Plight of The Underdog; Looking Greener.
What is it about the underdog I admire so much?
When we started The English Football Post, Stoke City were an outside bet for the play-offs – in the Championship, and Everton had all but relinquished any hope of ever dislodging England’s untouchable ‘Big Four’.
Fast forward eighteen months and Stoke City have all but secured Premier League football for another season, at the fortress they call the Britannia, and Everton, albeit plagued by injury, are heading for consecutive fifth place finishes; whom at the weekend, dumped favourites Manchester United out of the FA Cup to reach their first Cup Final in fourteen years.
Tim Howard, of Everton, overcomes great odds to see off ex-club United
Eighteen months, as they say, is certainly a long time in football.
The fact that the meteoric climbs of both clubs has coincided with the creation and subsequent rise of The English Football Post – providing articles predominantly concerned with the ups and downs of Stoke City and Everton FC, courtesy of myself and Jon ‘Toffee’ Greenbank – makes it even more incredible, and bearing in mind its unlikelihood, just a smidgen more satisfying.
Notwithstanding the EFP’s obvious jubilation; the plight of the underdog not only offers hope for anyone facing adversity, it also provides some much welcomed distraction; not only from the sometimes tiresome predictability of the money-driven football of today, but also, from the monotony which is everyday life. This is surely football at its finest.
Maybe it stems from my humble beginnings, or simply borne the Irish romantic in me; but from as early as I can remember, I’ve always rooted for the underdog – sometimes even at the expense of my own country – and can honestly cite it as the overriding factor why I love sport and football as much as I do do, not to mention, the single most rewarding aspect of being a spectator. It may also be at the root of my lifelong pledge to support any team that plays against Manchester United.
Wimbledon, a.k.a. ‘The Crazy Gang’ – first under the guidance of Dave Bassett, then Gould, and later Kinnear – wore the underdog tag well, and will always be warmly remembered; but the feats of Clough with provincial clubs like Derby and Forest will surely go down as some of football’s biggest achievements, followed closely by what Shankly started at Liverpool, Busby’s dynasty at United, and more recently, Big Jack’s adventures with the Irish Republic.
But if we delve slightly deeper, there are thousands of success stories occurring within sport all the time, where adversity is met head on and overcome triumphantly. With possibly at least a couple of contenders at every football club, such stories can offer massive inspiration to all of us.
Apart from those mentioned examples of Everton and Stoke, and discounting recent fight backs from both Liverpool and Chelsea; here are three less obvious, yet equally encouraging, stories of triumph, which have personally inspired me most this season:
3) Glenn Whelan – Stoke City
It is hard to believe that a little over a year ago, Glenn Whelan was plying his trade with Sheffield Wednesday, in the third tier of English Football. When he moved to the Potters for £500,000 on deadline day of Stoke City’s promotion season, yours truly cited the transfer as a turning point for my hometown club.
Despite falling out of favour with Stoke City at the beginning of their inaugural Premier League campaign, Whelan is now a mainstay in Tony Pulis’ side, a seasoned Irish international – playing every minute under Giovanni Trappatoni – and has even been dubbed the ‘New Gattuso’ by Ireland’s illustrious Italian coach.
Nevertheless, Whelan has not always cut a popular figure; neither in the media nor at times on the terraces, and it is credit to this man’s tenacity and attitude that he has turned things around so dramatically; and that people are beginning to give him the credit he so richly deserves.
His cameo appearance away at Villa – where he came off the bench to level the game – for me was a pivotal moment in the season for Stoke, and it is no coincidence that his return to the first team has seen Stoke City claw their way to Premier League safety.
2) Stephen Ireland – Man City
Again, eighteen months ago, many were questioning this man’s sanity, position at his football club and overall future in the game. Things couldn’t have turned out more differently for this plucky and highly talented young man from Cobh, county Cork.
I went to see him play two seasons ago, when Man City took on Newcastle at Eastlands, and I was massively impressed by his appetite and work-rate down the flank; but I never anticipated the huge progress he has made. Credit to Mark Hughes, which we havn’t heard too often this season, for deploying Ireland in his more suited central position, in the hole behind the striker; as he has been Man City’s only redeeming feature in what has been an unsettling season.
He plays with spirit, grace and intelligence, and is my tip for this season’s best Premier League young player, a shortlist he has already made; one which ridiculously includes Rafael of United.
The whole of Ireland (the country) only wishes he would reconsider and play once more for the men in green.
1) Ireland – Under Giovanni Trapattoni
Did you see what I did there. My own move to Ireland – yes, you guessed it – just over eighteen months ago coincided with Trapattoni’s appointment as manager of the Irish soccer team; and I’ve looked on with fascination ever since. In fact, since moving to Ireland, the men in green have provided me with the perfect opportunity to get behind the underdog and unearth my childhood instincts.
Ireland’s draw in Bari – a place Italy have never been beaten – against the reigning World Champions, was possibly the most excited I’ve been watching a football match for a very long time and all halcyon memories of Italia ’90 came flooding back.
Italia ’90, for an Englishman, was all about Gazza, and how a small country such as England could take on the world’s best in Italy and ‘almost’ come out on top. But in Ireland, it is widely regarded as the greatest sporting event of all time, and was responsible for uniting a whole country which was deep in the jaws of recession.
England, a country of just 65 million people, may have reached the semis in Italy and arguably reproduced their best football since ’66, but Ireland – a country of a meagre 3.5 million people – reached the quarters; and in doing so, captured the hearts and imaginations of the whole world due to their magnificent, well behaved, jovial supporters.
It has been a roller coaster season, which has ended with dream-like scenarios. Stoke City have exceeded everybody’s expectations and should now go on to beat the drop. Everton have finally been rewarded for the progress they have made under the guidance of the impressive David Moyes and it would be great for the game if they went on to lift the cup instead of Chelsea. And Liverpool, they surely deserve a mention for their recent title assault and timely resurgence; let’s hope they push United all the way.
And despite Barcelona being joint favourites for the Champions League, any club that plays free-flowing football the way they do; plays its league football outside of the Premier League, is an underdog in today’s climate, and I dearly hope they win club football’s biggest prize. That leaves the team which boasted a possible quintuple, not so long ago, with just a League Cup and a misleadingly titled, World Club Cup, to show for their arrogance.
May the upsets continue…