Retrospective #2: The beautiful goal with an ugly beginning
Andy Cole 53’. Barcelona 3-3 Manchester United, Champions League fifth round group phase 1998/99.
Great goals always stand the test of time. The initial feeling of awe and ecstasy they induce, not to mention the artistic brilliance that make them unique, mean that they can never be replicated. But there’s one goal, despite its emotional sentiments and aesthetic beauty, that is unlikely to be repeated again because it fails to do just that: stand the test of time.
Andy Cole’s goal against Barcelona in 1998 stands as one of the best goals scored in Europe. Indeed, it’s one of Manchester United’s best goals ever, worthy of sitting alongside some of George Best’s finest or Bobby Charlton’s one-two against Liverpool. We’ve all seen it. A nonchalant dummy by Dwight Yorke is followed by a quick exchange of passes between them before Cole coolly finishes off the move. It was a magnificent moment in a thrilling European tie and the apotheosis of a legendary strike partnership. Throughout their Manchester United career, there appeared to be some sort of telepathic understanding between the two players and here Cole and Yorke seemed to be connected by an invisible tin can phone, whispering to each other their next moves. The rapidity, simplicity and, at the same time, audacity of it all means it is still talked about to this day. That’s the story that’s more commonly told but there’s a moment in the lead up to the goal that if it happened today, would ensure that the goal would never stand.
As we pick it up, the celestial Luis Figo – the captain of Barcelona who and at the time, was playing the best football of his career – looks set to embark on one of his trademark dribbles. But as he takes on Jesper Blomqvist, he inexplicably over-hits the ball thus relinquishing possession. In a desperate effort to get it back, Figo suddenly lunges into a horrible two-footed tackle on Jaap Stam which, for all the world, looks a leg-breaker. There is a pause for half a second for which the whole world holds their breath and fears the worst; Jaap Stam rolls over, completing three full revolutions on the floor but as quick as a cat, flips up and gets back on his feet. There was no real reason for the referee to wave play on as United were still on the edge of their own box but he did, thus setting the motion for one of the greatest goals ever scored.
It seems extraordinary now that tackle would be ignored as casually it was then. The tackle by Figo was at worst, a potential leg-breaker; the studs were fully on show and Stam’s shin was exposed. But he sprang up, in what was fully in keeping with the match as it was played with so much mutual respect and a will to win that Stam never gave any thought of gamesmanship. In today’s game, and probably quite understandably too, the victim would lie on the floor, more from the shock of it all than the impact, clutching their shin and screaming Bloody Mary. Figo would almost certainly be red-carded for it too because any tackle, with that much ferocity and the feet that much off the ground, would automatically accrue a straight sending-off. It’s refreshing then, that both players and teammates made no histrionics out of the tackle as what would happen now. The will to win just overpowered the situation and the intensity of the battle prevailed. What’s more, this use of the advantage came from what us British would have regarded a notoriously stingy European referee but Austria’s Günter Benkö read the situation and waved play on. It shows you just how much refereeing has changed, particularly in continental football although even in the league these days, the tackle would just as much have been punished regardless of the contact. The “benefit of the doubt” no longer counts and 50/50 challenges have almost been outlawed, typifying the risk-averse nature of today’s game.
The goal also marked what was renowned as the most effective double act in the game. Cole and Yorke were universally feared as a strike partnership; regarded as the best in Europe at the time. At its peak in the treble winning season of 1998/99 they contributed a mammoth 53 goals between them – and it was this goal in the Nou Camp which came to symbolise the deadly duopoly. Howard Wilkinson, England’s caretaker manager at the time, observed: “Cole and Yorke have developed a terrific relationship,” he told the Guardian in February 1999. “Their movement, their understanding of each other, their link-up play, touch, perception, are excellent.”
The strike partnership worked because both players knew each others’ game and despite on the face of it looking decidedly similar, helped refine skills too. Cole became not just a goalpoacher as he was wrongly pigeon-holed for England; he developed an all-round game to complement Yorke’s already multi-faceted skill-set. “There was a time when people saw Cole just as a finisher but now he gets involved in the build-up as well,” Wilkinson added. It shouldn’t have worked because it was felt at that time that strike-partnerships should always follow a standard template: little and large or creator and finisher. Neither player was overwhelmingly one nor the other and that made it difficult to defend against. (They also expunged that racial stereotype in the 90’s that black forwards were chiefly athletic types but the fact that they juggled both roles showed how short-sighted that notion was.)
“They were a fantastic partnership that year with I think it was 52 goals between them,” Sir Alex Ferguson commented recently. “I think they were the best in Europe, they were unbelievable. It was a partnership that just took off immediately. I don’t know why, the chemistry or something just clicked between the two of them but it developed into an unbelievable partnership. So much so that I found difficulty, great difficulty, in keeping Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer warm and happy, that’s how effective Cole and Yorke were. I was very fortunate to have four great strikers like that when you think about it, really fortunate. And yes, it created headaches at time, you know, picking the right two but that season Cole and Yorke were unbelievable.”
For Cole and Yorke the goal at Camp Nou stands as the symbolic moment of a brilliant partnership; the memory of the magic moment etched in time – untouched. But it’s often forgotten that this most beautiful of goals originated from the most ugliest of tackles. It’s better that way.