The Magnificent Seven: incredible comebacks

They said Niall Kelly was beaten… but he only went and pulled his seven favourite comebacks out of the bag as the whistle went.

Image: DUSAN VRANIC/AP/Press Association Images

IF MANCHESTER UNITED’S spirited comeback against Blackpool earlier this week proved anything, it’s that the game isn’t over until till it’s over. Play to the final whistle. Other sporting clichés.

Take nothing away from United. Overcoming a two-goal deficit with 18 minutes left on the clock is no mean feat. But where did Tuesday night’s performance rank on the list of all-time comebacks? This week, we take a look back at seven of the best.

1. McCoy takes care of family business

Feast of St. Raymond Chase, 23 January 2002

There is a very simple rule of thumb that applies to horse racing. So logical that it doesn’t even need to be mentioned.

Horses that fall don’t win races.

That’s just the way the sport works. Over the years, racecourse grandstands have been littered with the confetti of a million shredded betting slips because trusty steeds have disintegrated into blundering nags when asked to negotiate a fence or two.

Horse falls. Race done. Move on to the next one.

Of course, like every sporting rule of thumb, there is an exception which proves that it is true. Family Business was that exception.

In a minor midweek chase at Southwell in January 2002, he was sent off the odds-on favourite, carrying Champion Jockey A.P. McCoy on his back.

However, with more than a full circuit left to go, punters were left muttering into their rolled-up form guides as he crashed through a fence and sent McCoy sprawling onto the sodden January turf.

Under normal circumstances, one would expect one of the five remaining horses to safely complete the final lap and leave the bookmakers counting their bundle of dirty fivers. However, that wasn’t quite how it happened.

One by one, the remaining challengers either fell, refused to jump or unseated their own riders, meaning that there were in fact no horses still running in the race.

But McCoy is a champion jockey. He gets paid like a champion jockey. And, more importantly, he thinks like a champion jockey.

As he watched his competitors slowly rule themselves out of contention, he jumped back aboard his own mount and began to complete the remainder of the course.

A little over 10  minutes after the white flag had been raised by the starter, McCoy and Family Business passed the winning post, sealing the most unlikely of comebacks.

Seven starters. Seven fallers. One moment of quick thinking.

2. Tracy McGrady scores 13 points in 31 seconds

San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets, December 9, 2004

It’s easy to be a leader when your team is winning.

When passes aren’t finding their target, when your teammates seem to have lost that extra yard of pace, when none of the referee’s decisions or breaks of the ball are going your way – that’s when the real leaders emerge.

Ten points down with a minute left on the clock, maybe one can forgive the Houston Rockets players for thinking that the game was slightly out of their reach. Their fans certainly thought as much as they drifted towards the exit in an attempt to get a head-start on the traffic.

Step forward Tracy McGrady. The former Magic star hadn’t picked up All-Star awards during his time in Orlando by letting the clock tick down to zero. He wasn’t about to start in his new home of Houston.

Bit by bit, McGrady and his teammates began to claw back the deficit. Yet the Spurs seemed to have their measure, bouncing  back each time with a score of their own.

A quick glance at the game clock would have told McGrady that his team was still seven points adrift with 31 seconds to go. He didn’t need to look at the clock though. He knew. And he knew what it would take to win the game.

What happened thereafter is truly remarkable as McGrady went on an amazing streak, effortlessly hitting three successive three-pointers with a free throw wedged amongst them for good measure.

That 10-point haul was only enough to drag his Rockets back to within two points, a point at which most players would have settled for overtime, a brilliant achievement in its own right.

Ask McGrady and he’ll tell you that the thought never crossed his mind. With eight seconds left, it would be three points or nothing.


3. Taylor’s black-ball triumph

World Snooker Championship Final, 27/28 April 1985

The 1985 World Snooker Championship Final should have been a relatively straightforward affair.

Three-time World Champion and reigning World Number One Steve Davis against the unfancied but respected Northern Irish man, Dennis Taylor.

Few gave Taylor much of a chance and, by the time Davis stormed into a 8-0 lead at the start of the second session of play, those who had were beginning to feel a little bit foolish.

