The greatest goal I ever saw is one that I can only barely remember. It was scored almost 25 years ago, and I’ve never seen a replay, despite the fact that it happened in an English First Division match. This was the 1987/88 season, and football coverage – even involving top flight teams – was relatively sparse. The goal isn’t on YouTube, and various requests via Twitter and the like have drawn a blank. There was no end of season highlights video for 87/88, and there’s a possibility the footage no longer exists – or that it was never even filmed. So my recollection of the goal is pieced together from fragmented and unreliable memories, and is quite possibly overblown and inaccurate.
But that doesn’t matter. In a way, I’m glad I’ve never seen video footage, and I’ve been allowed to develop my own rose-tinted memory, elevating the goal to a kind of mythical status in my mind. In that respect, Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne’s goal for Newcastle United against Chelsea on 27 February 1988 was absolutely perfect.
This is how I remember it, and I had a fantastic view: It was the day before my 14th birthday, and as a treat my uncle had upgraded me from my usual standing terrace to the paddock seating running under the East Stand at St James’ Park, right at the lip of the pitch. Gascoigne would only have been 20 then, still a slip of a lad, but emerging as the undoubted star of this Newcastle team – and arguably of this league. Hair gel, earring and sunbed tan, Gazza orchestrated games with a toothy grin and an almost supernatural level of skill.
Newcastle had imported English football’s first Brazilian – Mirandinha – to add flair to the team, but the man from Palmeiras wasn’t a patch on the boy from Dunston. Glenn Roeder was club captain, and Paul Goddard the centre forward, but Chelsea’s team, with the likes of Steve Clarke, Pat Nevin and Kerry Dixon, were the favourites in this match.
The goal, I think, was perfect. Gazza picked up the ball near the halfway line, not far from my paddock seat. Displaying his uncanny close control and balance, he shimmied and swayed through the Chelsea defence, driving towards the famous Gallowgate end. As he shaped to shoot he was maybe 25 yards out. Let’s say 30. I imagine he hit it with his right foot – his left wasn’t quite as good. But I remember that it pinged like a ballbearing from a pinball flipper, and flew past Chelsea keeper Roger Freestone into the top corner of the goal. The top left corner, I’m pretty sure, but what made the goal extra special was that the ball got stuck in the stanchion, lodged firmly in the metal loop at the top of the goalpost. Whenever such a rarity occurred it was a real delight, and when goalposts were redesigned and the loop was removed, football lost something special.
But what a goal. What a perfect goal. Even better than his acclaimed strike against Crystal Palace a few weeks earlier that is preserved on YouTube and also hit the stanchion (although didn’t get stuck). Of course I was out of my seat, surrounded by a surge of noisy celebration. Gazza ran to the Gallowgate end, arms aloft, grinning, always grinning. Someone had to shin up the goalpost to get the ball down. The match restarted, Newcastle won 3-1, Mirandinha scored the other two, and Gary Kelly saved two penalties, but all anyone was talking about was that perfect goal.
A few weeks later I was walking along a towpath in Rothbury – later the scene of Raoul Moat’s last stand. And there was Gazza, sans chicken and can of lager, but holding a fishing rod, all alone and setting up for a day by the river. ‘Alright Gazza?’ I said. ‘Alright son?’ said Gazza, and he stood grinning at me, expecting me, I suppose, to say something else. I should probably have said, ‘I’ll never forget your goal against Chelsea.’ Or, ‘Please don’t leave Newcastle.’ But I didn’t. I just smiled, and he went back to his fishing rod.
That summer Gazza signed for Tottenham Hotspur. Then came Italia 90 and superstardom, and then the devastating FA Cup Final injury that I think he never fully recovered from. So many memories, though. No doubt someone will post a link to a YouTube video, and say the ball actually ended up in the top right corner, or Gazza was only 18 yards out, or – in all likelihood – the ball didn’t really get stuck in the stanchion. I don’t care. It was the greatest goal I ever saw and I’ll never properly forget it.
A version of this post appears at Sabotage Times
My book about the early history of Newcastle United is All With Smiling Faces.