Carroll (Cardiff City spent a similar amount on their new stadium and it’s about as mobile as Carroll). The mentality of the clubs are polar opposites. Liverpool’s very existence appears to rely on the accumulation of trophies. Similar to the Tolkein character Gollum the club lust after precious trophies, their continued status as a club threatened by attempting to match their “history”. Cardiff City are more like the ebullient Tom Bombadil (“his shirt was blue with piping of yellow”) who was unaffected by the temptation of the trophy’s power. Just like Bombadil, Cardiff City would still have been same old Cardiff City even if they had taken the trophy home last Sunday, they’d still be the greatest team in football, the world has ever seen. But only ironically, obviously.