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Dublin: 7 °C Tuesday 18 February, 2020

The Magnificent Seven: the best of the nearly men

Waterford are back in the Munster Hurling Final again, which for some reason got us thinking about seven of the best teams and individuals to never win their respective “big one.”

Image: Peter Robinson/EMPICS Sport

1. Waterford Senior Hurlers (2000s)

Since Waterford’s narrow victory over Limerick last weekend, there has been an awful lot of idle chatter here at about the Déise’s All-Ireland prospects. With men of the stature of Ken McGrath and Dan Shanahan setting down the hurl, and promising youngsters such as Darragh Fives coming in in their place, where do Waterford stand?

Instinctively, the reaction of some has been to suggest that if Waterford couldn’t win an All-Ireland when giants such as McGrath and Shanahan were at their prime, what chance do they have now?

There is no doubt that the last decade – for the most part – has been a golden era for those who don the blue and white. After almost 40 years in the wilderness, the reigns of Justin McCarthy and Davy Fitz have seen the Dessies re-establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the province. Fans will need no reminding that four of the county’s nine Munster titles have come since 2002.

But still no sign of the Liam McCarthy Cup. In fact, for all their strength and talent, the 2008 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny has been their only appearance on the sport’s biggest stage since 1963.

Yet, since the turn of the century they have always been there or thereabouts, crashing out in the semi-finals on a devastating five occasions in the space of six years.

In some respects, Waterford had only themselves to blame. Had they not succumbed to exhaustion in the 2002 semi-final against Clare or leaked those three first-half goals against Kilkenny in 2004, they may have earned themselves one or two more shots at bringing home the bacon. In other respects, they were just desperately unlucky to be hurling in the same era as some of the game’s great sides.

Whichever way you look at it, they are certainly one of the best collection of hurlers never to win the big one.

2. Lee Westwood

In golf, as in life, it is certainly possible to fluke your way to a once-off success – a tournament win or, if the stars align, maybe even a Major. Career-long consistency, however, owes nothing to chance.

The statistics don’t lie – with 35 professional wins under his belt,  Lee Westwood is undoubtedly a class act. When Tiger Woods eventually vacated the top spot in golf’s world rankings charts after 623 weeks, Westwood was lying in wait, a worthy successor.

But, amid his enviable portfolio which includes two Order of Merit wins and three European Tour Golfer of the Year Awards, there is one very prominent gap.

A gap that will remain until Westwood wins one of golf’s four Majors.

Try as he might, the Briton has always come up just slightly short on the big occasions. Since first stepping out at St. Andrews for the Open in 1995, Westwood has finished in the top ten places at a Major on no fewer than ten occasions. In the last three seasons alone, he has finished either second or third on a staggering five occasions.

There is no denying that you can be a great golfer without winning a Major – just look at Colin Montgomerie. But these four tournaments, the highlights of the annual golfing calendar, give the cream of the sport the chance to pit their wits against one another.

They are the tournaments that every golfer wants to win; the spectacle that the whole world is watching; the weekends when the pressure is most acutely felt.

A career CV without a Major win is destined to be forever described as “great but …”

3. Utah Jazz (1996-1998)

Growing up, my only real insight into the world of basketball was a second-hand copy of the NBA ’97 video-game.

I don’t know how I developed my affinity for the Utah Jazz – in hindsight, it’s probably because they were one of the best teams in the game – but once I discovered the world of John Stockton and Karl Malone, I was hooked.

On the computer game, that is. Little did I know that the spine-tingling dunks and glorious blocks that I was engineering were being paralleled in the real world.

In 1997 and 1998, the Jazz were the best team in the NBA’s Western Conference. In back-to-back seasons, the future Hall of Famers of Stockton and Malone led them to the NBA Finals and a very real shot at the franchise’s first-ever national success.

The only problem was that their opponent on both occasions was the great Chicago Bulls side of Jordan, Pippen and Rodman, masterminded by Phil Jackson and destined for a second three-peat.

However, but for an evening of inexplicable inspiration, that second glorious triptych of titles might never have been.

Game 5 of the 1997 series has gone down in NBA history. “The flu game.” The evening a weak and visibly ill Michael Jordan dragged himself out of his sick bed and shot 38 points.

Though Chicago still needed one more win to clinch the series, their three-point victory that night was a cruel blow to Utah. Up against the best ever, they would have to console themselves with second place.

4. Jimmy White

Six defeats in six World Championship Finals is a legacy which no snooker player would wish on his worst opponent.

Yet that is the statistic which defines Jimmy White’s career, overshadowing a professional record which includes ten ranking tournament victories and almost £5 million earned in prize money.

White is the quintessential “nearly man” – an inherently likable individual, perennially on the cusp of glory, always falling agonisingly short.

It is often said that White was desperately unlucky to have met the snooker legend that is Stephen Hendry in his prime. What is frequently overlooked is the fact that White squandered numerous golden chances to shoot down the rising star during their four meetings in the Crucible final.

