At some stage in the season, failure is going to stare you in the face

Millwall’s Eamon Dunphy (left) and Middlesbrough’s George Kinnell go up for the ball, 27th Oct 1973
Photo: PA Images / Alamy

Originally, Eamon Dunphy had set out to document a full year in the life of a professional footballer. However, fate had different plans, and four months into the 1973/4 season he left Millwall to sign for Charlton Athletic, thereby cutting his diary short. The result was an engrossing look into the complexities and pressures of professional football, captured during a particularly transformative time in his life. Born in Dublin in 1945, Dunphy would later transition from the pitch to the pen, establishing himself as one of the most outspoken and thought-provoking media personalities in Ireland and the UK. The following entry came in September of 1973, four games into the season and with his team yet to win.

The Diary Entry

14 September 

Overall there has been a very strange mood at the club. An acquiescence somehow. The Dennis [Burnett] thing is strange. He is a key player and he has got a bruised toe. Tomorrow he will have missed three games with that bruised toe. There is a curious acceptance of it by Benny [Fenton, the club manager]. Whereas normally he pushes a player to get fit and may even play him if he is not completely fit, he has not pushed Dennis. At least not overtly. And Dennis has not seemed particularly keen to get fit. Maybe I am misjudging the situation, but it seems part of the general atmosphere this week that there has been a lack of dynamic activity. Everyone is curiously flat. 

It may have been relief. When you have a situation like ours, not winning any of our first four games, there is a kind of relief that the pressure is off somewhat. Your fate is sealed. You feel that things are not going to work out, and people tend to accept it and say ‘Ah well, that takes some pressure off, and if we don’t win, well, we don’t win and what the hell?’ 

In that kind of situation you need a good leader, a good manager to come out and rekindle the flame. You need someone to keep you going, because it is tempting to slip back into the old acceptance of mid-way results. That is what most teams do at this time of year. You go hard for the first month, and you are still in your dreams, and you can see a possibility for success. 

But the problem with that is that it puts you under pressure, because it makes every game vital. It makes everything you do vital. It is really nice to be in a position where you can achieve something. But it has its pressures. And then there is the old thing of being afraid of success. Lots of sportsmen are afraid of success because they cannot cope with the pressures it brings. They do not welcome it. At the first sign of failure they accept it with almost a sense of relief. They are going to settle down to mediocrity, there are going to be no pressures and they can indulge themselves. 

And this is the difference between teams that achieve something, great teams, and teams that do not. It is the difference between players that achieve things and players who do not; managers who achieve things and managers who do not. At some stage in the season, failure is going to stare you in the face. Even with a team like Arsenal when they did the double. At some stage that year they lost 5-0 away from home. 

It is the way you react to defeat, or to the signs of failure when they come, that determines everything. What Arsenal did was to come to grips with that defeat. They reasserted their desire to succeed; they went out and did not lose a game for about the next ten. They did not succumb to the temptation of opting out.

Further Reading

Eamon Dunphy’s diary was first published in 1976 by Kestrel Books, edited by Peter Ball and titled, Only a Game? The Diary of a Professional Footballer. The book has plenty of notable fans, including Nick Hornby who said it was “the best book about football I have read by someone who has actually played the game… everyone who has ever dreamt of a sporting career should read it.”


Diary entry excerpted from Only a Game? by Eamon Dunphy. Copyright © Eamon Dunphy and Peter Ball, 1976. Reprinted by kind permission of Eamon Dunphy.

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