However, in sport as in life, there’s very little to be said for giving up when you’re fighting a losing battle. Seeing as you’re committed to playing the game out to its end, no matter how bitter, you might as well go down swinging.

You never know what might happen.

I’ve no idea what state of mind Dennis Taylor was in at the start of the ninth frame. But history has shown that he wasn’t willing to give up just yet. Not while he was on the sport’s biggest stage with millions around the world watching.

By the time the day’s play was done, Taylor had won seven of the eight remaining frames and pulled himself back into contention at 9-7.

Try as he might, however, he just couldn’t get his nose in front. Level at 11-11 by the middle of the third session looked to be as good as it would get for Taylor.

With just three frames remaining, Davis led 17-15, needing only one more frame to seal his fourth Crucible victory in five years. Yet Taylor dug deep, winning the next two frames to set up the historic “black ball” finale, a sporting climax worthy of a more respectful homage than the space of this column allows.

A final frame decider is generally compelling viewing, particularly one which comes down to the final ball. On this occasion, it was merely the icing on the cake of the fairytale narrative that was Taylor’s comeback.

4. Cochet’s comebacks

Henri Cochet def. Bill Tilden, Wimbledon semi-finals 1927

Comebacks are remarkable by virtue of their rarity.

Although we’ve been shocked and amazed by sporting twists and turns before, we still expect an individual or a team with a commanding lead to close out their victory. Whether you call it probability or call it common sense, comebacks are never recognisable until we’re smack bang in the middle of them.

Therefore, for a tennis player to pull off one stunning comeback in a Grand Slam tournament is an achievement in its own right. To pull off two in back-to-back matches is impressive. To pull off three is unthinkable.

Yet that is exactly what Frenchman Henri Cochet achieved at Wimbledon in 1927.

It all started in his quarter-final against the American Frank Hunter. Cochet, who had been seeded at number four for the tournament, dropped the opening two sets before shaking off the cobwebs to win 3-6 3-6 6-2 6-2 6-4.

By the time he took to the court to face another American, World No 1 Bill Tilden, in the semis, the adrenalin of Cochet’s spirited resilience against Hunter had faded, leaving only the dead weight of fatigue in its place.

Tilden was no pushover. He had already proven that he had Cochet’s measure on one occasion in 1927, knocking out the defending champion on home turf in the French championships. If Cochet was tired, he would make light work of him.

At 3-6 4-6 1-5, the gig looked to be well and truly up for the Frenchman. With nothing left to lose, he began to step into his shots and take them slightly earlier.

It worked. Very quickly it became evident that Tilden was struggling to cope with Cochet’s change in style. By the time the American had a chance to figure out a suitable riposte, Cochet had won six games on the bounce to take the third set 7-5.

The momentum now firmly behind him, Cochet pressed home his advantage, sealing a remarkable five-set win 2-6 4-6 7-5 6-4 6-3.

Cochet’s comeback against the man who many believed to be the best in the world at the time was so stunning that it has almost been forgotten that he repeated the trick in the final. On that occasion, fellow Frenchman Jean Borotra had six match points to claim the Wimbledon crown, yet failed to convert a single one.

No matter what the circumstances, no matter who the opponent, it seems that at Wimbledon in 1927, Henri Cochet simply didn’t know how to lose.

5. Buffalo strike it rich

Buffalo Bills vs. Houston Oilers, AFC Wild-Card Game, 03 January 1999

When the Chicago Bears’ replacement quarterback Caleb Hanie took to the field in the NFC Championship Game last Sunday, the name Frank Reich may have crossed his mind for a split second.

As understudy to Buffalo’s starting quarterback, Jim Kelly, Reich was the man who was called upon to deputise in the 1999 Wild-Card Game when Kelly was ruled out with strained knee ligaments.

Unfazed by the situation which he found himself thrust into, Kelly would mastermind a brilliant second-half performance that is now simply referred to as “The Comeback”.

Of course, the need for one of the all-time great comebacks could have been avoided had the Bills simply decided to show up for the first half of the game. Poor in offense, poorer in defense, all that the Bills had to show at half-time was a solitary field goal. The scoreboard read 28-3.

