Once upon a time in the land of sport

Outta nowhere: Ali is regarded as one of “The Greatest sportspeople of all time". Image: benyuppOutta nowhere: Ali is regarded as one of “The Greatest sportspeople of all time". Image: benyupp

After non-league team Lincoln City were beaten 5-0 by Arsenal in the quarter finals of the FA Cup we take a look some sport fairytales when athletes and teams upset the odds to become the stuff of sporting legend.

Lincoln City

For 46 minutes under the lights at the Emirates Stadium, Lincoln City held their own. They were combative, hard-working, and reduced Arsenal to one snap shot from Theo Walcott, well saved by Geordie stopper Paul Farman.

They were making a mockery of the huge gulf between the two teams, to the delight of the 9,000 fans that had travelled down from the cathedral city in the East Midlands.

To put that in context, Arsenal’s corporate hospitality boxes sell for around £3,000 per person, while the directors’ suite at Sincil Bank Stadium, Lincoln, is sponsored by a toilet hire company. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil have recently demanded wages in excess of £280,000 per week – combined, they would earn more than Lincoln’s annual budget every seven days. But, for the majority of the first half, this did not matter, and only a world-class Petr Cech save from Nathan Arnold kept the Imps from taking the lead.

“We’re having a stratospheric, once-in-a-generation season”

Of course, after those 46 minutes, the elastic broke and the pace of Alexis Sanchez and friends began to show effortlessly, and Arsenal strolled to a 5-0 victory. The scoreline is merely a footnote in Lincoln’s extraordinary run, a string of games I feel very fortunate to have witnessed as an Imps season ticket holder for the last 14 years.

In that time I have seen the club fail twice at playoff finals, witnessed a relegation from the football league under the leadership of a captain who was later sent to prison for match-fixing, and had also seen them play an ex-convict and a peripheral TOWIE character in the same midfield (Ali Fuseini and Tom Kilbey, for anyone interested).

It really puts Arsenal’s yearly existential angst into context when you’ve supported a team that was once only 90 minutes away from National League North football.

We’re having a stratospheric, once-in-a-generation season, top of the National League with the cup scalps of Burnley, Brighton, Ipswich and Oldham to boast about, as well as those glorious forty-six minutes at the Emirates, led by a manager making national headlines.The only thing to do is to savour it, because unlike a Premier League fan, I know that success is fleeting and must be cherished.

Dom Partridge

Muhammad Ali

“Oh my god he’s won the title back at 32!”

On 30 October, 1974, in Kanshasa, Zaire, the words of Harry Carpenter were immortalised in the annals of sporting history. The exclamation of sheer disbelief escaped his lips to capture the defining chapter in Muhammad Ali’s glorious career. This was the fight that redefined Ali, reshaped boxing and saw the birth of ‘rope-a-dope’.

For those who loosely know of Ali’s legend, it may be difficult to understand how ‘The Greatest’ created a fairytale – this isn’t a relegation-threatened Leicester storming the league; this is the best of all time. But as the context of his bout with George Foreman is uncovered, and as the events of the Rumble in the Jungle are reviewed, it becomes clear how incredible a feat it was from ‘the Louisville Lip’.

By the time of the fight, Ali had passed his peak. His defiant stance against the Vietnam War and refusal to be drafted led to a ban that robbed him of his best years. He arrived in Zaire without the characteristic fast feet of his younger years.

“His legend had long been established, but here he cemented himself as ‘The Greatest’”

Meanwhile, Foreman had quickly established himself as the most fearsome heavyweight in the division. His imposing stature and devastating punching power had helped him dominate the only men who had previously defeated Ali – Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. He entered the ring undefeated after forty fights and with the world expecting another imperious win for the 25 year-old.

What followed was as astonishing in its method as it was in its result. In the second round, Ali began to lean back on the ropes, letting Foreman’s powerful blows rain down on his arms and body. As Foreman tired, Ali took timely opportunities to take shots at his opponent’s face.

“That all you got, George?” Ali taunted, using his famed lip to draw the younger man into an even more furious and exhausting barrage. In the eighth, with the strain having taken its toll on Foreman, Ali finally took advantage, sending his opponent to the canvas with a right hand.

Ali had done what very few thought possible, with a tactic like nothing ever seen before. His legend had long been established, but here he cemented himself as ‘The Greatest’, in the most tremendous piece of sporting theatre of the 20th century.

James Harris

Sri Lanka

1996 saw some incredible events. Not only the birth of me, and maybe you (if you’re 20 or only just 21), but a heart-warming world cup victory for Cricket underdogs, Sri Lanka was also a memorable occurrence for many who were blessed enough to witness it.

The triumphant win for this small island nation, who co-hosted the event with India and Pakistan, came despite the team only completing two matches in the whole competition.

