The best goals are those that have context
While this piece, more general than usual, is not strictly to do with Manchester United, there are more than a few references to the club and its past and the overriding feelings of the write-up is one that’ll surely resonate more with United fans than others. It is appropriate and topical, though not quite anything to do with the side this season and the title race, rather in reaction to the Premier League’s sudden ‘look at me’ celebrations, looking back nostalgically at the best of the League since it started back in 1992; players, managers, even quotes. And goals.
The problem with Goals of the Month/Year lists is this: they’re mostly a bunch of good goals that we’ve seen before, scored by a different player, in a different game. You can still admire a good goal; but unless it has significance, you support the team or, at least, admire the player who scored it, you’ll quickly forget it. Paul Scholes might have scored the same goal twice every season from outside the penalty area for a decade but it is satisfying for those, Manchester United fans in other words, who hold him in affection, allowing for a moment of nostalgia; for every one else, it’s a bit, you know, the same thing as the other day.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final was straightforward — if he had scored that against Wimbledon in a comfortable 3-0 win in 1996, few would care or even remember now, of course. But it wasn’t; the goal not only sealed an unprecedented Treble for Alex Ferguson’s side, but capped off a late fightback in stoppage time which saw two goals in as many minutes. Its context meant that it found its way somewhere on ITV’s Top 50 Champions League goals of all time. Some, from memory, protested (on the internet at least) the decision to include it at all because it was no wonder-strike or featured very little interplay at all; but its importance made it arguably a better goal than Alan Smith’s against Roma — the second in a 7-1 win — which, curiously, sat comfortably in the Top 10.
Although nothing like Solskjaer’s strike, same rules apply for Zinedine Zidane’s goal in the 2002 final against Bayer Leverkusen. It was a marvellous sight in itself; but with its context, a chance for the galácticos to win the continent’s most prized trophy and the fact that it was Zidane, the world’s most expensive player at the time and probably the best around then given France’s emergence as the best international side in the early 00s, meant it was destined to be a goal frequently repeated. When the ball came down from the heavens, Zidane, who, setting himself with an almost half-turn, hit the ball with measured power, displaying great technique so wonderfully Zizou. Being admiring of the player — and Zidane certainly had his admirers — enhances our opinion, and thus it sticks in our mind and we look back fondly at it. This, incidentally, topped the ITV list.
Perhaps the best example is Peter Crouch’s recent hit against Manchester City. As superb as it was, a first touch and volley as exquisite as you’d ever see, you’d feel there’d be a lot less fuss over it had, say, David Silva or Juan Mata netted. The context here: “It’s Peter effin’ Crouch of all people! This beanpole should be in the box scoring headers!” And Wayne Rooney’s overhead-kick against City last season was quite possibly one of the best goals in the Premier League era; but it was late in a Manchester Derby heading for a 1-1 draw, watched and celebrated by the very same fans who, only a few months ago, vilified the player. These two were special in their own right; they had a story, a meaning. A goal shouldn’t just be what we see; thankfully, Crouch’s, like Rooney’s last year, might be this year’s Goal of the Season. Steven Gerrard’s late winner against Olympiakos in 2004 helped Liverpool progress into the next round in Europe — still, to this day, their fans look back fondly at it (partly because there isn’t much else for the under-20s), even though Gerrard has arguably scored goals more wonderful.
Arsenal fans continue to talk up Sylvain Wiltord’s sole goal at Old Trafford in a 1-0 win which helped The Gunners clinch the double in 2002 and it is special to them not because of the manner of the finish, it was a simple finish after all, but its context. Federico Macheda’s debut goal against Aston Villa in the 08/09 season also had a similar impact on United fans but, not only was its significance because it went some way to help his team win a trophy, but captured neutrals because of the shock of a relative unknown (outside Old Trafford, anyway) scoring the winner. Unlike Wiltord’s, this was a considerably better one — though not as much, aesthetically, as some will tell you. Michael Cox, not a Manchester United fan, describes this moment well:
I was watching the game in a pub with a friend, and when Macheda came off the bench in a desperate attempt for United to get a goal, while 2-1 down in a crucial game in the Premier League run-in, we both agreed that we’d never heard of him before.
At 2-2, in the third minute of injury time, Macheda picked the ball up, turned his marker, and curled the ball into the net from the edge of the box. We certainly weren’t expecting that – indeed, considering we hadn’t heard of the player until 10 minutes beforehand, we couldn’t have remotely guessed it might happen. It was a brilliant goal, a brilliant moment, and when later meeting up with another friend – who, crucially, hadn’t seen the game – we described it in great detail.
When he finally saw the goal that night on Match Of The Day 2, he was a little disappointed. We’d gone on about the goal so much, that he was expecting the greatest goal he’d ever seen, when in reality it was a good, if not sensational, strike. His impression of the goal was entirely influenced by the hype he’d heard before he’d even seen it.
Now, take a look at the Premier League’s nominations for Best Goal over the twenty seasons since its inception in 1992. They’re all utterly magnificent goals — as you would expect with such a wide scope. However, if you were to collect, say, ten of the best from each year since the League started, you may be able distinguish a tedious similarity — a lot of long-range efforts that are magnificent in isolation but, as a whole, just very drab. Thinking about it, these awards itself do very little in telling a story; goals win games and define seasons — these are just a collection of the very good and brilliant — no doubt someone else will do something similar in the next few years.
Is that a selfish way to look back at it? Yes. Indeed, many could argue that their teams aren’t always in a position to create goals that have context like some of the bigger clubs do, that is true. But we should enjoy football in the way we want to and so anything, by definition, is selfish.