Considering this is a blog about football books, I feel I’ve been remarkably restrained about discussing Fever Pitch. Until now that is. In his landmark work, Nick Hornby picks out what he sees as the ‘Seven Features of a Truly Memorable Match’. They are:
- Outrageously bad refereeing decisions
- A noisy crowd
- Rain, a greasy surface, etc.
- Opposition misses a penalty
- Member of opposition team receives a red card
- Some kind of ‘disgraceful incident’
22 years on, I’ve enlisted the very generous help of my favourite sports writers and novelists to put together an alternative list.
1. The diva tantrum
By Nick Quantrill, author of the Joe Geraghty crime novels, “Broken Dreams”, “The Late Greats” and “The Crooked Beat”
Hull City 0-0 QPR, 29th January 2011
Laughs at Hull City matches during 2010/2011 were in short supply. Freshly relegated from the Premier League and facing financial meltdown, the club was undergoing rapid change with faded showman, Phil Brown, replaced by the Nigel Pearson’s dour pragmatism.
QPR arrived at the KC Stadium as champions-elect, and with star man, Adel Taarabt, in fine form. The game itself followed the established pattern of a lot of huff with little skill, but all eyes remained firmly on Taarabt. Starting out wide, he struggled to make an impact on the game as two well-organised banks of four hurried and hassled him with vigour and energy.
Waving his arms theatrically in the air when a pass wasn’t delivered on a plate into his feet, and seemingly taking offence at every possible opportunity, Taarabt’s every reaction provoked cheers from a home support sensing some sport to be had from enquiring as to where his dummy had gone. Electing to turn his back on the game and simply walk up and down the touchline, taking no further part in proceedings, Taarabt upped the ante, slowly heading across the pitch in the direction of the bench, signalling that he’d simply had enough for the day and wanted to be substituted.
Throwing his gloves to the floor only served to bring more howls of laughter from the home support, but any suggestion he was carrying an injury was banished when he showed a sudden interest in taking a free kick on the edge of the area. After jostling with his own teammates and receiving a warning for his actions from the referee, he hilariously slammed the ball into Row Z before the half-time whistle finally put him out of his misery.
Post-match, a preening Neil Warnock, pumped full of self-interest and misplaced fury, bizarrely placed the blame squarely at the feet of the home support for antagonising his star man. Nice try, Mr Warnock, but for all the laughs it provided, a quite unique and incredible tantrum from a player whose career is unlikely to match the heights he imagines for himself in his own head.
Watch footage here
2. The mild pitch invasion
By Anthony Clavane, sportswriter for the Sunday Mirror and author of Promised Land: A Northern Love Story and Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?
Leeds 1-2 West Brom, 17 April 1971
Leeds United lost the title to Arsenal by a single point in the 1970-71 season. This was blamed on a referee called Ray Tinkler, who failed to spot Colin Suggett being about 15 yards offside before Jeff Astle tapped in the West Brom winner in a 2-1 win for the Baggies at Elland Road.
I’ll never forget the Leeds manager Don Revie shaking his head in disbelief and looking up to the sky, before imploring the linesman to put right the wrong and get Tinkler to change his mind. A few fans, several of whom were middle aged, invaded the pitch, which led to Leeds having to play their first four matches of the following campaign away from their fortress. In the post-match interview the Don refused to condemn the invasion. He said a whole season’s graft had been undermined by one terrible decision. His interviewer, the brilliant Barry Davies, appeared to sympathise. That night, on Match of the Day, Davies screamed: ‘Leeds will go mad, and they have every justification for going mad! Don Revie, a sickened man. Just look at him, looking at the heavens in disgust!
3. The unlikely goal from a club stalwart
By Gareth R. Roberts, author of That Immortal Jukebox Sensation and What Ever Happened to Billy Parks?
Liverpool 2-1 Borussia Monchengladbach, May 25 1977
This was the greatest season in Liverpool’s history. This was the year when every obsessive minute, lovingly employed by first Bill Shankly, and then Bob Paisley, came to fruition; this was the season when Liverpool threatened to sweep all before them. By the first week of May, incredibly, they were still in the race for a unique and amazing treble: the League, the FA Cup and the European Cup.
