Aching pain is scant reward for being second best

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The Independent Online
"First is first; second is nowhere". That oft-repeated mantra, originated by whom I don't recall, comes hurtling back to mind as the season's prize-giving month wears on and Arsenal's first-team trophy cabinet is left undisturbed.

"First is first; second is nowhere". That oft-repeated mantra, originated by whom I don't recall, comes hurtling back to mind as the season's prize-giving month wears on and Arsenal's first-team trophy cabinet is left undisturbed.

Since a similar stage last season, Arsène Wenger's side have managed to finish as runners-up in one Uefa Cup, one FA Cup and two Premierships. Highbury is awash with silver medals. The sock drawers of star players scattered over north London and Hertfordshire are choc-a-bloc with proof that they currently perform for the second best club in the land. Arsenal are the undis-puted No 2... and they don't much like it.

It's an odd sort of pain that must accompany the runners-up position. On the one hand, in Cardiff last Saturday, Arsenal paraded the fact that, of more than 600 teams who entered the Cup, they were one of the outstanding two. That ought to be cause for pride. On the other, their failure to be the very best left them with a collective face as long as the M4.

At the same venue, a few weeks earlier, Port Vale came from behind to defeat Brentford (in much the same way as Liverpool turned round Saturday's match) and lifted the LDV Vans Trophy. How they cavorted with joy. Yet, all the Vale players had proved was that, of the teams ranked beneath 45 in the national pecking order, they were the most adept in a series of knock-out matches. Their medals are no recommendations of excellence, but merely evidence of a happy day out. They are light years short of being the nation's second best, but the happiness they derived from that was huge.

Even allowing for the pursuit of high-level excellence that professionalism demands, it's a pretty harsh world if coming second is considered out-and-out failure. Taken to its extremes, that means that only Manchester United have cause to feel total satisfaction at the just-finishing domestic season. Ipswich may have over-achieved alarmingly, but they're still on the everlasting journey towards greatness. By next Monday, 10 professional clubs will have won promotion; each one of them is now saddled with the question, "Are we good enough for the next level?"

Indeed, even Manchester United no longer allow themselves to be content with home domination. Conquering England is merely something they routinely do on the way to taking on the whole of Europe. So, while Bayern Munich or Real Madrid block their path, there can be no easing up at Old Trafford. United have touched Utopia too recently to settle for "pretty good".

Presumably, it's all about the setting of realistic targets. I have a three-week-old son (which accounts for the fact that I'm writing this at 5.30am) of whom, should he become the second best at anything within the law, I will be extremely proud. On reaching second best, however, I would be hugely disappointed if he didn't have a decent crack at overhauling the person ahead of him.

It's a dangerously depressing business, however, if we consider that "not winning" equates to failure. That means that Gordon Brown's family would be disappointed in him for "only" becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer; William Hague's ­ pending the forthcoming election ­ for "only" being Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition; George Burley's for "only" taking his fine, friendly little Ipswich team into the top five of the Premiership. These are all high achievers with reason to feel pride; yet none of them has yet snaffled first prize.

The great Leeds United team of the early 1970s got to be called "great" despite, to a large extent, frustrating itself with a series of second places. Perhaps, for the runners-up of today, there is some solace in their tale. Maybe there comes a point when the aggregate of so many consolation prizes demands recognition comparable with winners.

Probably what most hurts the runners-up, however, is the proximity of the really big prize; the vivid awareness that it could so easily have been theirs. Arsenal were so close to winning the FA Cup on Saturday that their fingers might have been twitching to touch the trophy; that twitch went achingly unanswered. By contrast, when they capitulated at home to Middlesbrough last month, confirming United's long-anticipated title, it elicited little more than a shrug of the Wenger shoulders; he had felt the pain in November, he said, when it was close and United began to pull away. There's nothing much more hurtful in sport than "so near and yet so far".

Sometimes, it seems that drifting satisfactorily by is preferable to aiming high and just missing. Southampton, for instance, were never going to win the League. But no one's on their back. They feel no pain.

Arsenal keep going for it... and just missing. It's surely wrong to judge them harshly for that.

Peter Drury is an ITV sports commentator

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