Top 12 comebacks in sport (part 3 of 4)

In the third part of this series looking at my top 12 sporting comebacks, it is the turn of cycling, golf and football as we count off numbers six, five and four.

Before we start, here is a quick reminder of the list so far:

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

Ten-man City turn over a 3-0 half-time deficit, with a last-minute winner sealing an improbably victory.

11. Olympic 10,000 metres final, 1972

Lasse Virén falls halfway through the race, but recovers to win the gold medal in a new world record time.

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

Buffalo trailed 35-3 in the third quarter, but come back to win behind backup quarterback Frank Reich.

9. US Open, 2009

Kim Clijsters returns from a two-year retirement to win the 2009 US Open, defeating both Williams sisters en route.

8. World Snooker Final, 1985

Dennis Taylor recovers from 8-0 down to clinch the world title with the final black of a dramatic final frame.

7. Champions League Final, 2005 – Liverpool 3 AC Milan 3 (Liverpool won 3-2 on penalties)

Liverpool overcome a 3-0 first half deficit before winning in a dramatic penalty shootout.


Ready for some more great comebacks? Then let’s go.

6. Tour de France, 1999

Lance Armstrong was already a cyclist of some note, having won stages at the Tour de France in 1993 and 1995 as well as the Flèche Wallonne one-day classic in 1996. However, a promising career seemed to have come to a premature end when, in October 2006, he was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer and given a less than 50:50 chance of survival.

Survive he did, however, and in 1998 he made his comeback on the professional racing circuit with a leaner physique more suited to the big stage races than previously. He announced his return with a fourth place finish at the Vuelta a España that year. But it was at the 1999 Tour where the full magnitude of Armstrong’s comeback was finally revealed. He won the initial prologue, benefitted from a major crash at the narrow Passage du Gois on stage two which distanced many of his rivals, then won back-to-back stages – the first individual time trial and a mountain finish at Sestrières – to cement his lead. After adding one further victory in the second time trial, the American ended with a mammoth 7:37 advantage over runner-up Alex Zülle to claim his first Tour title.

Armstrong would go on to win every Tour de France until his retirement in 2005 – a record seven in all – and finished third overall on his return in 2009, at the age of 37. He retired from international competition once again after last month’s Tour Down Under.

5. US Masters, 1996

Faldo's comeback was as stunning as Norman's collapse

At the start of the final round of the 1996 US Masters, it was largely expected that Australia’s Greg Norman would enjoy a four-hour stroll en route to receiving the green jacket traditionally awarded to the tournament winner every year. He had played superbly through the first three rounds, amassing a six-shot advantage over his nearest rival and final round playing partner, Nick Faldo.

However, golf is a particularly unforgiving sport, where the slightest chink in the armour can quickly widen into a yawning chasm, and where even the most talented and hard-boiled of competitors can collapse in the space of a couple of holes. As Faldo embarked on a remorseless round of 67 – the best performance on the day by any of the leading contenders – and started to eat into Norman’s lead, the Australian suddenly crumbled under the pressure. Dropped shots on the ninth, tenth and 11th were followed by a double bogey on the 12th after he found water. Faldo swept into the lead, eventually finishing five shots ahead of Norman who, despite carding a 78, clung on to second.

It was to be Faldo’s sixth and final major title, while Norman would never again achieve a top-two placing at one of golf’s grand slam events.

I should also mention the 1978 Masters, where Gary Player overturned a seven-shot deficit to Hubert Green on the final day after shooting an incredible 64 to win by one stroke. But Green shot a decent enough par 72 in the final round – as opposed to Norman’s 78 – and what makes the Faldo comeback particularly memorable is both the juxtaposition of Norman’s collapse and the fact the pair were playing together on the final day.

4. Liverpool vs Arsenal, Anfield, 1989

Us football fans, by nature, have a natural tendency towards paranoia. We feel the entire world – opposing teams, officials, neutral fans – is against us. Once in a blue moon, we are actually right.

May 26th 1989. Liverpool are a club in mourning after the tragic events of Hillsborough. Already FA Cup winners, they are now one match away from achieving the League and Cup double. Due to postponements in the immediate aftermath of Hillsborough, their final league match of the season is a one-off Friday night match. Ironically, it is against Arsenal, the only team which can deny them the double, with the Londoners needing to win by two clear goals at Anfield to overcome the collective desire of an entire nation.

The first half is goalless and dull. But early in the second period Arsenal’s Alan Smith scores with a glancing header, and the tension mounts. But it is still only 1-0 as the clock enters injury time at the end of the game. The season is all but over when Smith flicks on a long ball for Michael Thomas, who races through on goal – a moment immortalised by Brian Moore’s TV commentary:

Thomas, charging through the midfield. Thomas … It’s up for grabs now … Thomas! Right at the end! An unbelievable climax to the league season!

Arsenal and Liverpool finished the 38-game season level on both points and goal difference, with the London club winning the title by virtue of having scored more goals. Without Thomas’s 91st-minute strike, Liverpool would have been champions. It is the closest ever finish in the top flight of English football, and the only time the title has been decided in such unique circumstances: a one-off match between the two contenders, with no other teams playing on the same day.

Ironically, Michael Thomas would go on to score in another trophy-winning finale, the 1992 FA Cup final – for Liverpool.

In the final part of this series, I will reveal my top three sporting comebacks of all time. Can you guess what they are?

My top 12 sporting comebacks

Numbers 12-10

Numbers 9-7


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

2 Responses to Top 12 comebacks in sport (part 3 of 4)

  1. If I’m really honest, Tim, the Arsenal/Liverpool one isn’t really a comeback, is it? It’s definitely worth a post in your excellent blog, but it’s not in the same ballpark as Liverpool/Milan, Lance Armstrong (you could also cite his scramble across the ploughed field and the remount after being knocked off by a spectator’s bag), or Greg Norman/Nick Faldo…

    But as you’re a Gooner, and that day I remember clearly my room-mate from uni literally skipping down the street with joy after the match, I’ll let it go. This time. ;^)

    • Tim says:

      Technically you’re right, of course, Chris. However, according to my rules it’s absolutely fine. 😉

      Seriously, though, I’ve always thought of it as a comeback. Not in the context of the match itself, more in the context of the end of that season, because of the way we had binned a pretty much insurmountable lead in the title race within the space of a few days. I remember a thumping 5-0 win over Norwich on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday, after which we thought it was all over – and then we lost to Derby and drew at home to Wimbledon (one of the most depressing games I have ever been to) to open the door for Liverpool going into that final game. We were down, we were out, no one gave us a chance and everyone outside of the red and white half of North London wanted us to lose that night to fulfil Liverpool’s sense of destiny. Although the game itself was largely quite poor, I cannot remember another match to compare for sheer drama. Not even some of our games against West Brom …

      Ah, Lance’s great cyclo-cross miracle on the descent to Pau. And his equally miraculous win on Luz-Ardiden that same year. Great moments both. Naturally, I’ve covered the latter elsewhere already – it’s one of my favourite all-time sporting moments:

      I see that Lance has also now announced his retirement from all cycling. So no farewell at May’s Tour of California, then. Probably just as well. He was just along for the ride at the Tour Down Under – it was just one prolonged farewell tour, really.

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