PL25: Jermaine Jenas, and the joy of the emotional goal

All goals are equal, but not all are equally important.

Over the course of the last 25 years, since the Premier League moved the posts, goals have been easier to come by on TV. Before the breakaway league brought several live games a weekend into homes across the country – and now around the world – the best goals lay in the domain of highlights reels on Match of the Day. If you weren’t lucky enough to actually make it to the game, the best of the action was still saved for you to watch later.

But while the goals, their glamour and their grandeur were captured and beamed into everyone’s home, the emotion was lost. How can you expect to condense exactly what a goal means in the context of a game if all you can see is a short clip of the ball hitting the back of the net?

Perhaps that’s why we seem to favour the long-range thunderstrikes. The ones that don’t need any explanation, those where the thud of the connection and the blurry lightning bolt of the ball spinning through the air speak for themselves: the same sense of relief an electrical storm brings when it breaks up an oppressive heatwave.

And now, even with our weeks saturated with live football from all over the world, we still seem to enjoy those goals the most. Even though we can experience the whole 90 minutes and the storylines behind the goals.

As a player, though, that must colour your thinking when it comes to reflecting on your career. With so much emotion riding on games from millions of people all over the world, which goals should mean the most to you? And how do you pick your favourite?

“Favourite goal…,” says former Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United midfielder Jermaine Jenas, whose sentence trails off before he answers. Having probably been asked so many times before, he seems to know exactly what he’s about to say next, “I was quite fortunate in that respect – I scored some screamers,” he deadpans – but he’s not wrong.

“It’s difficult though, because sometimes your favourite ones are the most important ones, not the screamers.”

Jenas’s career started on 7th January 2001, when he debuted as a 17-year-old for Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup Third Round defeat to Wolves. It ended when he announced his retirement exactly 15 years later, on 7th January 2016, after a knee injury called time prematurely. But having stepped into football almost a decade after the launch of the Premier League, Jenas too must have his opinion on this coloured by the fact that everyone seems to remember the long-range efforts.

“I scored a last-minute equaliser against Arsenal at White Hart Lane, and I mean, probably last seconds – it was the last kick of the game from 25 yards past Jens Lehmann to make it 2-2. And in my most-favourite game in the Premier League… the 4-4 at the Emirates, I scored in that game as well.”

Jenas picks out his favourite goal and his favourite game, and perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that both come from the same grand old fixture of the English footballing calendar. Both of those north London derbies ended in high-scoring draws. And given the emotion of the derby, and the fact that losing in it means more than defeat in almost any other game does, it’s probably also unsurprising that they were both intense, see-saw games, too.

What is surprising, though, is the lucidity of Jenas’s memory. Both games ended in emotionally-charged draws as Spurs scored last-minute equalisers both times. In the 2-2 draw, Jenas scored the equaliser with almost the last kick of the game. In the 4-4, he scored in the 89th minute – but his side still needed Aaron Lennon to pop up in injury time to seal the point. Both goals, whilst they’d be unlikely to contend for goal of the season, were still strikes from outside of the box.

“It feels like a defeat,” said Arsene Wenger after the 2-2 draw in which Jenas scored the equaliser. That means it probably felt like a victory for the other side.

With your team losing to their bitter local rivals, and with the game running into stoppage time, given the emotion of the crowd and the desperation of the team, surely goals like that are scored through a rush of adrenaline more than a considered strike? Football runs on such emotional moments – but just how lucid can you actually be in at a time like that?

“I can’t even remember scoring it, no, everything’s just a blur!” says Jenas, who must certainly be a man thankful for TV cameras. “With a lot of my goals, too – you don’t remember being in that moment because you’re reacting to a scenario. It’s not as though you say ‘ok I think i’m going to do this, and I’m going to put my weight this way’, which you would remember. You’re reactive as a player, and that’s why you train, because you have to react in those moments.”

It’s the power of muscle memory, and maybe that’s the most satisfying part. The fact that you’ve managed to score a powerful shot from 40 yards out is one thing, but when you’ve worked for years on a technique, and you’ve perfected it so well that you can pull it off in the dying seconds of a rambunctious north London derby to score an equalising goal which will see your name forever associated with the fixture, well that’s entirely another.

“It’s difficult though, because sometimes your favourite ones are the most important ones, not the screamers.”

But that doesn’t mean the beautiful goals count for nothing. In fact, they rely on the same principle. When you work on it for so long, and it comes off so perfectly, maybe the only thing to rival the emotion of doing it with the last kick of a derby is doing it in a way that everyone remembers.

“I suppose my favourite in terms of the aesthetics, and the look and feel of it, was the goal against Manchester United and Barthez at St James’ Park,” Jenas admits. “When people say ‘when it left your foot, you knew it was in’, well that was one of those moments. As soon as it hit my laces I was running off because there’s no way you’re stopping that.”

“But I think the one I hit that day, I’d been hitting them in training and once in a blue moon they come off in games. For me, thankfully it was on the biggest stage.”

That goal was in April 2003, at home to a Manchester United side who hadn’t lost since Boxing Day, and wouldn’t lose again for the rest of the season. They marched to the Premier League title, regaining it from Arsenal and winning their fourth title in five years. They beat Newcastle 6-2 that day, though it was Jenas’s strike that opened the scoring. No matter how good it was, it might seem like a game to forget rather than one to remember, but the Magpies finished third under Bobby Robson at the end of the season. Newcastle have never finished as high as that ever since, and that year Jenas picked up the PFA Young Player of the Year award.

But if you’ve ever wanted to know what scoring a Premier League goal was like, in front of millions of people watching from all over the world, and in a game that is dripping with the emotion of so many invested people, then you might get a clue in the fact that Jenas’s doesn’t instantly reach for the wonder strike, or even his goal for England at Wembley.

All strikes are worth exactly one goal, but one goal at the most important time always feels like a lot more.

Jermaine Jenas was speaking at BT Sport’s Premier League launch ahead of 42 live Premier League games on BT this season.