Few goals truly stand the test of time.
If you think about how many fairly good goals are scored every weekend or every month, you’ll realise how few of those strikes are genuinely remembered for years to come.
Usually, though, it’s not the quality of the strike or the build-up, but the importance of the goal that sets it up. Think Sergio Aguero’s goal against Queens Park Rangers, hardly a memorable goal if you don’t factor in the context. It’s the same with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s winner against Bayern Munich in the Camp Nou in 1999. They’re memorable, but they wouldn’t have been had it not been for the context.
It’s rare, then, that you get a genuinely memorable goal that combines the two.
One such goal came in a game between two hated rivals who will resume their hostilities this weekend once again. But back then, it was much more pronounced.
When Ryan Giggs ran most of the Villa Park pitch before blasting the ball past David Seaman in extra time of an FA Cup semi-final, it wasn’t just a world class goal, nor was it just the winner of match. In fact, it wasn’t just the winner of a cup semi – it set up something much more important.
If Solskjaer’s goal is the one known as the treble-winner, that’s only a quirk of chronology. In fact, it was probably Giggs’ strike against Arsenal.
After Peter Schmeichel saved a last-minute Dennis Bergkamp penalty to send the game into an extra 30-minutes, United had to capitalise. Not just to keep their treble dream alive by progressing in the FA Cup, but also to keep their league title hopes intact, too. Such a late blow in a cup semi has a psychological effect, and United may well have found it difficult to recover if they’d lost.
Instead, Giggs picked the ball up in his own half, before setting off on a slalom run befitting of an olympic Alpine skier to beat the entire Arsenal defence and leave Martin Keown stumbling to the floor. The elegance of the run, the jinky drops of the shoulder, the airiness of the glide, looks jarring with put side by side with the power of the finish – above Seaman and into the roof of the net at breathtaking speed.
When Giggs first came to the attention of Manchester United, the scout who noticed him on a muddy school pitch in north-west Manchester described him as being like a gazelle. There are few more apt descriptions of the Welshman in full flow, but the predatory finish that killed off Arsenal that day owed more to the king of the plains than its prey.
“He was just like a gazelle, flying up the wing,” recalls Dennis Schofield, who just so happened to also be a scout. “I thought, ‘Flipping heck, he’s good this kid.'”
As he lifted up his shirt to reveal an unsettlingly hairy chest, Giggs has the look of a man who had registered exactly what the strike meant. It was not just a goal in a big game, not just the winner of a cup semi and not just a ticket to Wembley: it was the first piece of a delicate jigsaw that would be completed weeks later in Barcelona when United were crowned European champions.
The treble was on-edge all season. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. United have won league titles by margins in double figures, but that year they finished just a point above Arsenal. And perhaps losing the FA Cup semi-final would have been worth one point in the league just for the sheer depth of emotion it contained.
These days, the United – Arsenal rivalry is less than it was back then, and not even a Jose Mourinho v Arsene Wenger game this weekend looks likely to save it. But if there was ever a game which married quality and importance, this was it. And Giggs’ goal is the product of that. And had it gone the other way, history would have been very different indeed.