All goals are equal, but some are more equal than others. In the end, a goal will only ever amount to one on the scoresheet, but there are some that mean so much more.
Usually, such strikes are the ones that win games – even trophies and entire league titles. Manchester United know those kinds of goals very well, especially from 1999, and not just from the Champions League final.
Others are more of a definition – a moment of clarity encapsulating a team’s entire style of play. And even if the reaction isn’t unbridled joy, they are memorable goals, too. Not only are they strikes which define a team, but they can show the possibilities of 22 players, a pitch and a piece of leather. The endless possibilities.
In 1999, United won a treble in a feat that may never be repeated in English football, but there are quite a few myths around that season. For one thing, United didn’t dominate, winning every trophy through hard graft in a way that arguably makes the achievement even greater; coming from behind to beat Tottenham on the last day of the Premier League season, overcoming Arsenal in a classic FA Cup semi-final, and beating Bayern Munich with two goals in stoppage time in the Champions League.
But perhaps the biggest myth around the Alex Ferguson era was that Manchester United played expansive, attacking football more often than not, and for the entirety of his grip on power.
As David Moyes and Louis van Gaal floundered at Old Trafford, and as Jose Mourinho brings an embarrassing negativity to the Theatre of Dreams, it’s natural to look back on the times that have gone before as incredibly entertaining. But they weren’t always so swashbuckling: Ferguson was prone to winning ugly, too, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat so often that such triumphs are now seen as a mark of champions.
But there’s a reason why the 1999 incarnation of Manchester United is seen as one of the greatest club sides in history. And it’s not just because comparisons to Louis van Gaal’s side make Ferguson’s look entertaining.
Given his longevity, there are bound to be a large number of memorable goals, but few can be quite so era defining as Paul Scholes’ deft chip in 2000.
It took Ferguson quite a while to conquer the Champions League. Its demands have always been different to those of the Premier League, and the fact that he only won the trophy twice is strange: two European Cups is still a phenomenal achievement, but you might have expected more. Partly, that has to do with coming up against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2009 and 2011 and even Jose Mourinho’s Porto in 2004, but it is also partly down to the fact that Ferguson didn’t crack the competition until well into his second decade at the club.
By 2000, however, United had made it among Europe’s sparkling elite. Having won the treble, the Red Devils were now a global force, not just an English or even a European one. With Far Eastern markets wakening up to football, United conquered the world at exactly the right moment, allowing them to market their club around the globe. This they did with gusto.
But perhaps the most important aspect of their world domination was the fact that United’s new-found European glory was partly down to their style of play, which had to become more possession-based to compete in the Champions League. For Ferguson, it was a functional switch, but for a generation of fans discovering football for the first time, it was one of the reasons they started to support United.
It’s long been a feature of English football to cherry pick some of the better ideas from other European sides to build their own winning teams on the continent. The Liverpool team of the 1970s and 80s suffered unexpected or heavy defeats through the years, only to learn their lessons and come back stronger. Ferguson himself suffered at the hands of Barcelona in 1994, losing 4-0 on a humbling night in the Camp Nou against Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’.
The Catalans’ speed and movement as well as their passing and ability on the ball caught the eye, and United could do nothing to stop them. Gary Walsh, who played in goal for United that night, remembers it as a quiet game, despite the scoreline. “Apart from the goals,” he said, “I don’t think I really had a save to make that night. They just kept the ball and then picked us off when they could.” The ruthless and clinical Catalans were so frightening that they gave Ferguson his Road to Damascus moment.
Over the next years, United added some of that to their own game. Ferguson created a new side with the fabled Class of ’92, creating a team who could deal with the continental greats, and who could best them at their own game.
Perhaps no player embodies United’s mix of outward-looking continental style possession and Northern no-nonsense aggression more than Paul Scholes. And it is fitting that, in a Champions League second group stage game against Panathinaikos in November 2000, he’d score a goal which, perhaps even more than the treble triumph of over a year previous, defined everything Ferguson was trying to do.
With the score at 1-1, and with just 10 minutes left to play, a powerful, mazy and completely unexpected run from Mikael Silvestre broke through the Greek defence, and although his shot was parried by Antonios Nikopolidis in goal, it fell to Scholes to put United into the lead.
But in the final moments, United’s evolution suddenly became obvious. Instead of retreating into their shells to hold out for the victory, this more cultured side knew that keeping the ball themselves was the best way of running down the clock. And so that’s what they set out to do.
What was, at first, an impressive display of patience and discipline turned into a stunning team move displaying a mastery of passing and movement. At some point, a switch seemed to click. United suddenly seemed urgent. A pass from David Beckham and a backheel from Teddy Sheringham put Paul Scholes in one on one with Nikopolidis again.
And then it was as if Scholes had sensed the beauty of what had come before.
A chance that falls to you after a move created by an unbroken chain of 20 passes, and involving the vast majority of your outfield teammates is not one you’re allowed to squander, pretty much by law. And more importantly, you are duty-bound to finish in a style befitting of the elegance of the move. The infinite possibilities afforded to you by the nature of the game may allow options as to which finish you can choose, but really, only the perfect lob can ever do justice to such a move.
And in the end, there’s probably only one player in that United side you’d want the chance to fall to: as luck would have it, that’s Scholes. The ball never made it into the Panathinaikos box. Scholes’ foot connected with the ball just before the line, and his chip was sublime. Not scooped or lobbed, its trajectory, like a golf wedge with backspin, allowed it to nestle right in the bottom corner, bouncing on the turf before spinning against the netting like a remote control car trying to drive through a wall.
A lob is a self-indulgent experience, a moment of self-love from a striker who could have chosen any number of more appropriate finishes. But this time, it felt different. Precisely because of the move which had gone before it, taking on the lob felt like the only reasonable course of action; the only fitting homage to a true team goal and perhaps the only instance of a striker indulging the team rather than himself with a lobbed finish. It was decidedly unselfish: it was Paul Scholes, appreciator of beauty and generous lover.
But football doesn’t do sentimentality. After winning the treble in 1999, United would have to wait until 2008 for another crack at the final, when they beat Chelsea in Moscow. This new, cultured Manchester United had conquered the world, and won the Premier League three times in a row to boot, but the world was about to change. In 2004, Jose Mourinho won the Champions League with Porto, Roman Abramovich would bring him to Stamford Bridge, and Claude Makelele would inspire an entire generation of defensive midfielders strategically placed to prevent the likes of Scholes scoring similar goals.
But for a while there, United had it good. Ferguson, faced with the new challenge, would adapt and reinvent as he always did. He always understood why he’d been beaten, and he evolved accordingly. But although United would score more fabulous goals over the next decade or so before his retirement, few will ever match that final goal against Panathinaikos.
Everyone will remember it as a Scholes lob, but the goal belonged to the team. And if ever there was a minute of football that summed up the ethos of a side and the possibilities of football, this is it.