What Makes A Classic Football Match? Part 1
In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby tells us what a match requires to be “really, truly memorable.” He wants as many of the following as possible (and I paraphrase): goals, bad refereeing decisions, a noisy Crowd, rain etc, opposition misses a penalty, opposition receives a red card, a disgraceful incident.
I’m with him on everything except maybe the disgraceful incident. And I would add to the list: A short bout of bad football from one’s own side. There’s probably a better way to phrase it, but ultimately, my favorite matches are the ones where my side royally screws things up early so they can redeem themselves later on. Ideally some bad defending is involved. There’s nothing like seeing your side go down early and come back late.
Hornby touches upon this, even if he doesn’t give the sentiment its own bullet point:
“If goals are to be shared, then it is best if the other team get theirs first: I have a particular penchant for the 3-2 home victory, with a late winner after losing 2-0 at half-time. “
Amen. For me, a real classic is a tight match where the other side gets the early lead. Manchester United beating Ipswich 9-0 may be historic. But there is not enough dramatic tension in a goal rout to make it a classic. Manchester defended too well for that. Clean sheets are wonderful. But they don’t give a match a classic plot-line unless there’s a late winner just before the end (Liverpool jumping on Yossi Benayoun after his late Fulham goal is still the desktop picture on my laptop).The come-from-behind match. The injury-time winner. Desperate ingredients such as these are essential in the recipe for that match that stays with you forever. Like your first kiss. Or your first time seeing someone naked outside of a bad 80s movie (Teen Wolf and Police Academy were border-line porn when I was six-years-old). Of course these matches often kill me while I’m watching them. Even if they are half enjoyble, I can feel them shaving years off the end of my life. But in retrospect, once the points have been secured, they become epic.
This week I look at some of the matches from last season I feel have the most potential for classic status. They all involve Liverpool… (yes, I’m a Liverpool supporter who started an article quoting Nick Hornby. Go ahead: book me for literary football blasphemy.) They all involve Liverpool going behind a goal or more at some point.
1.) Manchester City 2-3 Liverpool – 5 Oct 2008
If you told me this match had been produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, I might have believed you. It was packed full of suspense and dramatic events.
Nineteen minutes in, Shaun Wright-Phillips—whose pace and devilish skill would have me on edge all match (how, I wished Liverpool had scooped him up from Chelsea)—stole the ball from Aurelio and shot down the right. I swear, you could see smoke coming off his boots as he torpedoed in. He sent the ball boxward, it came back to him, and his second attempt and the resulting penalty-area confusion saw Stephen Ireland gobble up a loose ball and blast it past Pepe Reina.
City were up. But I consoled myself with our recent results against Middlesbrough, Manchester United and Marseille. All wins after we’d been a goal down. There was plenty of time to recover.
Then on 43 minutes, a speeding Wright-Phillips (who else?) tumbles and City get a free kick. Garrido (I know—I’d never heard of him either) curls one into the right corner. Garridinho? Two-nil to City. Are you serious?
Rafa must have given the perfect rally talk in the dressing room. I like to think he simply whips out the transcript of his half-time Istanbul speech for such occassions. Liverpool came out a different side. Ten minutes after the break, Xabi finds Mascherano. Masch finds Gerrard. Gerrard finds Arbeloa. Arbeloa finds Torres. GOAL!!!!! Perfect team build-up with El Nino getting to the ball just as the defender is taking him down. Okay. Still lots of time.
Then: elation. I love red cards. I’m sorry. I really do. Vidic. Cahill. Valencia. Lampard. Barton. Players would be lining up to get ejected all season for challenges on Xabi Alonso. At City’s ground, it would be Zabeleta’s turn. Not as Oh-My-God-We’re-Going-To-Beat-United satisfying as seeing Vidic go… not as Why-The-Hell-Did-He-Do-That-Oh-Yeah-Because-He’s-Joey-Barton baffling as Barton’s sliding stupidity in May… yet the Zabeleta ejection after his studs-up tackle has that incomperable contextual savoriness because Liverpool were still down a goal and now one really felt like the Reds could score two in the remaining 23 minutes.
Sure enough, Liverpool’s pressure soon led to a corner. Nobody tracked El Nino’s run. He elevated and headed home Gerrard’s service. Extra rewarding because Liverpool’s corners are usually about as threatening as a snarling shih tzu tied to a massive “Beware of Dog” sign.
Then: heartbreak. Martin Skrtel, Liverpool’s resident brick wall, jumps to control a ball and falls awkwardly on his right leg. Skrtel, who’d been a first-choice centre-back since the previous winter, is carried off as supporters pray that Liverpool can squeeze in one more miracle with their remaining ten players. (And of course, that their favorite Slovakian defender will get well soon. Knew I forgot something.)
Six minutes of injury time are given. Liverpool will only need two.
Benayoun digs into the left-hand side. He sends it back to Torres at the edge of the box. Torres fires. The ball deflects. Kuyt pounces. GOAL!!! Kuyt’s running and sliding. The side goes wild! So do we!
From utter devastation to total victory in a little over a half hour. One of the greatest matches I’ve seen. (Also, I now feel a deeper connection to Rafa Benitez because I feel confident we were out buying ulcer medication at about the same time.) One of the highlights of a standout season.
To non-Liverpool supporters: what do you deem a recent classic for your own club? To Liverpool supporters: once I finish the cycle (four or five articles) which of these do you feel is the biggest contender? Have I missed anything? I look forward to your thoughts.
Tomorrow: Part 2… Rafa Fields A Strange XI on the South Coast…