The Greatest Comeback: Ian Botham’s 1981 Headingley heroics v Stuart Pearce’s penalty redemption

Ian Botham

Which moment gets your vote?

We’ve almost reached the semi-finals in our search to find the Greatest Comeback of all time, but who will progress?

In today’s quarter-final we have Ian Botham’s inspiring 1981 Ashes performance at Headingley, which beat Aldaniti and Bob Champion’s 1981 Grand National win to make it here.

That moment is up against Stuart Pearce’s memorable Euro 96 penalty, with the iconic, emotional celebration that showed just how much it meant to the man. Pearce’s penalty edged out Lasse Viren’s 10,000m Gold medal win in the 1972 Olympics to make it this far.

But only one of our contenders can reach the semi-final stage. Who will you choose?

Ian Botham’s Ashes – Headingley 1981

Ian Botham went into the 1981 Ashes as England’s captain. But by the third Test of the series he’d been stripped of that.

England’s record of one loss, one draw was deemed not good enough, while Botham scored just a pair in the first two Tests and saw himself replaced in the role by Mike Brearley.

For some people, even elite sportsman, that might strip them of their confidence, but not Botham.

Instead of collapsing, the batsman was reborn at Headingley, rising from the ashes (forgive the pun), to put on an all-round cricketing masterclass that changed the course of the seemingly doomed series.

In Australia’s first innings, he bowled six for 95, before claiming a half-century at the crease for England. Despite that, England’s score of 227 meant they would have to follow-on from Australia, who had declared for 401.

In other words, England were up against it. But Botham was up for the challenge. With England sat on 105 for five, staring at an innings defeat, Botham scored a stunning 149 not out.

Inspired by Botham’s heroics, England dismissed Australia for 111, with a target of just 130. In doing so, they became just the second team in Test Match history to win when following-on.

With momentum on their side, England went on to claim the fourth and fifth Tests, retaining the Ashes in the process.

Showing just how big an impact the English all-rounder had, the 1981 series is usually referred to as ‘Ian Botham’s Ashes’.

Stuart Pearce’s penalty at Euro ‘96

Italia ’90 is not short of iconic moments – from Gascoigne’s tears and Roger Milla’s corner-flag shuffle, to Maradona’s magical performance in Naples.

But for England fans, the moment when it all came crashing down was perhaps the most memorable moment of all.

Facing West Germany in the semi-final, the game went to penalties and England were unable to overcome their opponents.

First, Stuart Pearce hit keeper Bodo Illgner’s legs with his effort straight down the middle before Chris Waddle blasted over. It was to be Waddle’s last tournament appearance.

Pearce, on the other hand, got a chance at redemption. Drafted into England’s first-11 in Euro ‘96 by virtue of a Graeme Le Saux injury, the 34-year-old ‘Psycho’ had a second chance.

After a memorable group stage, where England had beaten Scotland and thrashed Holland (after an admittedly forgettable draw with Switzerland), they faced Spain in the quarter-final.

The game remained at a stalemate throughout 90 minutes and extra-time, meaning England’s fate would once more be decided via penalty-shoot-out.

With both Alan Shearer and David Platt scoring and Spain’s Fernando Hierro failing to convert, the third England penalty was crucial.

Up stepped Pearce, crashing the ball past Spanish goalkeeper Andoni Zubizaretta, screaming in celebration as he laid his demons to rest in front of an ecstatic Wembley Stadium.

In terms of sporting achievement, scoring a penalty may not match others in this competition.

But in knowing what it feels like to fail, then stepping up anyway and succeeding, Pearce struck an emotional chord with the nation. His penalty remains an iconic, inspiring comeback moment.

Cast your vote

Two English sporting legends meet here. But only one of them can make it into the final four. Who will it be? Make your choice in our Twitter poll.

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