The League was won after a goalless draw with West Ham at Upton Park, leaving Liverpool facing two finals in a week: first up, Man United at Wembley – the old Lancastrian enemy, an epic final in brilliant sunshine on a pitch burned yellow by a spring heatwave. Sadly for Liverpool fans, it was United who lifted the Cup after the flukiest of winners off Jimmy Greenhoff’s, not insubstantial, backside.
The challenge for Bob Paisley’s men was to physically and emotionally lift themselves to face Monchengladbach in Rome three days later. The Germans were a force in European football with the likes of Vogts, Heynkes, Stielike, Bonhof and the wonderful Dane Allan Simonsen.
Liverpool, though, had a couple of cards up their sleeves – one, was the incredible support of thousands of Scousers. The stories of Liverpudlians using every ruse going and every mode of transport possible to get to Rome are legendary. The other card they had was an indomitable spirit, and no-one personified this spirit more than Tommy Smith.
Smith, a Liverpool man born and bred, had been at the club as a schoolboy when Bill Shankly arrived and started to create the legend. Smith had played in every position, and fulfilled every role at Anfield. He was so hard that they said that he wasn’t born, he was quarried. He had a fearsome reputation during a time when an absence of cameras and more lax refereeing meant that footballers could sort things out in a more cynical way. That night, May 27th 1977, was to have been Tommy’s 600th and last game, the Anfield Iron was hanging up his boots to slide into the oblivion of retirement. Of course, no one who had ever watched him play expected him to go gently into that good night, not that night, no, the sentiment of the occasion would have no effect on him, he would be as committed as he was in his previous 599 appearances; but no one expected him to score a goal either, because, with the exception of a handful of penalties, one thing Tommy Smith wasn’t renowned for, was his goalscoring. In his 599 appearances he had scored less than twenty goals.
The match kicked off, Liverpool were nervous; Simonsen looked dangerous, quick and elusive. Clemence had to dive to his right to save from Heynkes then Bonhof hit the post, before the wonderful McDermott put the reds ahead with a crisp shot after a perfect run into the area. The lead looked tenuous and sure enough Simonsen sneaked between a couple of defenders to level in the second half. Now Monchengladbach were in the ascendency, Bonhof and Stielike were starting to exert their silken influence in the midfield – Heynkes was looking increasingly dangerous. This was the period when games are won and lost, this was the time when the pendulum of pressure can swing either way. Only one team can win a cup, and the Germans were looking the more likely.
Then Liverpool won a corner on the left, Steve Heighway lined the ball up and raised his arm. Smith and Hughes made their way into the penalty area. The ball sailed towards the six yard box. The ball travelled through the air. The ball. Heading on its way to assist in a moment of immortality. Smith rose. He leapt like he’d never leapt before. He timed his jump perfectly, he met the ball like the greatest centre forward that ever lived, like Lofthouse or Mortensen or Law and put the ball into the net. What a moment. What a career. An unexpected goal from a true hero.
4. The goal celebration
By Matt Oldfield, editor of OfPitchandPage
Chelsea 1-0 Middlesbrough, 21st August 1996
With Hoddle taking over from Venables as England boss, The Blues decided to promote Ruud Gullit to player-manager. What the dreadlocked Dutch legend lacked in managerial experience, he made up for in continental connections. Frank Leboeuf, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Di Matteo were the first to arrive; what these medal-winning internationals thought of their new teammates (Frank Sinclair, Andy Myers, Eddie Newton) one can only imagine. It was a unique blend, and expectations were high. A dull 0-0 away at Southampton was hardly the dream start we were looking for, and things weren’t looking much better back at The Bridge. Chelsea were heading towards another goalless draw, struggling to break down a Middlesbrough side sporting a few new stars of their own in Brazilian midfielder Emerson and Vialli’s former Juve strike partner Fabrizio Ravanelli.
With 85 minutes gone, Di Matteo, making his home debut, receives the ball about thirty yards from goal, dead centre, one defender in front, one fast approaching behind. With calm assurance, the Italian works an inch of space and rockets a drive into the bottom left corner. An excellent, pinpoint finish, but that’s only half the story. In the resulting frenzy, Di Matteo lies nonchalantly on the grass with his left arm pointing up at the sky. Captain Dennis Wise follows his example, as do Jody Morris and Dan Petrescu. Leboeuf throws himself down next to them, limbs spread like a starfish, and defensive partner Erland Johnsen crouches behind him, again with that left hand pointing. It was a team celebration like no other; the revolution had begun. Two months later, Gullit signed Gianfranco Zola. The rest is history.
