I remember very clearly the Champions League semi-final clash between Chelsea and Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. The Catalan giants had been held to a goalless draw in the first leg at the Nou Camp and should have been out of tie in the second match following Michael Essien’s opener in west London. After that early goal there followed a succession of strong Chelsea appeals waved away by referee Tom Ovrebo.
Then, with 90 minutes showing, Andreas Iniesta let fly from the edge of the box to score with a shot that nestled into the top-right hand corner of the net – Chelsea were beaten on away goals, though not before another seemingly cast-iron penalty appeal was rejected deep into injury-time.
What was it that confirmed Barcelona’s passage into the final (where they would defeat Manchester United to lift European football’s most coveted domestic prize)? Was it attitude, skill or tactical know-how? Was it greater stamina or the intricacies of technical proficiency? Or was it just good old-fashioned luck?
While commentators pored over Iniesta’s long-ranger, the reality was undoubtedly that Pep Guardiola’s side ‘got lucky’. But at what point does luck exceed talent? It’s a question former England cricketer Ed Smith has asked himself since being forced to retire from the sport he loved in 2008.
He tackles the notion of luck in a book of the same name, and invites readers to assess the extent to which they let luck dominate how they approach sport. Do we rely on it? Do we fear it? Is it an accepted fall-back on poor performance, and should true output have chance factored into it for us to really assess our potential.
Smith uses engaging case studies, many of which highlight trends and patterns away from the sports world, showcasing events in religion, banking, politics and more. Ultimately, he’s looking to challenge the idea that luck should be respected, and he does a good job of this, often coming down on the side of skill and craft as the determining factors… “the harder I work the luckier I get!”
Though the 37-year-old does concede on one point – luck in love. He met his future wife on a train he was, in his own words, fated to miss. The fact fortune smiled on him in that case is undoubtedly an neutralising mental factor in his life given the ankle injury that ended his career. If others reading and acting upon Smith’s lucid and thought-provoking approach can take salvation in the positive elements of luck, we may not approach the subject with quite as suspicion in future, but in the meantime, this book is well worth a look.
“I took my contempt for the idea of luck into early adult life. At Cambridge, I took the same approach to studying history as I did to my cricket. I don’t think I felt pressure on myself. Success was just an imperative. I refused even to contemplate failure. The right combination of ability and hard work, I believed, surely made success inevitable. I wanted the perfect game, the perfect life: a game free from contingency, a life with nothing left to change.
What did luck have to do with anything? I would have whole-heartedly agreed with my childhood hero Geoff Boycott. Luck was for other people.
Bizarrely, my dismissal of luck coexisted with obsessive superstition. By my mid-teens, I was profoundly superstitious. It wasn’t just not walking under ladders; I couldn’t walk past a slightly dripping tap without stopping to force it completely closed, couldn’t change seats in the classroom on match-days, couldn’t wear a different shirt from the one I’d worn the previous week (if I’d played well, that is).
Because I got a hundred on my school debut, everything I did that day became fixed in stone. So I couldn’t walk out to bat with my opening partner on the ‘wrong’ side of me, couldn’t put my right leg-guard on before my left, couldn’t swap corners in the changing room, wouldn’t take off my cricket sweater even if I was too hot. Never change a winning formula.”
LUCK, Ed Smith. Published by Bloomsbury Sport.