Top 12 comebacks in sport (part 1 of 4)

In the wake of Newcastle’s remarkable recovery from 4-0 down to draw 4-4 with Arsenal last Saturday, many have called it the greatest comeback in the history of the Premier League. But is it the greatest comeback in sport?

In my eyes, it doesn’t even close. To demonstrate this, I have listed a personal list of the top 12 sporting comebacks from my lifetime, dating back to 1970. These have been ranked according to a number of criteria: the scale and implausibility of the recovery, its competitive context (e.g. a Champions League final ranks above a Carling Cup third round game) and its enduring impact on the memory of sports fans.

On that basis, the Newcastle comeback misses my top 12 by a distance. Indeed, it doesn’t even rank as the greatest recovery from 4-0 down in a football match. That honour would go to the opening game of the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations0 when hosts Angola, leading 4-0 with 11 minutes remaining, allowed Mali to battle back for a draw courtesy of a 94th-minute equaliser.

Anyway, on with part one of my list, covering numbers 12-10.

12. FA Cup fourth round replay, 2004 – Tottenham 3 Manchester City 4

Midway through this game, Spurs already had their eye on a fifth-round clash with Manchester United, and understandably so. They led 3-0 at home, and Manchester City had just had Joey Barton sent off for dissent after the half-time whistle.

But against the odds and any rational explanation, ten-man City came roaring back. An early Sylvain Distin header gave them hope, and a deflected Paul Bosvelt shot in the 69th minute brought them back to 3-2. When Shaun Wright-Phillips equalised with ten minutes left, it looked like we were heading for extra time, but in the final minute a Jon Macken header completed this most improbable of turnarounds.

11. Olympic 10,000 metres final, 1972

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Lasse Virén, the ‘Flying Finn’, came after he was sent tumbling to earth.

During the Olympic 10,000 metres final in Munich, Virén fell on lap 12 (of 25) after a tangle of legs with Belgium’s Emiel Puttemans. He lost maybe 25 metres in the fall, but quickly recovered his position in the pack. With 600 metres to go, Virén kicked for home and dropped everyone except Puttemans. He strolled to victory by more than a second to clinch not only the gold medal but also a new world record of 27:38.35.

Virén became only the fourth man to do the double of winning the 5,000 and 10,000 metres at the same Olympics. He repeated the feat in Montreal in 1976.

10. AFC Wild-Card playoff, 1993 – Buffalo Bills 41 Houston Oilers 38 (in overtime)

In NFL circles, it is referred to simply as ‘The Comeback’. Trailing 35-3 early in the third quarter, the Buffalo Bills were facing an early and ignominious playoff exit at home to the Houston Oilers, prompting one Houston radio announcer to declare:

The lights are on here at Rich Stadium. They’ve been on since this morning. You could pretty much turn them out on the Bills right now.

What made the subsequent comeback doubly remarkable was that it was engineered without the Bills’ two biggest offensive stars, quarterback Jim Kelly and running back Thurman Thomas. In a blistering seven-minute spell, Thomas’s replacement Kenneth Davis set the ball rolling with a short scoring run, and backup quarterback Frank Reich threw touchdown passes on three consecutive possessions to reduce the deficit to 35-31.

Buffalo even went ahead with three minutes remaining, as Reich hit Andre Reed for his third touchdown of the game, but a late Houston field goal forced an overtime period. Houston received the ball first, but an interception set up Steve Christie to land the winning kick and complete what remains the biggest comeback win in NFL history.

The Bills went on to reach their third of four consecutive Super Bowls – all of which they lost.

In part two, I will look at numbers nine to seven, covering three different sports.


About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

6 Responses to Top 12 comebacks in sport (part 1 of 4)

  1. txtmstrjoe says:

    I remember that Buffalo Bills comeback. Quite amazing.

    Interesting list you’ve started here. I may have to come up with a similar list (probably a shorter one) to this soon.

    Looking forward to the rest of the countdown!

    • Tim says:

      What I particularly remember about the Bills’ comeback was the speed of it. One minute they were 35-3 down, then all of a sudden it was 35-31 and we were still barely midway through the third quarter. Even when del Greco kicked the OT-forcing FG, you just knew there was only one way this story would end. Quite a few of the entrants in my list may well be unfamiliar to you, but I’ll wager there’s one you will know rather well …

  2. mrshev says:

    Really looking forward to parts 2-4. I seem to remember there was a football match with Austria in it – or was it Russia vs Spain? – and I remember it being an absolute belter.

    • Tim says:

      Cheers Shev. That’s a bit of a stumper. Switzerland v Austria in the 1954 World Cup? Finished 7-5 to Austria after they’d trailed 3-0, I think? (Before both our times, though!) I’m not sure about anything more recent than that. There have certainly been some big comebacks in major tournaments – I well remember Slovenia binning a 3-0 lead against in six minutes against Yugoslavia to draw 3-3, which was in Euro 2000, I think. Without spoiling the rest of my list too much, there isn’t a single international football match in my list. Champions League? Maybe.

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