The Nick Townsend Column: Post haste: this uneasy rider is proof of the perils of premature celebration

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The Independent Online

It was truly one of those car-crash TV moments. As much as you attempted to avert your gaze your eyes were unable to deflect from the scene unfolding before you.

It was not merely that the Irish jockey Roger Loughran, newly turned professional, mistook the winning post at the conclusion of a major race at Leopardstown on Tuesday; it was more the fact that he did so by making such a horrendous spectacle of himself, standing up in the saddle and punching the air with his whip hand, while Andrew McNamara and Tony McCoy on their respective mounts toiled past him to claim first and second places.

Sympathy and horror preceded amusement at his plight. This was public humiliation on a scale more epic than Ben Hur.

As they say, to err is human; to forgive, well, that is damnably difficult on such occasions. But the commendably restrained trainer, Dessie Hughes, refused to diminish his jockey further than the foot tall to which Loughran had already descended. "I feel sorry for him because the horse has run the best race in his life and it would destroy the boy if he didn't ride him again," said Hughes. "There isn't a man who hasn't made a mistake in his life."

Yet the principal lesson from that episode, as we enter a 2006 replete with footballing, cricketing and golfing promise, is the peril inherent in premature celebration. There is a surfeit of it about, notably from the England football team and their followers, guilty of spending the prize before they have won the lottery.

Such sentiments as "we can beat Brazil in the final" may turn out to be extraordinarily prescient, and be followed by young Wayne Rooney duly claiming the BBC's Sports Personality award. But one suspects that, though the completion of an England sporting hat-trick in Berlin on 9 July - following the Rugby World Cup and Ashes triumphs - would be awfully neat, it is highly unlikely.

England expects. But rather too much. England simply doesn't do favouritism terribly well. On the contrary, as Martin Johnson's and Michael Vaughan's men demonstrated - and we could throw in Liverpool's Champions' League victory and London's 2012 campaign as well - they perform all the better unencumbered by such well-meaning but weighty anticipation.

That adventure in Germany could be incorporated into a board game entitled Jeopardy. If the England counter lands on any of the following, they lose points: Rooney out injured (lose 25pts); any of Paul Robinson, John Terry, Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard out injured (5pts); Rooney sees red (15pts); David Beckham sees red (5pts, but gain 10pts with the replacement of Beckham as captain); manager Sven Goran Eriksson can't see the correct personnel or formation (20pts); Eriksson can't see the correct substitution - beyond bringing on Owen Hargreaves (15pts).

If the dice drops fortuitously, Eriksson's men could well land on treasure island. The problem is that there remain too many ways for them to tumble into the abyss. The challenge ahead will almost certainly be rather more daunting than many would have us imagine.

The same may be said of their cricketing counterparts, who have something to justify too: shouldn't those New Year Honours thrust at Vaughan's men have come with the caveat that they are required to retain sport's most diminutive trophy on alien territory come November and December?

And any of the English representatives among Europe's Ryder Cup team who imagine that, on the home greens of Ireland's K Club, it may be mission readily accomplished, will face a Tiger Woods who may well by then have improved on his majors tally of 10, and be in the mood to prove that he really is a team man. It must be a closer call than the most recent renewal in the United States' own backyard.

This is not intended to be a depressant on this of all mornings, when hope soars on the wing. Just a suggestion that some rationale and a gentle massage of the mind may help remind we observers that sport is rarely as obliging as we would like, and that victory comes to he who invests his best endeavours in capturing the prize; not he who has thoughts only of which sideboard he will parade it on. The not-so-jolly Roger Loughran episode will affirm that.

Teams asked to go to Hal and back

So, it's all Sven's fault. Or at least partly. His desire that his England squad should perform on as level a playing field as their opponents before this summer's World Cup, with four clear weeks' preparation, is responsible for the past week's fixture débâcle.

That was implicit in the Premier League's explanation for the congested Christmas schedule: having to "squeeze in an extra game" to accommodate Eriksson's pre-Germany 2006 plans. Yet weren't the real causes, in no particular order, the vagaries of the English weather, the failure of undersoil heating systems, and a fixture computer as malign as Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which produced Newcastle United v Charlton?

It's the last factor that is of greatest concern throughout the divisions. There used to be local derbies, played before massive crowds at public holiday times. Now the Premier League says: sorry, not enough local derbies to go round. Even if that's true, how about reasonably local matches? And what about the lower divisions? Torquay completed a 13-hour round trip to Stockport on Wednesday (after arriving there to find the match called off). Tomorrow, they are due to play at Darlington.

Some people have called for a winter break. Torquay's evidently consists of a two-day sightseeing tour of central, north and north-east England.

Mind your language barrier, Harry

This being a time for resolutions, here are three from this observer, though somehow it is doubtful whether they will last longer than tomorrow's football fixtures.

I will cease to be astounded by any of Harry Redknapp's pronouncements. Even his latest observations on the language problems supposedly created by his predecessor Alain Perrin's acquisitions. Can this possibly be that trafficker supreme of players, a man who revealed during his previous Pompey regime: "I left a couple of my foreigners out last week and they started talking in foreign. I knew they were saying, 'Blah, blah, blah. Le bastard manager'... I'd take them to the army camp for pre-season, and my Serb player would shoot my Croatian and my Russian would be spying on everybody."

I will make a genuine attempt to buy all those arguments for the use of video technology. It will be pretty tough going, though. Chris Coleman and Alan Curbishley were at it last week, the former claiming that "it's nuts that referees do not get more help to clear things up". Sorry for agreeing with Sepp Blatter, but how about the gaffers' union "helping refs" by giving them a break?

Finally, I really will endeavour to comprehend the popular view that Liverpool's football is a work of great beauty and that Chelsea only "win ugly". Happy New Year.

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