Celebrating the game’s minutiae, one tiny fragment at a time
You probably haven’t heard of Samuel Okunowo. If you had heard of him, it’s likely that you’d forgotten anyway. Currently playing in his native Nigeria for Sunshine Stars FC, he had a front-row seat for an iconic goal whilst playing for Barcelona, as Manchester United’s strike partnership of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole reached its dizzying zenith.
You probably will remember this next bit. Roy Keane rolls an innocuous pass infield to Yorke, who allows the ball to run through his legs for Cole. The men then exchange a one-two that is as devastating in its speed of execution as well as its sheer simplicity; such an easy thing to do, and yet not, like any true act of genius. The finish from Cole is typically cool, with the sort of ruthless inevitability typical of those rare moments when the opposition would probably stop to applaud if their pride could allow it.
Okunowo adds some memorable punctuation to this moment, cast as he was as the slapstick fall guy. Yorke’s return pass reduces the young defender to a picture of befuddlement, as he struggles to comprehend what’s just happened. As he spins on the spot to contemplate his uselessness, he throws his arms to the heavens in a gesture that could be attempting to say many things, chiefly among them, this: “Just what in the hell is goin’ on here?!”
The gesture itself is barely perceptible unless you’re looking for it, but once you notice it, Okunowo’s flailing arms are remarkable. He turns from Cole to Yorke and back again, and is left with blood so twisted that he seems to be literally grasping for something to maintain his balance; like a weak swimmer reaching for the side of the pool, this is a man well and truly out of his depth, and has probably forgotten his towel as well. Until Carles Puyol should decide to turn out for the blaugrana in a pair of rollerskates, Okunowo will surely retain the title he secured that night of Most Frank Spencerish Barcelona Defender.
It may seem harsh to castigate the man’s lack of sangfroid given the extraordinary telepathic skill that had unpicked the defence, but it’s interesting to note his subsequent career path: loaned out to Benfica the next season, CD Badajoz the season after that. Greece, Romania, Albania, Ukraine, the Maldives and England’s Waltham Forest would eventually take their turn in playing host to a career heavily stalled by injury. After leaving Barcelona he would only achieve appearances in the double-figures just once in his career.
There lies a perverse sort of glory in this. Who knows what might’ve become of Okunowo, once trusted to start a Champions League game between two of Europe’s most storied clubs, had he not been plagued by injuries. If he does nothing else in his career (something he appears to be well on his way to achieving) he will at least be able to say that he was caught in the eye of a perfect storm, as a fleeting but fabulous partnership reached it’s perfect peak of destruction. And while he was powerless to stop it, he managed to contribute to the spectacle with his sheer hopelessness, which for so long remained concealed by the brilliance which spawned it.