How Not to Be a Hero in Football
by Brian Phillips · November 11, 2007
On the lower floors of today’s match reports, in the paragraphs no one reads, there may be a line about how well Liam Ridgewell played in the second half of Birmingham’s loss to Aston Villa. More likely, there will be references to moments—”Ridgewell produced a fine tackle on Carew as he prepared to shoot inside the Blues box”; “Ridgewell twice had the opportunity to score”—with nothing to tie them together. This was Gabriel Agbonlahor’s game; Agbonlahor who, in the clock’s last gasp, cleared Ridgewell’s header off the line, then raced down the pitch in time to send his own header past Ridgewell and into the net. Agbonlahor won this match, and the headlines will all remember it. All anyone will remember about Ridgewell’s performance is that, playing against his former club, he conceded the lead with his eleventh-minute own goal, then failed to score the goal that would get it back.
But apart from his early mistake, when he stumbled reacting to a bad cross in the box and saw the ball flukily bounce in off his thigh, Liam Ridgewell played an outstanding game today. He was everywhere on the pitch, and particularly in the second half, it was his determination that seemed to give strength to his teammates as they struggled to hold a superior Villa side. Ridgewell is not an exceptionally talented player, but he had a far better match than, say, Nigel Reo-Coker, whose comical miss in the seventieth minute was only the lowest point in a game in which he seemed to be afraid that the ball would reject his advances. Ridgewell stifled one very good Villa chance with his tackle on Carew, helped to break up several more, and used his relentless work inside the box on corners to give himself on two occasions a chance to win the game.
And he would have won it, had Agbonlahor been a split second later with his improbable clearance at the end. Had any of three moments in the game gone very slightly differently, Ridgewell would have left the pitch a hero. As it is, he’ll be remembered as the goat, while Agbonlahor is (rightly) celebrated and the day’s Reo-Cokers are ignored. There are virtues that we claim to prize in sports—fortitude, will, resiliency. But we seldom know how to celebrate them when they’re on the losing side. Ridgewell played to redeem his mistake and very nearly did so. But football is cruel, and, as Birmingham fans know too well today, moral victories can be just like losses, but harder.
UPDATE: The Telegraph is on the case today with a piece called “Liam Ridgewell’s Derby Blues,” on “Ridgewell’s night to forget”. “Ridgewell’s name will go into the annals of the second-city derby…in terms of gaffes that will be re-run in perpetuity,” it says. I’m sure that’s true. But I’m not at all sure that it should be.
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