Football’s small pleasures: Last-minute breakaway goals

Sarah Winterburn

I’ve been lucky enough to be present for some memorable moments over the past few years. I’ve seen Huddersfield and Barnsley fans celebrate on the pitch together as their 2-2 draw on the last day of the 2012-13 season saved both clubs from relegation. I came unglued with the rest of Deepdale after Graham Alexander come off the bench practically held together with lolly sticks and string to score a free-kick in the last of his 956 professional appearances. I accidentally found myself stuck on the pitch as Doncaster Belles celebrated promotion in 2015 – I’m the idiot standing clapping on his own around the two-minute mark.

But easily my favourite game is Huddersfield v Fulham on 21st March 2015. The game started with Alex Kaciniklic scoring direct from a corner on 66 seconds, which itself was an absolute joy and something I may well come back to another week. It set the tone perfectly for an absolutely batshit match.

The only other time I’ve seen a team batter another so comprehensively without scoring was Portugal’s 0-0 with Austria at last year’s Euros, and at least then Cristiano Ronaldo only missed the one penalty. Here, Nahki Wells missed two in the space of 10 minutes, the first of which had resulted in the referee sending off the wrong player and having to be corrected by the fourth official.

To compound matters for Chris Powell’s Huddersfield – who had 68% possession back before David Wagner made that kind of figure fairly routine – opposition keeper Marcus Bettinelli was in absolutely inspired form, keeping out all of Huddersfield’s 13 shots on target. They put a further 18 off target, including hitting the woodwork four times.

You know what happened next. The Terriers pushed forward, Fulham broke from a corner, and Seiko Fofana scored his one-on-one with Alex Smithies, though fittingly he only managed it at the second attempt after hitting the post with his first go. It was the only possible punchline to an utterly ridiculous game.

I love that kind of goal, and I’m in good company: Gary Neville produced the most memorable piece of commentary of the decade when Fernando Torres disembarked Roberto Di Matteo’s inconsiderately parked bus and ran clear of the Barcelona defence as Chelsea marched towards Champions League glory in 2012, while Soccer Saturday’s Johnny Phillips will be forever associated with Watford’s last-minute playoff semi-final winner just seconds after Leicester had missed a penalty at the other end.

These counter-attacking goals are everything we love about football, from the team effort of the defending team, the desperation of the trailing side looking for a vital goal, the athleticism of the runner to go clear, and the glory of last-ditch victory, possibly from the jaws of defeat.

Fifa are currently investigating whether to change the order of spot-kicks from ABAB to ABBA, which I can only presume would give Sweden an enormous advantage. News of this sensible-seeming development must have annoyed those people who advocate doing away with penalty kicks altogether in favour of ‘American style’ shoot-outs, in which players have a set amount of time to dribble from halfway and go one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

It’s a nice idea, but I’m not sure this could ever capture the wonderful frisson that comes from it happening organically from open play. Let’s break down the perfect last-minute counter-attacking goal.

The greatest moment of those breakaways is when the ball is cleared and the crowd realises their forward will be clear through if he can beat the final flagging opposition outfielder in a footrace. This happens so invariably that I wonder whether defenders have a contractual obligation to be at least half a step slower whenever dramatic narrative demands it, ‘steps’ being the official SI unit of measurement for footballers’ top speed.

There is something to be said for the goalkeeper having left the goal untended to attack the corner-kick in these scenarios, in which case cries of “shoot” will begin around 60 yards from goal, but for me you can’t beat the exquisite tension of the striker having to go through one more boss fight before reaching the promised land, with the commentators rapidly reaching a level of fever pitch rarely found outside the bedroom.

Preferably, then the keeper should be hovering impotently around the penalty spot, not really sure whether to come out for a slide tackle and risk getting chipped or stand their ground and be rounded. Either is fine in my hypothetical dream goal, but the clear winner is option C: nutmeg the keeper. It’s bold, it’s brassy, it’s bloody brilliant.

Thankfully, with league positions up for grabs and cups getting into their later stages, we’re entering the prime time of year for the 100-yard dash towards goal. Forget cuckoos, daffodils and daylight savings: that’s how you really know it’s spring.

Steven Chicken