Devon Loch

The first thing to say is that Devon Loch was, of course, a steeplechaser owned by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, so the ‘nearly man’ should, strictly speaking, be his jockey, Richard ‘Dick’ Francis. However, while Devon Loch was, undoubtedly, the unluckiest Grand National loser in history, on the fateful day in March, 1956, when he collapsed within sight of the winning post, Francis was little more than a disconsolate passenger.

Indeed, Francis, who had been Champion Jockey in 1953/54, had safely negotiated all 30 Grand National fences but, inexplicably, with the race at his mercy, Devon Loch fly-jumped into the air and belly-flopped, unceremoniously, to the ground. His nearest pursuer, ESB, ridden by Dave Dick, galloped past to win by ten lengths. Dick later confessed to being a ‘terribly lucky winner’.

Countless theories, none of which are altogether convincing, have been put forward for what happened to Devon Loch. Devon Loch did prick his ears approaching the wings of the Water Jump, which is bypassed on the second circuit, lending some credence to the theory that he was simply overwhelmed by the crescendo of crowd noise. Had he completed the race, he may well have broken the course record, so out-and-out exhaustion, latent circulatory problems and a condition technically known as ‘equine rhabdomyolysis’, or ‘setfast’, are other possibilities.

Granted that Devon Loch collapsed from the back, but appeared unhurt afterwards, Francis was in favour of the latter condition, which causes tightening of the muscles in the hind quarters. It is interesting to note that Devon Loch had, in fact, done the same thing before, sprawling in full flight during a racecourse gallop at Navan on his last piece of work before moving to England in 1951. Whatever happened, his hind quarters temporarily seized, leaving Francis with no option but to dismount and walk away.

Colin Jackson

Born in Cardiff in 1967, Colin Jackson enjoyed a long, illustrious career during which he was a force majeure in the 110-metre hurdling division, outdoors, and the 60-metre hurdling division, indoors. Outdoors, he was world champion twice, in Stuttgart, Germany in 1993 and in Seville, Spain in 1999 and, indoors, world champion once, in Maebashi, Japan in 1999. Indeed, when winning the gold medal at the 1993 World Championships, Jackson set a new world record, 12.91 seconds, which would not be equalled until 2004 and not beaten until 2006. The following year, in Sindelfingen, Germany, he also set a new indoor world record for the 60-metres hurdles, 7.30 seconds, which was not beaten until 2021.

Of course, Jackson was also a multiple European and Commonwealth champion, so to say that he ‘underchieved’ during his athletics career does him a huge injustice. However, the fact remains that he competed at four consecutive Summer Olympic Games, but came away with a medal – and only a silver medal, at that – once. The closest Jackson came to winning Olympic gold was in Seoul, South Korea in 1988, when he finished runner-up to defending champion Roger Kingdom, although Kingdom ran 12.98 seconds to win by three metres.

Jackson tried again in Barcelona in 1992 but, having won his heat in a time of 13.10 seconds and finished second to eventual gold medallist Mark McKoy in his semi-final in a time of 13.19 seconds, was only seventh in the final in a time of 13.46 seconds. He fared a little better in Atlanta in 1996; his time in the final, 13.19 seconds, was no match for the new Olympic record, 12.95 seconds, set by by gold medallist Allen Johnson, but missed the bronze medal by an agonising 0.02 seconds. Jackson made his final attempt, at the age of 33, in Sydney in 2000, finishing fifth in 13.28 seconds.

Newcastle United

Newcastle United Football Club was promoted to the Premier League at the end of the 1992/93 season, having won Football League Division 1. The Magpies have never won what is now the top tier of English football, but finished runner-up in 1995/96 and 1996/97, behind Manchester United on both occasions.

The closest Newcastle United has come to winning the Premier League was in 1995/96, when it surrendered a 12-point lead with 15 matches of the season remaining. Following a 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers at St. James’ Park on January 20, 1996, Newcastle faltered, losing five of their next ten matches, including a 1-0 home defeat by Manchester United, which left the team playing ‘catch up’ against their resurgent rivals.

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, the commander-in-chief of psychological warfare, fanned the flames by questioning the commitment of teams such as Leeds United and Nottingham Forest against Newcastle United. Incensed, Magpies’ manager Kevin Keegan created an infamous moment in Premier League history when, following a 1-0 victory over Leeds United in April, 1996, he vented his spleen live on Sky Sports TV. He said, ‘…you can tell him [Ferguson] now if you’re watching it, we’re still fighting for this title, and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something, and, and, I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them, love it!’

In truth, Keegan need not have bothered. Newcastle United dropped points in both their remaining matches, against Nottingham Forest and Tottenham Hotspur, while Manchester United beat Middlesbrough 3-0, courtesy of goals from David May, Andrew Cole and Ryan Giggs, to win the Premier League by four points. Newcastle United, nevertheless, achieved its highest finishing position since winning Football League Division 1 in 1926/27.

Richard Johnson

According to one dictionary definition, a ‘nearly man’ is ‘a man who fails to achieve the success or status that he might potentially have had’. It may seem ludicrous to suggest that Richard Johnson, who retired in April, 2021 as the second most prolific National Hunt jockey in history, failed to fulfil his potential, but he would certainly have fared better had he not been a direct contemporary of Sir Anthony McCoy. In his first season riding in Britain, 1994/95, McCoy was Champion Conditional Jockey and, thereafter, was perennial Champion Jockey until his retirement in April, 2015, racking up a career total of 4,348 National Hunt winners in Britain and Ireland.

Johnson, for his part, rode just 3,818 National Hunt winners in Britain and Ireland, but was runner-up in the National Hunt Jockeys’ Championship in 16 of the 20 seasons in which McCoy won the jockeys’ title. Following the retirement of his arch rival, Johnson finally received the recognition his talent and determination deserved, becoming Champion Jockey in his own right four seasons running between 2015/16 and 2018/19. In a case of old habits dying hard, he also finished runner-up, again, behind Brian Hughes in his penultimate season, in 2019/20. Without McCoy in opposition, it’s really anyone’s guess how many times Johnson might have been Champion Jockey.

At the Cheltenham Festival, Johnson rode a total of 22 winners, winning the Stayers’ Hurdle on Anzum in 1999, Queen Mother Champion Chase on Flagship Uberalles in 2002, Champion Hurdle on Rooster Booster in 2003 and Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, on Looks Like Trouble in 2000 and Native River in 2018. The one race in which Johnson really was a ‘nearly man’ was the Grand National. He rode in the Aintree showpiece a record 21 times without success, finishing second on What’s Up Boys in 2002 and Balthazar King in 2014, but never better.