What if?

One of the many attractions of sport is the endless possibilities for discussions post events beginning with the word “if.” The beauty of such arguments are that they are all hypothetical, so no-one can be proven wrong !

In the wake of the greatest Melbourne Cup of my lifetime, one of the fascinating post-race events has been the discussion about Craig Williams. The frequently made observation that his suspension robbed him of an unprecedented Caulfield Cup-Cox Plate- Melbourne Cup treble in the same year is yet another recent example of questionable logic and sporting reductionism.

Notwithstanding Williams’ considerable talent and hot run of form, can anyone really be confident that a horse who won by an eyelash with a jockey who changed whip hands a couple of times in the straight, would have won with a different pilot ? You don’t have to have seen Sliding Doors or Run Lola Run to know that each event impacts on subsequent events. Dunaden might have won with Williams and he might not have.

This discussion follows a couple of recent examples close to my heart in the AFL. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that the 2010 premiership eluded St. Kilda on the bounce of a ball away from Stephen Milne. Really ? There was a minute and a half to go when the ball bounced through for a point to level scores. While being in front at that time is obviously the preferred position, the ball going back to the centre after a goal with that amount of time remaining means that there were a lot of possibilities which could have eventuated. Really.

I know that my Collingwood loyalties will mean that some readers will suggest that this is part of my post GF-loss grumpiness and that I should get a life. Possibly, but my next example of sporting reductionism supports my neutrality, at least in this argument.

We’ve all heard many times that the Pies would have destroyed Port in 2007 if they had managed to sneak past the Cats in the preliminary. Really ? Not only had we been through a gruelling final against the Cats, but had been to Perth and played extra time the week before, and Buckley and Rocca both wouldn’t have played in a GF due to injury. When you add the fact that Port had beaten us at the G earlier in that season, I think that the hypothetical GF could easily have gone either way, notwithstanding Port’s insipid effort against the Cats.

I am not arguing for the cessation of passionate, strong and often illogical discussion of sport – the hypotheticals are endlessly fascinating and part of the lure. What I am advocating is maintaining an ability to see other possibilities and perspectives at the expense of misplaced and illogical certainty. I know that it’s a big ask, but wouldn’t the world be a better place if our political and corporate leaders could do so ?

I’m interested in others’ thoughts and examples.

Now, what would have happened if the boundary umpire had have called the Harmes ball “out of bounds” in 1979 ?


  1. We are all different, yet we are the same. I started writing my own “sliding doors” article for the Almanac a couple of days ago, though my inspiration was the retirement of Ottens.

    What if the Cats had not released Moloney for him? What if he did not play so well in the 2007 preliminary final? Would Geelong have gone on to be as successful as it has been or would they have been engulfed by ghosts of the past?

    What would it have done to the culture of the Cats if they lost the 2007 Prelim and then got done as they did in the 2008 GF.

    I also wonder what would have happened if they’d won the 1989 GF. Would that have resulted in more premierships for the Cats?

  2. I thought Pat Rafter had Sampras in the 2000 Wimbledon final until there was a rain delay. Rafter is one of my all time favourites and he deserved to win Wimbledon. It would have taken him from very good to great.

  3. Steve this taps into what some call the ‘uchronic’ imagination.For us Pie fans we can delete the U.

    Aside from the voluminous Collingwood list, there are many other nobles. One that comes to mind is Bradman’s last innings.

  4. Steve Fahey says

    Thanks Phil

    I have added one word to my vocabulary and will use it liberally !!

  5. Dave Nadel says

    One of the great Magpie “what ifs” even pre-dates Wayne Harmes and the blind boundary umpire that you referred to, Steve,

    I heard an interview with Bob Rose many years ago in which he said that Collingwood could have recruited Phil Carman as a teenager (he was zoned to us) if the then Committee had been prepared to pay him a little more money. The committee at the time wasn’t even prepared to pay a reasonable amount to proven stars like Tuddy and Thommo. So the young Carman went to Norwood where his ego was pumped to gigantic proportions as often seemed to happen to South Australian players at the time.

    According to Rose, by the time Fabulous Phil arrived at Collingwood in the mid seventies, he had such an inflated sense of his own importance that he was uncoachable and largely failed to live up to his huge potential after 1976. Imagine if he had arrived at Collingwood in 1970 as more humble young teenager from the bush and had become the sort of team player most of Rose’s players were. We might have won at least one flag between 1970 and 1981!

  6. Great Reflection! I think the ‘what-ifs’ are inescapable but you’re right, can’t be taken too literally. I think they are how we men talk about our pain. We don’t say, I’m still really hurting about the 2003 loss, we just go on about Rocca’s report (no worse than Big Bad Barrys, by-the-way) or Brisbane 10% salary cap advantage. Its the pain of loss and injustice. Cheers!

  7. Skip of Skipton says

    What if Lee and Kasprowicz had got those three more runs needed at Edgbaston in 2005? Would the Poms have regrouped to take the Ashes after being 2-0 down? Not likely.

  8. Skip,

    Kasper was clearly caught off the arm above the elbow.

    Was the umpire related to the boundary umpire in the ’79 Grand Final?

