There was general consensus around the stadium, and on the forums afterward, that we’d been ‘unlucky’ not to get at least a draw.
There’s no question we played well. The effort was there, the application that will keep us up if anything will was on display from every player. The game felt as though it was fading into a draw, and we’d had the better chances to nick it in a good 20-minute second half spell. So, yes, the goal we conceded denied us anything for our endeavour and was tough to take, coming as it did from a nasty deflection. But were we unlucky? Do teams lose unluckily? Or, as I’d argue, does the best team almost always win?
Let’s define terms quickly. I’d say the best team is the one best at the game of football. Hopefully that’s not controversial. Football’s a game with a particular aim, though, and that aim isn’t to keep possession most, to work hardest, to put together the best attacks or the best passing moves. It’s got one aim; scoring more than your opponent. You do that by attacking and by defending. If a team controls the midfield, they don’t (or shouldn’t) do it as an end in and of itself – they do it because that’s how they’ve decided they can score the most goals and concede the fewest. Swansea City didn’t get promoted on the grounds of artistic merit last season. They did it by outscoring people. It was marvellous to see them beating the league leaders in a way newly promoted teams normally don’t, but it was the victory itself that made the performance marvellous. They scored the goal. They got the win. That’s why they deserved it. For no other reason.
This is a creeping trend in the game, this idea that you deserve it because you created chances (you didn’t take), you hit the woodwork a lot (without scoring), you missed a penalty (so practice penalties). None of these things, not chances, not near-misses, not penalties, actually matter. They show that you’re doing some of the right things, of course they do. (That’s why I took a lot of hope from Saturday’s game. To come as close to getting a draw as we did is very encouraging given the number of hopeless defeats we’ve had of late.) But they’re a step removed from the actual point of playing football.
You don’t get this in, for instance, board games. Nobody will say that player X “deserved” to beat player Y in chess because although he was beaten in 30 moves, his pawn control throughout was exemplary. You don’t walk away from tiddlywinks cursing your ill-luck. I love the variables football gives you, but there are so many, so much to count, that we sometimes forget what the most important variable – no, the only important variable – is. How many goals you scored.
There are perhaps one or two circumstances where it would be legitimate to curse. A clearly offside goal conceded in the sixth minute of stoppage time, maybe, or a handball on the line in the 120th. It takes mental gymnastics to come up with them, though, and even examples like these aren’t infallible – see Suarez v Ghana two years back. On one level a clearly unfair interception that denied Ghana the chance to be the first African World Cup semi-finalists. On closer inspection, a foul caught by the referee, punished with the appropriate sanction, arising from a dodgily-awarded free-kick and allowing Ghana a good chance to win it through a normal-time penalty, and then a chance to redeem themselves in a shoot-out. So apart from blatant cheating or an incredibly unusual officiating aberration (and no, Mark Hughes, a first-half incorrect decision building on another incorrect decision doesn’t count), I can’t find many circumstances where “unlucky” really comes into it.
Part of this is something that often irks me, the failure of football fans to realise that the goalkeeper is a legitimate member of the team. The keeper is often thought of as a sort of penalty-box roulette wheel. How often do you hear fans say “we’d have won if their keeper hadn’t played so well?” Compare and contrast this with less common phrases like “the only reason they won is because of their complete dominance in midfield” or “if their left-back hadn’t been significantly superior to our right-winger, I’m sure we’d only have lost by two”. On Saturday, Cardiff’s excellent goalkeeper David Marshall kept out both Sean Davis and Brett Pitman on potentially match-changing occasions. That’s not luck; that’s skill and expertise on the other side. There’s a solipsistic tendency to look only at one’s own team, so a missed chance must either be down to poor shooting or ill luck. Sometimes we have to say that the opposition deserved not to concede – and in this case deserved to build the platform on which they later triumphed.
Another absurdity that springs from this is the concept of “not deserving” to win a league or win a cup. I’ve even heard that Arsenal “don’t deserve” to be in the top 4, which is as artificial a criticism as the very concept of fourth place being some kind of trophy. (Who came fourth in 1972 – and did they deserve it? Anyone able to answer both questions without looking it up will win a wonderful prize.) This compounds the original failing – not being able to understand that if you play 38 games you almost certainly finish where you deserve – with a misunderstanding of a league system. They don’t just skip 4th and move straight on to 5th if only three teams look any good. Maybe they should, but they don’t.
I thought City played well at the weekend, the on-form Jon Stead and holding midfielder Kalifa Cisse in particular. I took a lot of encouragement from it. I think we’ll stay up if we have ten more games like that. But if we don’t, and we do go down, it won’t be due to bad luck. We remain the masters of our own destiny and only by facing up to that responsibility will we be able to survive.