The power of the last-minute winner

By Tom de Castella
BBC News Magazine

  • Published
From top, clockwise: Manchester City fans celebrate Premier League win, Bayern Munich playing Manchester United in 1999 UEFA Champions League Final, Jonny Wilkinson in 2003 match that won England the Rugby World Cup, England at Edgbaston in 2005

Manchester City's late goals to win the league have been hailed as one of the great sporting finales. But what explains the power of the late winner?

Time slows down. The ball is at the feet of Sergio Aguero. Thousands in the stadium hold their breath. Millions around the world gaze at the screen. Seconds later the ball is in the net and the world - for football fans at least - has changed forever.

It's easy to see why it means so much to Manchester City fans after 44 years without winning the league .

But the drama spilled out beyond the world of football to become a greater story about triumph over adversity. Newspaper front pages tried to recapture its drama , and pundits everywhere talked of unparalleled excitement.

Jeremy Clarkson bemoaned the fact that Formula 1 lacks the Premier League's thrilling conclusion, while Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker tweeted: "The most ridiculous end to the most extraordinary of seasons."

Matthew Syed, author of Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, says it was "one of the truly great days in the history of British sport".

Image caption,
Arsenal secured the title in the final moments of their 1989 game against Liverpool

What made it so extraordinary was the sudden reversal of fortune at the end. Manchester City were trailing Queens Park Rangers 2-1. Manchester United, who were leading Sunderland, had one hand on the Premier League trophy. Then City scored those two injury-time goals.

It's the last-minute winner that distinguishes sport from art, Syed says. "In a film you can watch it over and over again and the ending is always the same. It's bolted down in the script. But sport has this chaotic unpredictability. Yesterday it all came down to the last minute of the season."

There are four classic sporting narratives. The epic comeback, such as "the miracle of Istanbul", when Liverpool came back from three goals down at half-time to beat AC Milan, is one.

A titanic struggle between two greats, like the Wimbledon final of 1980 when Bjorn Borg overcame John McEnroe 8-6 in the final set, is another.

Image caption,
Victory is often sweeter when it comes as a surprise

The triumph of the underdog against the odds is another irresistible drama. In 1986, snooker player Joe Johnson arrived at the World Championship as a 150-1 outsider, having never won a match at the Crucible Theatre. He went on to beat Steve Davis , the world number one, in the final.

But in sport the ending is all. Last-minute drama trumps everything else.

"It's up for grabs now," roared ITV commentator Brian Moore as Michael Thomas was through on goal for Arsenal against Liverpool in the final moments of their 1989 title decider. Thomas scored and Arsenal won 2-0, the necessary winning margin to clinch the league championship. The game forms the basis for the climax of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch .

And nobody worries too much about what has gone before. Manchester United were outplayed for 90 minutes in the 1999 Champions League Final against Bayern Munich. The officials had already put the Bayern ribbons on the trophy. But no-one worries about that now.

The game is defined by those crazy last-minute goals by Teddy Sheringham (90:36) and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (92:17). The ending defined the game - it was Manchester United's enormous will to win that became the narrative, not their toothless performance before that.

Football seems to throw up more of these dramatic finales than many other sports, perhaps because there are relatively few goals in a match compared with other sports' scoring systems.

But all sports have their last-minute moments. The New England Patriots' 2001 Superbowl victory over the St Louis Rams came with a field goal in the final seven seconds.

Cricket's Test matches, despite going on for five days, can still deliver agonising climaxes. The Ashes Test at Edgbaston in 2005 looked to be in the bag for England. But a determined fightback by Australia's tailenders led to a thrilling finale in which they appeared to be on the point of passing England's total.

In the end, England won by two runs - the closest margin that has ever decided an Ashes Test.

As the final stage of the 1989 Tour de France began, Greg Le Mond was 50 seconds behind Laurent Fignon. But Le Mond made up 58 seconds to win the race by eight seconds, the closest finish in the Tour's history.

Michael Jordan won the NBA for the Chicago Bulls in 1998 in the last five seconds after a 20-foot jump shot gave his team a 87-86 lead.

And Steve Redgrave's fifth gold medal came after a finish that was almost too close to watch with Britain holding off the Italians by a mere 0.38sec.

The drop goal with which Jonny Wilkinson won the Rugby World Cup 20 seconds from the end of extra time against Australia in 2003 was described as the outstanding sporting moment from the noughties by one newspaper .

Image caption,
Surprising triumph: England winning the Ashes against Australia in 2005

England coach Clive Woodwood said afterwards: "We came very close to blowing it. Every decision seemed to go against them, and yet they still won, and that is the sign of a champion team."

Character is associated with doing it when it matters. And there's no better time to score than in injury time. The never-say-die, one last surge up the pitch, is for supporters a shorthand for the players' stamina, courage and mental strength.

A lot of life and literature has an air of inevitability, says Times sports writer Simon Barnes. "And by the time you get to the end you realise there's no other way."

What made Manchester City's victory magical was the way it subverted the plot.

At 2-1 down with the game entering injury time, Manchester City's title hopes were dead and buried. In a way it was all going to script, Barnes says.

The tradition of Manchester City snatching defeat from the jaws of victory had resurfaced despite almost £1bn poured into the club by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan. QPR's Joey Barton was sent off but nonetheless his team were putting up a "plucky rearguard effort".

Manchester City had blinked at the crucial moment, it seemed. "That obviously was the plot. And actually no it wasn't. And we delight in the impossibility of it," Barnes says.

Image caption,
Jonny Wilkinson's drop goal won England the 2003 Rugby World Cup in the final seconds

"You wouldn't dare write that plotline in a novel. It would be cheating - it breaks all the narrative rules we have. Perhaps that's why it was wonderful, it's tearing up the rules and expectations."

And there's a democratic, levelling effect for viewers. The "can-they do it? Surely not" fascination is shared by everyone watching regardless of their allegiance to a club, or even their interest in football.

"It was compelling," says Syed. "I was watching as a neutral but I was wrung dry by the end."

For Barnes there was an element of wonderful anarchy. "Only football can turn on a dime and be so totally loony as that. The Lords of Misrule took over."