December 4th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Three Fêtes and a Football Match Part Twelve (The Great Goal)

It's June, 1995 again. Somehow I get drunk at a French fete and accidentally sign up to become a professional footballer. Three weeks later I'm thrown in at the deep end. A match in front of 300 people and, suddenly, I'm put through on goal with only the keeper to beat.

I did everything right. I took the ball in mid-stride, played it a few yards ahead, let the keeper come out and then slipped it past him. Perfect.

Unfortunately, the keeper did everything right as well. He came out, narrowed the angle, stood up and then threw out a desperate foot at the last minute, deflecting the ball wide with his toe.

I have relived that moment many times since - and score every time. Why didn’t I hit it harder? Why didn’t I take the ball round the keeper or lift it higher? Why didn’t I score? I should have, I did everything right!

Which is undoubtedly where I went wrong. Anyone who plays sports knows the devastating power of the unexpected. The miss-kick, the ricochet, the fluke. Like shooting straight at the keeper only for him to open his legs at the last moment and let the ball through; or bounce off his chest, hit you in the face and rebound over his head into the goal.

I have scored them all. Many times.

Which brings me to The Great Goal. Something that is still talked about in darkened saloon bars in Bournemouth. Or, at least, it is when I'm there.

I was sixteen at the time and playing for my school on a cold and blustery winter morning. We'd just attacked down the left and their goalkeeper had rushed to the edge of his area to boot the ball clear. Straight to me. I was at the halfway line, a yard or two out from the right touchline, an open goal some forty or fifty yards ahead of me. Could I do it?

Now, I knew what I had to do. If I waited to control the ball or take it closer to the goal, the moment would be gone. The keeper and defenders would be back in position and the danger would be over.

So I hit it. On the half volley as hard as I could. Wham. Old men in the crowd wept. Never had a ball been hit so hard. Or so high. Or so far in the wrong direction.

It ballooned towards the right-hand corner flag, a small speck in the sky fast disappearing into the clouds. Our forwards turned and started their slow walk back to the centre circle. Another attack over, another goal kick to defend.

But I stayed watching. And watching. Was it ever going to come down? And then something strange happened. One of those magic moments when fate decides to take a hand. The speck froze in the sky ... and then began to change direction. Slowly at first, then picking up pace as a strong wind got behind it.

It was moving back towards the goal.

I noticed that the game on the pitch alongside us had come to a halt. One by one players were stopping and looking up, transfixed by the momentous events unfolding above them.

A defender sprinted back towards the goal. It was a race. The ball and him. No one else was close enough to intervene. The ball growing in size as it hurtled earthwards, the defender positioning himself on the goal line, his neck craned skyward.

Surely it couldn't go in? Not from there? The ball was almost directly over the goal, falling from an impossible angle.

Thud. The dull sound of leather on a cranium rapidly losing consciousness. And goal. The ball found the only gap possible to find and still score. The gap between the defenders head and the crossbar. True, he managed to get his head to the ball but that only served to flatten him and catapult the ball into the roof of the net. So creating a win double - goal scored and one of their best players removed from the game all in one stroke.

Which just goes to show the power of the miss-kick. If I'd connected cleanly the wind would have taken the ball sailing across the pitch and over for a throw-in. But I hadn't. And I'd scored.

Unfortunately, there were no strong winds in Cassagne that afternoon.

But I didn't care, I was revelling in my newfound speed and youth. Flicking balls off the back foot, dribbling past attackers in my own penalty area, being substituted soon after ... it was just like old times.

I’d set myself two goals for the match - one, not to throw up in public; and two, to leave the pitch without the aid of medical intervention. I’d succeeded admirably on both counts.

All I had to do now was survive the after-match meal.

(next instalment: Ricard, Cœur de Old Lions)