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Analysing the renaissance-esque beauty of the greatest goalmouth scramble in football history

As if Da Vinci himself had created art on the football pitch

Analysing the renaissance-esque beauty of the greatest goalmouth scramble in football history

The Crap 90s Football Twitter account is one of the best things on the internet.

It has a perfect bio – “A conduit to comedic football mediocrity from the last decade of the 20th century” – and gives us regular snapshots into frequently unbelievable pieces of footballing incompetence from a golden era of the beautiful game.

And yes, it is the beautiful game, because the beauty of football is not just encapsulated in the likes of tiki-taka, or a Cruyff turn, but just as equally in the moments of unintentionally hilarious, chaotic passages of play that can only come to pass when the skill level is reduced, the pitch quality is decreased and the universe is allowed to take over, throwing in chance and luck to create something that the human mind could never, on its own, hope to come up with.

It is almost as if, once humans step back and cede control, God himself is able to summon up transcendental magic on that football pitch.

Which is the only way to explain the events of Saturday 4 January,1997, which witnessed the greatest goalmouth scramble of all time.

The crowd of 12,356 assembled to watch an FA Cup third round game between two teams who would eventually finish 5th (Sheffield United) and 13th (Norwich City) in the league that season. The match itself finished 1-0 to Norwich, but few who were present that day will recall that inconsequential detail. What they will remember, and will be thankful for until their dying day, will be the opportunity to watch this in the flesh, right in front of their very eyes.

Crap 90s Football have, in five short words, summarised it perfectly. In fact, it kind of renders this article rather pointless. We’re not going to describe these 15 seconds any more accurately than ‘Beautiful. A piece of art’. 

But what we can do is break it down into the many, many components that make this the priceless work it is. After all, the Sistine Chapel isn’t just that guy and God playing touchy-finger.

The prelude

In any great occasion, part of the experience is the anticipation; the calm before the storm. The feeling that you know something very special is about to happen; it’s agonisingly close at hand and you know, deep in your very soul, that this will be life-changing, but there’s nothing you can do to hasten its arrival, so your fevered, heart-racing excitement gives way to a kind of hushed calmness which envelops you as you await the moment, the performance, the glory.

That’s what the first two seconds of this clip is like, as an unknown corner taker – the silent hero of this story – floats in a ball deep into the heart of the ‘mixer’, into the belly of the beast. With ‘the big men up’ and the defence under strict instructions to ‘stick to your man’, the conditions are perfect. Like the aquarium attendant throwing the first piece of meat into the piranha tank, once their initial action has occurred, they can only stand and marvel at the carnage which their single action will unleash.

The First Act

Ignoring every rule they’ve ever been taught about ‘putting a name on it’ and ‘one of youuuu’, fully four players – and the keeper, although he’s so far away from it he’s clearly made a hideous misjudgement and should never have left his line – go up for the header, two from each team so at least it’s fair. Despite no one actually appearing to win the header, the ball moves towards the goal, beyond the hapless effort of the Norwich keeper. Luckily, though, Norwich have three men on the line, which is a bit weird now we come to think of it. Two yes – classic ‘man on each post’ territory there – but why three? Maybe they knew the keeper was crap. Anyway, three should deal with this rather slow-moving ball easily shouldn’t they? Wrong.

Defender one heroically tries to aggressively knee it away, succeeding only in cannoning the ball onto the crossbar, while defender two, who would have cleared it fairly easily, had it been left to reach him – and had he not panicked, which is a big ‘had he not’ – does exactly the same action, like a carbon copy of hopelessness.

Simultaneously, having completely missed the ball, the Norwich keeper manages to walk straight into the post.

The ball cannons back out on the six-yard line where three players, all at a rather beautiful 120-degree angle relative to each other, challenge for it. Again, two of them are Norwich players, so the odds are in their favour – by quite literally two to one – yet do they clear it? They do not; the ball squirming out to a Sheffield United player who kicks it instinctively, then immediately appeals for something. We have absolutely no idea what. Handball? It’s been nowhere near a hand. A foul? All bets are off in a goalmouth scramble, there is no such thing as an illegal challenge. An appeal for calm amidst the chaos? If it is, it’s being roundly ignored.