5. The non-celebration
By Martin Greig, one half of BackPage Press and author of Road to Lisbon and The Zen of Naka: The Journey of a Japanese Genius
Celtic 1-1 Spartak Moscow (Celtic win 4-3 on penalties), 29th August 2007
There is a photograph of the Celtic players seconds after they have secured qualification for the group stages of the Champions League against Spartak Moscow at Celtic Park. Artur Boruc has just saved Maksym Kalynychenko’s penalty in the shoot-out, having earlier kept out Egor Titov’s. Lined up in a row across the halfway line, they have all started to run towards the Polish goalkeeper to celebrate. When his Celtic team-mates reach Boruc, there is a mass pile-on involving all the players and coaching staff. Well, not quite all of them. Shunsuke Nakamura – who had missed a penalty in the shootout and three chances during extra-time – smiles briefly then walks straight off the park with his head bowed.
Afterwards, Nakamura said: “I did not celebrate with the other players at full-time. I was really disappointed with myself because I missed so many chances during the game. I missed three in as many minutes. I sat and thought about what happened and what I had done.”
The concept of group responsibility is huge in Japan. From a young age, Japanese are indoctrinated with the idea that their group, whether it be a corporate organisation or football team, even a political party, is of paramount importance. Group responsibility dictates that an individual feels worse about damaging their group and colleagues than they do about the personal impact it will have on them.
In British football, a player who refuses to celebrate after scoring against a former club achieves respect. That night, Nakamura took the ‘non-celebration’ to new levels.
6. The inexplicable defeat
By David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football, Stillness and Speed: Dennis Bergkamp and #2Sides: Rio Ferdinand
Holland 1-2 West Germany, 7th July 1974
The 1974 World Cup Final, where Holland lost after taking the lead in the first bloody minute! It was two minutes before a German even touched the ball and the Dutch still lost! 40 years on and I’m not over it at all. I still replay scenes from that match. Cruyff and co. never won a World Cup and it gnaws away. If they had, they’d probably have won two or three because they’d have had that habit of winning. The ‘beautiful losing’ started that afternoon. Previously, they were unstoppable like their direct successors, the recent Spain and Barcelona sides. But that Dutch team never recovered. Years later when I met the players, they’d speak very calmly about everything else in their careers but when they got to that game, it was like hitting a wall. It was a tragedy and you didn’t need to be Dutch to feel it; even some Germans weren’t that thrilled.
I’m also old enough to remember the shock and grief surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. I made the comparison in a speech I gave in Holland at the Johan Cruyff University 10 years ago and I joked about my ‘quite frankly unforgivable bad taste in mixing up a moment of genuine trauma and national tragedy with the mere shooting of a politician’. I felt very bad for saying it but I can honestly say that the Dutch defeat has had more of an impact on me over the years. I still feel it even now.
7. The “couldn’t have scripted it better” ending
By Tom Oldfield, author of Cristiano Ronaldo: The £80 Million Man, Nadal: The Biography and Arsene Wenger: The Unauthorised Biography of Le Professeur
Southampton 3-2 Arsenal, 19th May 2001
It was with mixed feelings that Southampton were bringing down the curtain on 103 memorable years at The Dell. Moving to a sparkly new 32,000-seater stadium represented an important step forward for the club but The Dell had become a huge part of Southampton’s identity over the years (and, at times, a trump card in avoiding relegation). It just added to the occasion that the visitors were a star-studded Arsenal side featuring Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira.
It was already an emotionally-charged afternoon – and then, with 17 minutes to go, Southampton manager Stuart Gray cranked the atmosphere up another notch by bringing on substitute Matt Le Tissier, the man nicknamed “Le God”, who had saved so many seasons for Saints over the years with moments of genius, scoring 208 goals along the way. Bringing him off the bench seemed like a nice chance for the fans to show their appreciation.
But, with the game heading for a 2-2 draw, Le Tissier had one more trick up his sleeve. In the 89th minute, a long ball bounced enticingly just inside the penalty area and the Southampton number 7 swivelled to smash a left-footed half-volley into the top corner. Cue pandemonium at The Dell. When the final whistle sounded minutes later, Southampton fans completed an unforgettable day with a joyous pitch invasion. They could not have scripted it better. The Dell would soon be gone, but the memories would live on.