Any momentum which they may have gained from a half-time hairdryer treatment was killed within minutes of the game restarting, the Oilers picking off one of Reich’s passes and returning it for a touchdown to further extend their lead.

It was only then, with the Oilers almost sufficiently out of sight, that the Bills decided to play. Once that fairly basic decision had been made, they quickly began to make up for lost time, running up a whole game’s worth of points in less than seven minutes as they scored four touchdowns without reply.

With the Oilers dazed, Reich drove the Bills to a fifth consecutive touchdown late in the fourth quarter, putting his team three points up with just over three minutes left on the clock.

Though Houston managed a last-gasp field goal to take the game to overtime, it would be little more than a temporary stay of execution. Reich and the Bills completed “The Comeback” with an overtime field goal, completing a quite incredible step on the road to Superbowl XXVII.

6. Lasse Viren

10,000m Final, 1972 Olympic Games

The manner in which an athlete responds to adversity is very telling.

Half-way through the 10,000m final of the Munich Olympics in 1972, there was a tangle of legs and two of the race’s participants came crashing down on to the track.

One of them was practically back on his feet before anyone had realised what had happened. The other lay dazed in the foetal position for a couple of seconds, licking his wounds.

One went on to win to take gold, setting a new world record in the process. The other dropped out a lap and a half later.

Judging Tunisia’s Mohamed Gammoudi 40 years after the event may be slightly unfair. Grainy video footage almost certainly trivialises the severity of the incident.

Besides, he has four more Olympic medals than I’ll ever have.

We may be able to  forget about Gammoudi’s off-day, but Lasse Viren’s performance deserves to be relived over and over again. Even in slow-motion, the speed with which he recovers from the fall is astonishing, speaking volumes about his single-minded determination.

The act of simply rejoining the main group is a quite commendable achievement in itself. But the Finn did not travel to Munich to prove himself to be a worthy incarnation of de Coubertin’s Olympic ideals. He was there to win.

Viren’s performance over the last 600 metres is a thing of beauty. By the time his nearest competitors realised that he had shifted into a higher gear, he was already on his way, lapping those same athletes who had stepped over him on the ground a few laps earlier.

Puttemans gave chase, but Viren was not to be caught. A week later, he added the 5,000m Gold to his collection in slightly less remarkable circumstances.

7. One comeback to rule them all?

Liverpool vs. AC Milan, Champions League Final 2005

Comparing two sporting comebacks side-by-side is a difficult task. Each game presents its own specific scenario with its own unique variables. No matter what the similarities,  no two comebacks are the same.

Football fans around the world live in truly fortunate times having witnessed the two most ridiculous Champions League finals ever to be played – Manchester United’s 2-1 triumph on “that balmy night in Barcelona” (©Clive Tyldesley) in 1999, and their arch-rival Liverpool’s win on penalties against AC Milan in 2005.

To ask which comeback was better, more authentic, more remarkable, is to start down a path of endless debate which will inevitably be swayed by a preference for one team or another. Find me a United fan that raves about Istanbul or a Liverpool fan who replays Solskjaer’s winner over and over again and I’ll find you a dark room that you can lock them in until they recant their sins.

Briefly, and with no trace of bias, the way I see it is thus.

At no stage in 1999 were Alex Ferguson’s charges so comprehensively outplayed on the biggest stage in European football that their fans were forced to watch the game through their fingers with tears in their eyes. At no stage did the situation merit the phrase “game well and truly over and I hate saying that”. At no stage were United dead and buried.

After all, this is Manchester United. Comebacks are what they do.

If Liverpool had earned the right to come back out for the second half in Istanbul, it was certainly not by virtue of their first-half performance. What started out as an exercise designed to salvage whatever pride remained took on a life of its own and ended about an hour and a half later with Stephen Gerrard kissing Old Big Ears.

United succeeded, however, where Liverpool didn’t dare venture. Having secured their late equaliser, there was no need to chase an injury-time winner. To their credit, they did, leaving the engraving eternally grateful that he had stuck on the kettle for a pot of tea before beginning his evening’s work.

Can it realistically be said that one team’s comeback was “better” than the other by any subjective standard? Probably not. But it won’t stop us from arguing anyway.

Do you think Niall got it right?

About the author:

Niall Kelly

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