    There could be a conspiracy here with most people accepting that Carlton are ‘the Poms” of Australian football.

  9. Steve – This is exactly what I enjoy about footy and sport; the endless what ifs. Its for this very reason that I’m opposed to the introduction of technology into goal umpiring decisions in footy and why I’m opposed to it in cricket. If sport reflects life then it needs the great uncertainties.

    And where do we stop with technology? Its a slippery slope.

    We should embrace the what ifs, the uncertainties, and the human frailties otherwise sport simply becomes another episode of Better Homes and Gardens.

  10. What if Razor Ray had been umpiring in the 2005 GF? He would have found five free kicks in the Leo Barry marking contest!

  11. Skip,
    In a similar vein, what if McGrath had not trodden on that cricket ball at practice?

  12. Nice one Mark.

  13. Ben Footner says

    There’s a book in this. “What if? Moments that changed the course of sporting history”. I’d read that!

  14. Ripsnorter says

    Ablett hadn’t left Hawthorn – they would have won every flag from 1983 until 1995 ( conservative estimate )

  15. pamela sherpa says

    And then, what if Gary junior had played for Hawthorn?

  16. FYI, there was an American parallel of sorts to what happened in the Melbourne Cup. Going into this year’s Kentucky Derby, Robby Albarado was the regular rider for Animal Kingdom. But on that Wednesday, Albarado was thrown from a horse during the post parade, landing face first and sustaining a broken nose and some cuts and bruises.
    Albarado didn’t ride Wednesday and took off Thursday and Friday so he’d be fine for the Derby. But when Albarado asked off his Friday mounts, Animal Kingdom’s connections worried that he wouldn’t recover in time and replaced him with John Velazquez, who then on Saturday rode Animal Kingdom to the victory.
    Velazquez was available because his mount, the favored Uncle Mo, was found to be ill and scratched Friday. Besides the lack of fame, the jockey’s cut of the purse was $141,180. Of course, no one knows if Animal Kingdom would have won with Albarado aboard. It was Velazquez’s first Derby win; Albarado has never won.
    Interestingly, Kentucky racing instituted a new rule just a week or two ago that addresses the monetary issue. From now on, if a rider is removed from his mount because of injury sustained riding, he or she is entitled to the same purse split that his replacement rider wins. Until now, all Albarado was entitled to was $500, the mount fee. But happily, after the race, Velazquez gave Albarado a share of his winnings (we don’t know how much; maybe $25-30,000), and owner Barry Irwin promptly matched it.

  17. Steve Fahey says

    Jon Pierik in today’s Age wrote that ” a fickle bounce…denied Stephen Milne what could have been a winning goal.”

    One small step for my philosophising !!

  18. In the ‘what if’ stakes Prelim Finals have produced some absolute rippers.

    Frinst, how about the piteous caterwauling from Footscray fans who still can’t quite forgive the cruel fates, or Brad Hardie, for denying them their rightful 1985 Premiership, theirs for the taking with only an Essendon side they had well the measure of standing in their way. Just Two Kicks, yada yada yada, that bloody clueless fat clown Hardie, blah blah blah. For a start, that Just Two Kicks was Just 28 Points with Just Two Minutes left on the clock, and no small part in the drama keeping the game even that close was played by the abovementioned BUFC. And then there is the small matter of their Grand Final opponent, who had dominated the year losing only three games, one (not both, Garry Linnell) to Footscray and that in the first month of the season, at the Western Oval. In the return game, Essendon had led by 10 goals late in the third before coasting to a 24-point win. The smart money, and most of the downright thick money, would still have been on the Dons methinks.

    Then there was Melbourne in 1987. Hawthorn couldn’t handle the heat, the extra game, the missing key players, or Carlton’s red-hot motivation, but Melbourne, with the same program and less finals experience, would have. We saw how expert Melbourne were at real finals pressure football in that last quarter. And from that side, take out the injured Flower (and with him much of the hot air and momentum of that finals campaign), and Wilson. (And while I’m in a pedantic mood, Hawthorn didn’t kick into the wind in the first three quarters, but in the first, second and last – which makes their comeback even better. There was only one wind change.) Regardless, Carlton, Mots and Dessie had that flag in the bag.

    Tha’ll do for now. Next time I’m on: 1993, Adelaide and hype….

  19. Steve, I’d like to invoke ‘Groundhog Day’ for my “what-if”. Considering that the Hawks haven’t beaten the Cats since that beautiful late September day in 2008 but have come close on a number of occassions I’d like to see one game (or at least one period of time of one game) replayed until the Hawks figure out how to win it. The game I’m refering to happened in 2009 in Round 17, more commonly known as Rivalry Round. The Hawks were up by about 30 points in the last quarter. During the course of the last 20 minutes of what had been a ripper re-match the Cats clawed their way back into contention. Now I don’t want the last quater replayed endlessly I just want the time from Rooke’s goal, on to when the ball sails into Bartel’s super glue like grip deep in the forward pocket repeated until the Hawks man up in defence (hello Murphy) and don’t fall to pieces going forward (hello, Kennedy). A Hawks win may well have shut down the extended run of wins the Cats have now achieved over the Hawks.


Leave a Comment