Tipping Point: Being the butt of the joke an unenviable position for a sports star

Missing an open goal or simply your appearance can lead to ongoing public derision

Bobby Charlton is 84 today. The England World Cup winner and Manchester United icon will always be a revered sporting figure. He's not the only former footballer celebrating. Ronny Rosenthal turns 58 today. But it seems to be the ex-Liverpool striker's destiny to be best known as a punchline.

Internet search the Israeli and the reason why is first up. Liverpool against Aston Villa in 1992 and a miss so woeful it has come transcend any season. An agricultural hoof up the field deceives the Villa centre back. The goalkeeper then makes an ineffectual effort at covering and Rosenthal is left with an open goal. Somehow, inexplicably, he clatters the ball off the crossbar.

And for generations of football fans it is still THAT miss.

Any number of outrageous and ridiculous clangers have been dropped since, some by the best in the business. Ronaldo somehow scooped one over the bar from half a yard out during his first stint at Old Trafford. Fernando Torres had one particular howler in his Chelsea days. Bernardo Silva's recent miss for Manchester City against PSG was cringey too.


Yet it is ‘Rocket Ronny’ who has come to represent the benchmark for hapless ineptitude in front of goal.

Never mind that Rosenthal was a league champion with Liverpool. Or that he enjoyed subsequent successful spells with both Spurs and Watford as well as being a pioneering figure for football in his home country. It is as a figure of ridicule that he remains in the public consciousness whenever someone ‘does a Ronny’.

The man himself carries off the split-second that has come to define him with some aplomb. Now a successful talent scout he has said he is glad he missed because at least he gets remembered for something. If it smacks of beating everyone to the joke first it still makes for attractive self-depreciation and making the best of a bad lot.

Because it can be no fun being the joke. Becoming shorthand for mockery is an unenviable lot. There are sports figures who are loved and those who are hated. But even loathing comes from a strength of feeling that derision can’t be bothered amounting to. It’s why even now, over a decade and a half later, Eric Djemba-Djemba’s name is still a gag.

The Cameroonian was bought by Alex Ferguson to replace Roy Keane. With rumours of financial profligacy surrounding him the best Djemba-Djemba could do in two years at the Theatre of Dreams was an extra-time League Cup winner at Leeds. Ferguson couldn't move him on quick enough to Aston Villa.

Djemba-Djemba’s subsequent peripatetic career included stints at St Mirren in Scotland, Serbia, India and Indonesia. He’s 40 now and officially retired last month, a move that generated an inordinate number of ‘flop’ headlines that he gamely helped along with memories of him and Ronaldo back in the good old days.

A few quid changing hands does at least allow an element of being in on the ‘banter’. But others get left hanging very far out indeed.

The former British boxing champion Audley Harrison hauled his way from a young offender’s institute to Olympic glory in Sydney. When he turned pro a world heavyweight title looked his for the taking. It didn’t happen. The gap between amateur boxing and prize-fighting proved a gaping chasm. So much so that a viciously hurtful label stuck – ‘Fraudley’.

Even that is a loaded pun that Luke Chadwick might have settled for rather than the insults about his looks which for a brief period meant he became a grim national joke in Britain. The BBC's They Think It's All Over comedy show decided that Manchester United's emerging young star was funny looking. So they started piling in digs about his appearance. It became a thing.

Only much later did it emerge how much of an impact it had on the unfortunate figure of fun. Chadwick used to dread the programme and its weekly jibes. He admitted turning in on himself, becoming reluctant to leave his house as a national institution decided it was okay for a young man to be mocked in front of millions of viewers.

Some will argue that such scorn is part of the package of being a professional sportsperson, especially in the social media era, although it’s a weird logic that hardly applies to amateur GAA players faced with little option but to grin and bear it. It’s not like consigning figures to mockery doesn’t happen here.

Mention Stephen Staunton’s name even now and the first thing that comes to mind isn’t a trophy-laden club career or a stalwart of the best of international times for Ireland. It’s one word – gaffer. A single piece of football vernacular uttered in an authentic Dundalk accent got transformed into a smart-arse stick to beat Staunton’s credibility to a pulp.

Maybe he’s okay with it. Staunton never liked playing the media game anyway. But it’s not hard to imagine how the role of national laughing stock can be lonely and mortifying. One person’s zinger can turn into another’s pain and humiliation and sometimes seemingly without end.

Some cope better than others but it hardly requires outrageous empathy to recognise how being the butt of the joke is a singularly unenviable position in any walk of like, particularly when images of slip-ups never vanish and cater to an apparently insatiable appetite for a certain kind of embarrassment.

If you doubt that then search for Ronny Rosenthal’s goal for Israel against Azerbaijan in a 1994 Euro qualifier. Picking the ball up near his own penalty area he runs the length of the pitch, skins a few opponents, rounds the goalkeeper and passes it into the net with a cool precision that Bobby Charlton himself would have been proud of.

How it isn’t that goal but that miss which has stuck in the public consciousness says a lot.