Football: The art of perfect timing lies at the heart of games

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The Independent Online
I SUPPOSE the theory behind it would approximate to that of the roomful of monkeys eventually typing "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" - or, "summer's dag", ha ha. Whatever, there was a moment in my unremarkable sporting career when I did something absolutely perfectly.

It occurred during a football match for my college, when I connected effortlessly with the ball 25 yards from goal and the dear sweet thing flew into the far corner of the net like an obedient pigeon.

Goals, especially goals like that, were a rarity for me, and my instinctive reaction was one of distrust. For a second, I awaited the referee's intervention with a reason why I had not, in fact, scored. Forward standing offside, play already halted to allow an injured player to leave the field - that sort of thing.

But no. Everybody was heading back towards the centre of the pitch. One- nil it was, then.

I suspect anyone who pursues any sport at any level has similar moments to cherish - when the ball flew off the middle of the racket and raised chalk; when the long putt on the 18th found its destination, unerringly; when the final black was drilled into the corner pocket.

Perhaps, at such times of outrageously good sporting fortune, everyone feels inclined towards disbelief. The facts take a moment to settle in the mind.

The last time I experienced this strange disconnection was when Michael Owen scored that goal against Argentina. You will recall the occasion.

As the ball came to rest in the South Americans' net, I found myself- doubting the evidence of my own eyes. So - let's just recap here. Owen had picked the ball up, held off one man, rounded another, and smashed home a shot like something out of Roy of the Rovers? And he was 18. And it was very, very important. Too good to be true, or allowed, surely? But no. Two-one it was.

Somewhere in the heart of these sporting epiphanies lies timing. Athletes - usually of the American persuasion - like to talk about being "in the zone", the area where their mind and body are in perfect harmony with the task they are attempting to complete. On such occasions, they operate on automatic pilot - and the timing is automatic too.

Did Owen notice Paul Scholes loitering in what would have been, theoretically, a better shooting position? If he did, it didn't matter.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man - and destiny was calling.

For Tony Jarrett, the high hurdler who has had the misfortune to be operating in the same era as fellow Briton and world record holder Colin Jackson, destiny has been calling for years. And years. And years.

And this year, his golden moment finally arrived. Jackson's decision not to defend his Commonwealth title in Kuala Lumpur opened the way for the man who had had more than his fair share of silver and bronze. Destiny was no longer calling - it was bellowing in his ear.

Jarrett's challenge at the last Olympics ended ignominiously when he fell over a hurdle in the quarter-finals. As the finishing line loomed in the Commonwealth final, he lost his footing again as he strained to stay ahead of the field, finishing his effort with a spectacular forward roll that left him spreadeagled on the track, uncertain whether he had won or not.

On this occasion, thankfully, the fall had been timed perfectly. It was gold, at last. And as he stood on the podium watching the replay of his effort on the giant screen, Jarrett could afford to let his face break into a grin so huge that he could not entirely hide it with his hand.

Earlier that day, in a venue no more than quarter of a mile from the athletics stadium, another sporting final had turned on a crucial moment.

England's squash doubles pairing of Paul Johnson and Mark Chaloner were beginning to flag after taking an early lead against the Australian pairing of Byron Davis and the wily old world champion, Rodney Eyles.

As the Aussies began to regroup and close the gap, play was suddenly suspended as a number of suited dignitaries entered the arena and seated themselves in the front row. The Duke of Edinburgh had arrived.

When play resumed, the snap seemed to have gone out of the Australian pair, who fell away steeply and went on to lose in straight sets. The significance of the royal intervention was well marked by Chaloner. "Damn fine timing by the old boy," he remarked with the hint of a grin.

As for my own moment of inspired intervention - it came in a match that was abandoned at half-time because of a dispute over the quality of the referee.

Both teams were subsequently suspended from the league, and the match was declared null and void. So I had not, in fact, scored. Timing - the key to it all.