Celebrating the game’s minutiae, one tiny fragment at a time
It was the day of my thirteenth birthday when Michael Owen scored a career-defining goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. I remember every glorious detail without needing to consult a replay. The brief look up from David Beckham as he plays the ball in-field. Owen’s first touch with the outside of his right boot. The dip of the shoulder that fooled the Argentinean defence. The onrushing Paul Scholes arriving in vain. Owen’s expression of assured disbelief as he runs away with energy still to spare.
Another detail swept up in the drama of the moment is something I recall just as easily, and it comes from the substitutes’ bench. Synonymous with the memory of that goal is the reaction of one Paul Merson, who rises with the rest of the squad to celebrate Owen’s strike. As he leads the applause, he turns around to be captured by the camera as he says something to Teddy Sheringham. It’s too quick to be lip-read, much less heard, but you can see everything you need to know in his face. A mixture of incredulity and wonder at what he’s just seen, transmitted to a global audience as everyone else marvels at what’s just occurred.
The reason I recall Merson’s face with such fondness is because of the way it communicates so much in such a short space of time – he is seen for a mere second before the picture cuts back to a breathless Owen jogging back to resume the game. At such a young age, I felt as if this was the commencement of some exciting new dawn. I had watched my first World Cup four years previously, when England failed to join the party in the USA. Even at the age of eleven I could acknowledge the patriotic power of home advantage offered by Euro 96.
But Owen’s goal was something I had never seen before. England had just shown that they had something no-one else did, a weapon that could cause whatever damage was necessary, as long as it was deployed in the right direction. It seemed so easy, as if England had just discovered a cheat code on a video game. It seemed so incomprehensibly fortuitous that suddenly we had someone that could just do whatever he wanted, and he just fell into the lap of every future England manager that would be able to select him. My mind, swamped as it was with nascent hormones and birthday cake sugars, could not process the significance of this goal. It was more than just one goal in one game. This was something seismic and I knew that straight away.
That brief moment, where Merson giggled and shook his disbelieving head for the world to see, was like looking into a mirror. Merson looked the way that I felt, and it would later offer succour in the face of England’s eventual elimination. To see an actual professional footballer react just like I had… that meant that it wasn’t just youthful naivety on my part. It meant that I was right and that eventually he would elevate beyond the prescribed heights of the England team, and together they would do something amazing.
Of course, it wouldn’t quite work out that way. The goal would weigh heavily on Owen’s shoulders, and the intrinsic declaration of promise would unwittingly taint public perceptions of his career (Click here to read more on Owen’s dubious legacy). For all that, the excitement, shock and joy I felt at that moment, mere hours into my teenage years, is something I will always remember, because Paul Merson is there as a totemistic reminder of the chemicals that rushed through a brain yet to be sullied by hormones, adolescence, and the crushing reality of being an England supporter. And I shall forever be thankful that Owen did not hit, to use Merson’s Soccer Saturday parlance, the ‘beans on toast’.