“It’s Only a Game”

Whenever we lose a big game, my mind is taken back to a time when I was in the Boy Scouts and our local Cub Scout troop was playing in the final of the regional cup. The thrill for the youngsters was to play on a full size pitch in front of a grandstand and terraces, with hundreds of spectators – mostly parents and members of the various local Scout troops. The venue was a non-league semi-professional club’s ground in the West Midlands.

For those who may not be aware, this type of ground is actually at a level as high or possibly higher than anything found around countries that are not ‘œfootball powers’ in any way. It may be non-league football, but it’s by no means small-time. These are the ‘œCinderella’ clubs that can produce a few shocks in the early rounds of the FA Cup. This was a once in-a-lifetime experience for these kids. The glory of winning a cup at a ground like this and parading it around a packed stadium in front of their family and friends would be a memory to treasure, and something to be truly proud of.

As the game wore on, our lads boldly played their hearts out but were not quite as good as the opposition and looked more and more like losing. The troop master (Akela to those in the know) yelled encouragement from the sidelines, but it was as if the field was steeply sloped against them. At the final whistle, the winners jumped in celebration and ran around excitedly. Our lads slowly walked off the pitch with lowered heads and slumped shoulders. The scale of the match, along with the prestige of playing in this stadium, only heightened the sense of failure at the end. One or two were so upset that they were bawling their eyes out in spite of being told how well they had played. One was in such a state that he collapsed on the edge of the centre circle and wouldn’t get up. His agonized wailing could be heard from the touchline. A friend of mine, who was with me to assist our lads with their kit and the half-time oranges, was moved to say: ‘œI know exactly how he feels. Nobody should have to lose a final; it’s just too hard to take.’ Meanwhile, one of the troop leaders had picked the lad up and was walking him over to the rest of us at the touchline. Akela put his arm around his shoulders, ruffled his hair and said, ‘œNever mind son, it’s only a game.’ At the time it seemed like such a pathetic comment to hear from the coach when this was such an important match and was all the more disappointing for the loss. But, of course it was said with the wisdom of an elder who had been through so many disappointing times that this really was ‘œonly a game’ and there’s always another one to come after this. Of all the things that I learned in my time in the Cubs and Scouts, this has to be one of the best lessons, even if it was an unintentional one.

Some players are able to cope with the loss of a big match better than others, although it’s unusual to see many overtly emotional displays. Most players will wait for the privacy of the dressing room to express their feelings. One occasion is recounted by Steve Heighway, who describes the feeling after the 1971 FA Cup loss to Arsenal.

‘œOf course, we went up for our losers’ medals, and we tried to put on a show of bravado for the benefit of the Liverpool supporters. But ‘¦ back in the dressing room, I was choked, because I was one of the losers. I shed tears, bucketsful of them ‘“ but I kept a towel over my head and face, so that no one would see. I found out later that I wasn’t the only one to cry.’

It’s sometimes hard to take with all of the build up and the expectation before a big final, followed by the crash of disappointment afterwards if we lose. It can be so depressing that I sometimes think that you may as well lose in the first round as lose in the final (which we did in the FA Cup this season) if you have nothing to show for all of your efforts at the end. At those times that we fall short, it always helps if I say it myself: ‘œIt’s only a game.’ Fortunately we don’t have to do that too often, as we usually win once we are there.

As Reds, we all know how many times we’ve been to a final and lost; I don’t need to remind you of any of them, do I? Actually I might have to: We’ve had eight final appearances since the beginning of 2001, and we’ve lost in two of them ‘“ the League Cup to Chelsea in 2005 and this Champions League final. We’ve also had two UEFA Super Cups and two Charity Shields that we’ve won, and a FIFA Club World Cup final which we lost. The point is that we are often there, and we win a lot more than we lose.

We can be proud of our performance in this latest final. We have nothing to be ashamed of and we can hold our heads up high. Most reporters agree that we were the better side for most of the match, but we just couldn’t finish the chances that we had, while Milan were able to get one fluke goal and one that we have to admit was well taken. Other than that, they had very few clear chances and rarely troubled us. But in the end, it’s the final score that will be remembered and the fact that they have now won seven times while we remain at five. But that’s worth remembering ‘“ just in case we forget to point it out next time we are pestered by the jealous ones ‘“ we’ve still won more than any other English club, and as many as all others combined. We’ve appeared in seven finals, which is as many as all other English clubs combined. So we can still be pleased with our success, in spite of a disappointment such as this.

It’s not as if we’ll only ever have had this one chance to win this competition and we didn’t do it. We’ve been in the competition for five of the last six years. We’ve had one trophy, one runner up, one quarter final and a second round finish. We’ve always made it past the first round, or into the UEFA Cup, which is more than some clubs can say. In that same time, Manchester United have won none, Arsenal were runners up last year, and Chelsea have not been further than the semi-final, which they managed on three occasions. As for Everton, well what can I say? The point of all this is that while those other clubs’ supporters may cheer gleefully at our loss, they should keep in mind who the real Champions of Europe are of all the English (in fact of all British) clubs. Within the rest of the European elite, think about some of those other famous clubs: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Benfica. Where were they? None of them even made it to the semi-finals this year. (Juventus weren’t eligible this time, but that’s a whole other story.) We’ve been there so many times before, and we know that we’ll be there many times again.

As for us supporters, we can also hold our heads up high. We cheered from beginning to end, we applauded Milan even if we don’t think they really deserved it, and more than that we applauded our own players for their effort and in acknowledgement of their achievement. On the way to this final we beat the Champions of Spain, who were also defending Champions of Europe, as well as beating the Champions of England. That’s at least a moral victory if nothing else. We might have been thousands of miles away from Athens, but we cheered and sang the whole way through. Shortly after the final whistle, the pub manager knew exactly what to do and cued up the CD player with ‘œYou’ll Never Walk Alone.’ We didn’t need much encouragement and we were proudly belting it out, followed by spontaneous renditions of all the songs and chants we could think of. It was a great time that went on for hours after the match was over. By that time, we didn’t worry so much about the result, because after all: ‘œIt’s only a game.’

Keith Perkins