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Can Luck Ever Be Held Responsible?

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Upon returning from Old Trafford on Sunday, walking on cloud nine following Federico Macheda’s late winner after we had been losing with just over ten minutes to go, the texts started pouring in. There were the celebratory messages from fellow reds, then the bitter ones from the blues I know. “Lucky b**tards!” was the general theme of these messages.

Manchester United are often regarded as a “lucky” team given the frequency of late equalisers and winners we score. I visited a Liverpool forum earlier in the season following United’s late win over Bolton, courtesy of a Dimitar Berbatov goal.

One Liverpool fan posted: “See, that’s where they truly are Jammy B**tards. If that had been us we’d have bloody conceded in the last minute, not scored.”

To which another replied: “If it happens once, its luck. When they do it every season for the last 15 seasons, its not luck.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself!

Five minutes of injury time were announced on Sunday, with two of those arguably coming from the ridiculous length of time it took James Milner to get off the field! Martin O’Neil mentioned this, Aston Villa fansites talked about it and pretty much every bitter text I received mentioned it. The fact that the ball hit the back of the net on 92 minutes and 4 seconds seemed to pass every one by. The fact that Sky Sports counted up over 4 minutes of stoppages in the second half after the game was irrelevant. United scored late, they won, and they were lucky!

I’d be the first to admit that for large periods of the game Villa looked like the better side. Every time the ball went over the top of Gary Neville and John O’Shea I was on the edge of my seat, waiting for them to put us to bed. But it just never materialised. The brilliant Ashley Young would beat our right-back time and again but then wouldn’t be well enough supported to turn in to anything. Whilst truly thankful for Villa’s more reserved tactics, I was fully aware that if they committed a few more players to the attack we would probably lose.

Then with fifteen minutes left to play O’Neill took off the attacking James Milner and replaced him with the defensive Nigel Reo-Coker, which is just the signal our players need. The opposition are settling for the draw, let’s go and get them! And that’s exactly what we did. From that moment on we dominated the play, whilst Villa still brought about the odd break, but both Darren Fletcher and Danny Welbeck forced great saves from Brad Friedel in those remaining few minutes, after Cristiano Ronaldo had scored our equaliser and before Macheda scored the winner.

That’s not to say “luck” doesn’t have any place in football, because lucky incidents can happen in matches, but it’s all about what you do with them. For example, in the Champions League final in Moscow, Chelsea were on the attack when Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic got in the way. Unfortunately, the ball deflected off both players before landing perfectly at the feet of Frank Lampard. Edwin Van der Sar, who was moving towards where the ball should have landed had it not taken the deflections, slipped when trying to change direction, leaving Lampard with a simple finish to level the score. This followed a period of 45 minutes where United had been superior and should have been 3-0 up. But we hadn’t taken our chances and Chelsea, whose chance had been served on a plate, took theirs. Were they lucky to score? To a certain degree. It’s hard to deny an element of luck when the ball deflects perfectly off the two centre backs and the goalkeeper slips and is on the floor. Still, United didn’t put the ball in the back of the net for Chelsea, Lampard still had to score, and he did. Fair play.

However, United are regarded the lucky ones because John Terry slipped when taking his penalty. Were Chelsea lucky when Van der Sar slipped? Yes. Were United lucky that Terry slipped? Yes. But fourteen players took penalties that evening from exactly the same spot and only one player fell over when taking his penalty. Just like Lampard made the most of the opportunity presented to him in the first half, Terry didn’t make the most of his opportunity. Are we lucky that our players didn’t fall over when taking their penalty? Can it all be put down to luck? Or is it technique? Or is it a bit of both?

Nine years earlier the same “lucky” criticisms were levelled at us when we lifted the European Cup at the Nou Camp. United had been losing since the sixth minute and then scored two goals in the three minutes of allotted injury time.

“Tonight it was not the best team that won but the luckiest,” said Bayern Munich’s Lothar Matthaus. “But we must not blame anyone. Especially in normal time. It’s bitter, sad and unbelievable. We’re all disappointed. You can’t blame the team. We had the match in control for 90 minutes. We had bad luck, hitting the post and the crossbar. What happened afterwards is simply inexplicable.”

Now, before kick-off, I was feeling anything but lucky! We were without both Roy Keane and Paul Scholes for that match because they were facing suspensions for their yellow cards. This meant our right-winger, David Beckham, was shifted to the central position for the first time. It meant our left-winger, Ryan Giggs, was shifted to the right wing for the first time (this was long before the days of Cristiano Ronaldo and our other wingers swapping sides constantly during a game!). It meant Jesper Blomqvist (remember him?) was starting on the left and Nicky Butt had been drafted in to the centre. Were we lucky to be playing the biggest game for our club since 1968 without our two most effective players and our other midfielders forced out of their natural positions?

Is it lucky that we were drawn in a group with Bayern Munich and Barcelona, knowing just two teams were going through to the next round? Is it luck that we had to face Inter Milan in the quarter-finals? Or Juventus in the semi-finals? Or Bayern Munich in the final? When you consider Bayern Munich knocked out Kaiserslautern in the quarters and Dynamo Kyiv in the semis, I know which team I’d say had luck on their side in the Champions League that year!

Four days before we faced Bayern Munich we were playing in the FA Cup final. Less than a week before that we were playing in the crucial final game of the season, where we had gone 1-0 down against Tottenham Hotspur and needed a win to secure the title. In contrast, the Germans had wrapped up their title weeks ago and had yet to play in their domestic final. Were we lucky that we had been slogging away for results for weeks leading up the final whilst our opponents had been resting and preparing?

Is it lucky for us that Bayern Munich hit the woodwork twice or should they just rue their inability to hit the target? Every time a striker lines up a shot against United and it hits the woodwork, it is saved by Van der Sar, or goes out for a throw-in, do we thank our good luck that the ball didn’t go in? Of course not. I don’t see why it should be any different in a Cup final. You don’t get Brownie points because you shoot in the direction of the goal but don’t even force a save from the keeper!

Essentially, of course luck plays a part in football. When things work in your favour which are completely out of your control, like deflections, like your opponents best players being injured, like a player having no clue where the ball is but managing to get a block in anyway, like a ref getting a decision completely wrong, then yes, I’d say that is good luck. But scoring in injury time is not lucky. If you put a move together that your opponents can’t stop and it ends in a goal, then how could that ever be considered lucky? If your opponents fail to stop you doing this twice in injury time, surely that is a far greater reflection on their ability and mentality than it is your luck!

having good things happen to you by chance

If your team has a “win at all costs” mentality, like Manchester United do, then the results will rarely come from chance. The late goals come because of their need to win and their ability to do so. How many other Premiership managers, particularly those actually competing for something, would give an inexperienced 17-year-old half an hour in a vital game? How many other 17-year-olds could make their Premiership début and deliver a perfect Cruyff turn followed by a delightful strike capable of beating one of the league’s most experienced goalkeepers? It is the combination of hunger and talent that sees United win against the odds. That doesn’t guarantee us a win every week, obviously, but it is what has earned us our last minute winners and our reputation as lucky.

For a person or team to be “lucky”, there is the notion the goals achieved are done so by accident, they occur at random, they are not the result of skill or determination. That, by definition, rules United out from being the lucky team others might label us as. Over the past couple of decades, United have been lead by the most determined manager about with a team filled with some of the most skilled in the World. That is why we score late goals and that is why we went top again on Sunday, because we will strive to win at all costs, whilst Villa were happy to take home a point.

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