On some occasions, Jimmy was simply outclassed, such as the 1993 Final when Hendry romped to an 18-5 win with a full session to spare. But there were other opportunities, the kind likely to flash before your eyes as you try to sleep at night, many years after the fact.

There was that moment in 1992 when, at 14-12 up, White was in the position to compile a frame-winning break and arrest the slide which had allowed Hendry to claw his way back into the match. He inadvertently potted the white, allowing Hendry to step in and take the frame, following it up with the five more he needed to clinch the title.

Or that moment in 1994 when, with the match tied at 17-17, he fluffed a straightforward pot on the black, effectively handing the Scot his fourth World Championship.

Jimmy had his chances, that’s for sure.

5. Newcastle United (1995-1997)

They are the pride of the North East, one of the most fervently supported clubs in all of England and, once upon a time, were firmly part of the Premier League’s “Big Four” (or however many teams it consisted of in the mid-1990s).

Yet none of that obscures the fact that the last time Newcastle United won the English domestic title was 84 years ago in 1927.

They may have finished as runners-up in 1996/1997, but the real opportunity for the Magpies to dine at the top table once more had come and gone the previous season.

The details hardly need to be revisited. Newcastle’s ten-point lead at the Christmas break. Cantona’s volley at St. James’ Park in March to reduce the gap to its bare minimum. Keegan’s rant. Fergie’s title.

Propelled by Les Ferdinand’s 25 league goals, Keegan’s Newcastle exceeded all expectations and, truth be told, slightly exceeded their ability. The psychological blow of Manchester United’s predatory pursuit, however, had lasting repercussions.

After smashing the British transfer record to bring league top scorer Alan Shearer home that summer, Newcastle should have found the X-Factor which they needed to kick on past United the following season. And, when they handed out a 5-0 drubbing to the champions in October, it seemed they had.

In the end, the ecstasy of October did little more than make the agony of a second successive runners-up berth all the more painful.

6. Andy Murray

Deciding who is the best tennis player never to win a Grand Slam is trickier than you’d think.

One name frequently mentioned is that of Chilean star Marcelo Rios, the only world number one to have never won one of the “big four” tournaments in tennis.

Dig a little deeper, however, and Rios’ credentials don’t look quite as impressive. The Australian Open in 1998 was the only time he made it to a Grand Slam final; throughout the rest of his injury-shortened career, he never progressed past the quarter-final stages.

How about Todd Martin? Twice a Grand Slam finalist, once ranked as high as fourth in the world, the American is considered by some to be a more worthy candidate than Rios.

Martin, however, only won eight singles titles in his 15-year career, a figure already dwarfed by Andy Murray’s 17, a haul achieved within a much shorter timeframe.

Murray may not be the most palatable choice for a number of reasons, not least because at 24 years of age, much of his career still lies ahead of him. But, set alongside the other oft-cited candidates – Rios, Martin, Nalbandian, Henman, Rusedski – there is little argument as to who the better tennis player is.

Murray’s career win-loss rate stands at almost 75%. On three separate occasions already, he has knocked on the door of a Grand Slam title only to be rebuffed by Federer, twice, as well as by Novak Djokovic.

Only a brave man would bet against Andy Murray winning one of the sport’s biggest prizes at some stage. A revised version of this list will almost certainly have to settle for Rios or Martin or one of their ilk at some stage in the future.

But for now, if not for long, Murray is the one.

7. Holland (1974 & 1978)

They played the game of football with an imagination and intelligence that few of their contemporaries could fully understand, let alone replicate.

In Cruyff, they had one of the all-time great players; in Rinus Michels, a man who stands comfortably among the best managers.

But the Holland team of 1974 and 1978, the pioneers of “total football,” have the dubious honour of being the best team never to win the World Cup.

Dazzling spectators and opposition alike in West Germany in 1974, they won the battle for the hearts and minds of the football viewing populace as they progressed to the final against the hosts.

Then, they did what everyone hoped and dreamed they would do – they blitzed their opponents, going 1-0 up through a Johan Neeskens penalty before Germany had even managed to touch the ball.

Describing Pep Guardiola and the current Barcelona team, Eamon Dunphy once noted that “they’ve the best Plan A in the world, but no Plan B.”

In some respects, a similar description applies to this great Dutch side. They only knew one way of playing and, after a debatable penalty and an instinctive finish by the great Gerd Muller had given the hosts a 2-1 lead, they refused to deviate from their plan.

And so they hoarded the ball in the second half, besieging Sepp Maier’s goal as they cleverly pressed and probed for the equaliser which never came.

Disappointment was tempered slightly by the belief that many of the same players would have another shot at glory four years later. Defeat to their Argentinian hosts in the 1978 final sealed their place at the top table of sporting nearly-men.

Read more of the Magnificent Seven series here >

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About the author:

Niall Kelly

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