Sport, like life, can be cruel. It can also be magnificent.
Compare the contrasting fortunes of Derby County and Queens Park Rangers on Saturday afternoon at Wembley Stadium in the Championship Play Off Final. Derby were comfortably the better team on the day, statistics confirming their domination, having the clear majority of possession, territory, corners and shots. If it was a fight it would have been stopped well before the end. Furthermore, with QPR reduced to10 men, it seemed almost inevitable that Derby would score and win the battle and with it a place in the Premier League. A place at the top table, where the pickings are rich and where the streets are seemingly paved with gold.
But they didn’t. As hard as they tried, they could not quite force that decisive knockout blow. QPR dug deep, they defended as if their lives depended upon it, a collective effort only possible when there is a spirit, a will and a shared desire to succeed. The players spoke afterwards of being a ‘band of brothers’ and this never say die attitude was there for all to see as they flung their bodies in the way of every ball to protect their goal. The marketing team’s latest motto, ‘weRtogether’ seemed particularly apt.
Then, as the clock ticked down to 90 minutes, Rangers made a rare foray into the Derby half. As the ball fell kindly to the left foot of the much maligned Bobby Zamora, it felt like the world stood still as he took aim and stroked the ball towards the far corner of the goal. As the net bulged, the stadium was transformed into scenes of ecstasy and uncontrolled joy as the Rangers’ players and their blue and white hooped supporters could not believe their eyes. Grown men and women were in tears, supporters were hugging their fellow fans as if best friends. It was an incredible ‘once in a lifetime’ moment. QPR had not won a match at Wembley since 1967 and the dramatic nature of this goal and the victory made the wild celebrations seem so much more understandable. With only a couple of minutes of injury time remaining, there was simply no time left for Derby.
The forlorn expressions and feelings of utter devastation were etched on the faces of their players and supporters. Grown men and women were also in tears, but in such marked contrast to those at the other end of the stadium, hugging their loved ones in despair and agony. The contrast could not have been greater. What had they done to deserve this ? They were crestfallen, beaten by the ultimate sucker punch. QPR had only one shot on target all match and that was it, one shot, one goal.
And that is what sport can be about and what life can be about. Sometimes you don’t get what you deserve. Sometimes you only get one opportunity, one chance and you have to take it. It can be harsh, it can be cruel, it can be devastating, lives and careers can be defined by one moment. Dreams can come true and hearts can be broken in equal measure.
It can be argued that sometimes the lucky ones are just in the right place at the right time and maybe this is true, but you still need that presence of mind, that calmness in the heat of battle to keep your head and make the most of that one opportunity. In that one moment, Bobby Zamora was calmness personified as he delivered the coup de grace, fulfilling Rangers’ dreams and plunging a dagger deep into Derby hearts.
Joey Barton, QPR’s charismatic talisman, has written about Rangers ‘finding a way’ and yet again they have, yet in the most dramatic of circumstances. The script just could not be written.
This really is the very essence of sport. It is why it has no comparison. It is as unpredictable as it is emotional and fortunes can be decided on one split second moment.
It is often how teams or people react to such moments that go on to define them further. As Kipling wrote, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it”
For Rangers, for all the joy and jubilation, there is work to be done for next season. Yet that is for another day, for now rejoice and enjoy the moment. Touch it, feel it and relish it.
For Derby, there will only be soreness and hurt. It will take some time to get over this but the feeling is that their day will come. To their credit they stood to a man and applauded as Rangers collected the trophy, their wretched, washed out faces portraying feelings of what might have been. Yet sometimes you need to experience the lows, to know what it feels like, so you can come back stronger. It will not feel like that for Derby right now, but time is a great healer and it will make future successes feel that much sweeter. As devastating as it may feel now, it can be good for the soul.
So, as the dust settles on an extraordinary occasion, yet again sport shows it’s ability to define life. Sport is about winners and losers, and so is life. Sometimes we only get one chance and it has to be taken. One shot, one goal.