In the group stages, Australia and the West indies forfeited their matches due to security concerns following the Central Bank bombing by the Tamil Tigers earlier the same year, and the points were automatically handed to Sri Lanka.

“The match, played in Lahore, Pakistan, was close and well fought by both teams.”

In their semi-final match, hot favourites India made a promising start but lost their form midway, and when promising player Azharuddin “got out as if he was giving catching practice to Srilankans”. According to a blog by fan Gagan Verma, the rowdy Indian crowd expressed their disappointment by throwing items such as fruit and water bottles onto the pitch.

Sri Lankan captain, Arjuna Ranatunga refused to allow his team back onto the field in such an environment and as attempts to calm the restless crowd failed, match referee, Clive Lyold, awarded the match to Sri Lanka by default. A member of the crowd held up a placard saying “Congratulations Sri Lanka… we are sorry!

In the final, Sri Lanka played Australia, a nation who interestingly, despite being 118 times the size of little Sri-Lanka, shared the same population size of 18.3 million that year. The match, played in Lahore, Pakistan, was close and well fought by both teams.

The Australian captain praised the Sri Lankan performance, telling members of various press that “they held their catches which we didn’t do so they deserve their win”. While Ranatunga thanked Pakistani public for being behind them right throughout the game.

Sydney Isaacs

Niki Lauda

Immortalised in the film “Rush” (2013) the Austrian and current champion Niki Lauda, battled against the Englishman James Hunt to win the 1976 Formula One Championship.

The two racers were friends despite being like chalk and cheese; Lauda was a perfectionist, while Hunt was notorious for taking risks and his playboy status.

Lauda took the lead early on with Hunt close behind before heading to the infamously dangerous Nurburgring in Germany.

While Lauda had urged for the race to be cancelled due to wet weather, Hunt countered that this was so the Austrian could maintain this lead. Both then agreed to go ahead and the race was on!

“Lauda is the epitome of a fairytale.”

However Lauda’s worries were soon realised. In the middle of third lap the suspension in his Ferarri broke, leading him to fly into an embankment in a horrific accident. He survived, but was left with burns to his head and face, as well as to his lungs from the hot toxic fumes head had inhaled.

Yet in an extraordinary turn of  events,  six weeks Lauda, despite doctor’s orders, had returned to the track in bloody bandages, after Hunt had made up ground in his absence.

Now three points ahead going into the final race in Japan, Lauda decided to retire on the second lap rather then risk his life again leading Hunt to win the championship by just one point

Hunt quickly retired as the season finished, however Lauda continued racing, later winning the championship two more times in 1977 and 1984.

Lauda a legend after coming back from the brink of death and continuing to race despite his rational fears, Lauda is the epitome of a fairytale.

Tom Shrimplin

Steve Redgrave

“Anyone who sees me in a boat has my permission to shoot me”, Steve Redgrave announced after winning his fourth successive Olympic Games in 1996.

Redgrave had been at the pinnacle of the rowing world for 16 years and had enjoyed unprecedented success. However, at the age of 34, it seemed to be time to give his body a rest from the gruelling rowing training schedule.

For four months after that summer’s success the rower stuck to his statement and enjoyed some much needed time for rest and recuperation. Although, strangely, there was no official confirmation or celebration of Redgrave’s achievement to commemorate his sporting career.

As this lack of formal acknowledgement would suggest, Redgrave’s retirement did not last long. It is widely speculated that this four month “retirement” was, in fact, a planned break from the world of rowing. However, planned or not, after just four months the Olympian was back in training.

Coming back wasn’t simple. Redgrave admitted to thinking, “What the hell am I doing this for?”, during those first stages of the comeback but was not to be defeated. As the selection processwas purely down to performances and not medals. Redgrave had to prove that he was still the best around and fight off hot competition from emerging youngsters.

“Back from retirement, 20 years after his first gold – Sir Steve Redgrave conquered the world again!”

Indeed, he got that so coveted place in the squad and was selected in the coxless four alongside James Cracknell, Matthew Pinsent and Tim Foster. An early win in the World Championships of September 1997 set the boat in good stead but difficulties were about to arise.

Redgrave suffers from diabetes, and had to up his doses to combat the quantity of food needing to be consumed, whilst Foster had to undergo surgery on a torn disc and spend three months out of action. Unsurprisingly, at the World Cup Regatta of July 2000 the four suffered defeat to New Zealand and came fourth in the semi-final.

Only two months later and the Olympic Games in Sydney had arrived. The four navigated their way through the early stages and secured a place in what would be one of the tensest finals to date.

Expectations of the proven Steve Redgrave were huge but the boat managed to claim gold by a mere 0.38 of a second. Back from retirement, 20 years after his first gold – Sir Steve Redgrave conquered the world again!

Toby Bryant

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