He is made to look like the fool he is as the ball is returned to him within milliseconds with the idiot still having his hands in the air; thus, a Norwich player ‘gets a foot in’ to avert the danger. A United player gets a touch but is immediately tackled by a Norwich boot.

So far: utter chaos.

But what’s this? The ball has – for pretty much the first time in the whole glorious story arc – made its way out to a single player in space – well, about a square foot, but in the confines of the goalmouth, that’s basically an acre.

We break, enjoy our ice creams, and then make our way back to our seats for the Second Act.

The Second Act

The player, in space, boots it, in a relatively controlled manner given the incendiary situation, keeping it low in a forlorn hope that it will make it through the forest of legs that separate the ball from the net. However, where increased control normally leads to greater accuracy, in the frenzied environment of a second tier league game, this is not the case, with the shot seemingly heading harmlessly wide of the goal. But our benevolent footballing god will never settle for such a tame end to a scramble; not when we’ve been blessed with such a sensational opening segment.

For, lo, as seraphim and cherubim sing all around – enter, stage left, another United player who, incredibly, despite the box being packed with approximately 46 players, is totally unmarked and a mere three feet from goal. The deftest of touches will turn the ‘cross-cum-shot’ (for this is what it has now become) into a goal.

Sadly, the touch is a mixture of deft and energy-sapping, as it achieves nothing more than gently directing it back to the Norwich keeper, who has returned to the sanctity of his line while all around him have been losing their heads, in a manner that would sadden Rudyard Kipling. Surely that’s the end of the matter?

Oh no. Despite, surely, having enough time to simply bend over and pick the ball up, the keeper goes down almost in slow motion, merely tapping the ball back to the grateful striker who, with the goal at his mercy, begging for forgiveness and salvation, toe pokes the ball bang on to the post, when it seemed impossible to miss, Clive.

Such is the uncontrollable power of the much-underused toe poke, the ball seems to gather pace off the post, rebounding back into the box like a spring’s gone off on it.

Head to the bar, collect your drinks, and then we shall finish.

The Finale

The camera pans out and we discover that the ball has, in fact, cannoned across the goalmouth, back into the danger zone. Any touch, any, from an attacking player, with the keeper lying helpless on the ground, will result in a goal – and is there such a player lurking? You bet there is. 1-0 United, surely?

No. And we’re not entirely sure how, or why, as the poor cameraman, exhausted from the effort thus far, moves too slowly to catch the action. Somehow we see the ball, which appears – and we have no idea how, but then we’ve spent the previous thousand words trying to explain the unexplainable to no avail – to have bounced and squeezed between two other United players and into the arms of a seriously grateful goalkeeper.

Still, it’s not over. It’s not a clean collect, the ball bobbling in his hands as the two red and white striped piranhas lurk, waiting to pounce upon any error.

The keeper nearly does their work for them; clearly in a deep sense of shock from the events he has just witnessed – and probably not fully recovered from the concussion caused by his earlier face-to-face meeting with his right-hand post – he starts moving toward his own goal and looks like he’s going to walk the ball in himself.

Just in time, he comes to his senses/regains consciousness, performs a 180 and – suddenly – the glorious action is complete.

Sadly, the clip does not roll on from here, but we like to imagine that the keeper does that thing of immediately acting like everything was under control all along and looking for an instant out-ball in a ‘continental manner’, then being annoyed when his wingers haven’t adopted the advanced counter-attacking positions that they should have done in the 0.5 seconds that have elapsed between the obvious, deep, perilous defensive crisis being over and the keeper looking to play the ball.

But perhaps we demand too much, for what we have just witnessed is up there with Maradona’s second goal against England, Tony Yeboah’s thunderbastard against Wimbledon and Messi’s Spanish Cup final strike.

It is unrepeatable, unexplainable, God-given, glorious chaos.

The beautiful game has never been more beautiful than at Carrow Road that evening.