As an aside, while there’s a certain amount of pride to be derived in glorious failure, it’s a dangerous sentiment to cultivate. No sportsman ought to settle for defeat, and console themselves that, given the circumstance, it is acceptable. The world’s best – Federer, Woods et al – certainly don’t subscribe to this mentality. As an England supporter I’ve spent too long revelling in our status as a nation that goes down in a blaze of glory (and woefully-directed penalty kicks), complete with unjust refereeing decisions and conveniently foreign pantomime villains at whom to whinge. Our boys then receive heroes’ welcomes on their return, and we all congratulate ourselves, and revel in glorious failure.
The notion that it’s the taking part that counts stopped holding water at AANP Towers shortly after my sixth birthday, when I realised that Mabbutt and co would not get to hold aloft the big shiny thing after that wretched ’87 cup final. Who the hell wants to be remembered as a glorious loser? Which aspiring sportsman grows up wanting that? Which schoolboy daydreams in his classroom, which distracted employee wastes company time sitting in front of a pc, thinking about watching his heroes climb the Wembley steps to collect their loser medals, all glum faces and insincere handshakes?
And despite it all, with the bitterest disappointment, I can’t help but feel proud of the team. They showed a bit of passion, pride in the badge – it was a glorious failure, complete with near misses and infuriating, crucial refereeing decisions. That Obika, though understandably rough around the edges, is a brick outhouse of potential (although I worry that, finding himself behind Keane, Defoe, Pav, Bent and Campbell his next professional appearance will be in something other than lilywhite). The much-maligned Gilberto turned in a performance which, although by no means flawless, few would have thought him capable of. Giovanni showed glimpses to suggest that he may be worth a run of games on the left. And so on.
In truth we did not get knocked out of the Uefa Cup last night. We were knocked out back in August when stumbling to defeats against Boro and Sunderland; and later when Gomes gifted points to Villa and Fulham; and when Jenas ducked out of a header to allow Wigan the late points in January. Tally up those points. They have been blithely haemorrhaged, leaving us scrambling for survival in late February. They’ve left us sacrificing a first-choice eleven, in a two-legged tie we could realistically have won. Moreover, with Milan and Villa tumbling out last night, the entire competition remains one at which we could have had a jolly good stab, had we been free from survival concerns and devoted all energies accordingly.
(There’s a strong argument to the effect that, whatever our league position, top-six chasing, mid-table or our current status bringing up the rear, ‘Arry would have dumped the Uefa cup firmly at the bottom of his priorities list, and fielded a weakened team anyway. C’est possible, but my word, had he sacrificed the Uefa Cup for anything but Premiership survival he’d have incited a riot amongst the better half of North London, with baseball bats and knuckle-dusters freely distributed at AANP Towers).
So no more Uefa cup – possibly for a while yet. It’s not just been fun this campaign, it’s been a three-year adventure. Beginning way back with Slavia Prague on Channel Five, and then, gloriously, back at the Lane and under the floodlights in September 2006; through the various, mental legions of foreign fans and their songs, to words I didn’t understand and tunes I didn’t recognise; via the emotionally draining exit at the hands of Sevilla, the memory of which still quickens my pulse even now; taking in Berba’s ridiculous impudence in front of goal; the Jenas penalty saved by some lanky ‘keeper called Gomes; a Bent hat-trick that still had us singing Defoe’s name; and finally the second-string last night, and that most horrendous but apt phrase, glorious failure.