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The History Boys: Johnny Metgod V Manchester United (1984)

Johnny Metgod knew how to strike a football and he will be rightly remembered for 'that' goal. But there was another special one too - join me in celebrating it.

Simon Bruty/Getty Images

The 1984-85 football season was not a great one for English football. Come the dénouement, death and violence would cloud the landscape. On the final day of the season – 11 May - 56 lives would be claimed and more than 200 others injured at Bradford City’s Valley Parade in a fire. Tragedy would strike also at Birmingham, where rioting Leeds fans will hold up play and later cause the collapse of a brick wall, killing a 14-year-old boy. Eighteen days later – 29 May - 39 spectators, most of them Italian, will be killed when a wall will collapse at the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus in Brussels at the woefully underprepared Heysel Stadium. Despite the tragedy, the match will be played and Juventus will win the Cup owing to a Michel Platini penalty.

Football and goals are meaningless trivialities when set against such a context. But it is the hope of small moments of unconfined joy that drags people to football matches in the first instance. Johnny Metgod provided not only one but two such ‘pinch yourself’ moments for Nottingham Forest fans.

Metgod was signed from Real Madrid in 1984 after 49 appearances. He had previously made his name for AZ Alkmaar, making 195 apps and scoring 26 goals. His debut for Forest came on the opening day of the season away at Hillsborough in a 3-1 loss where he found himself on the receiving end of a crunching tackle – welcome to England. Usually deployed as a holding midfielder and occasionally at centre back, he looked as much at home in possession of the football as he looked uncomfortable when being asked to chase around and make reducer tackles.

It was on a freezing later afternoon in the dying days of 1984 that Johnny Metgod carved his mark into Forest folklore. Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United strolled into town with a very decent team featuring Paul McGrath, Bryan Robson and Arnold Muhren. They would bring home the FA cup come the end of the season thanks to a Norman Whiteside goal in extra-time to claim a 1–0 victory over that season’s champions, Everton at Wembley.  Their tough tackling defender Kevin Moran will become the first player to be sent off in an FA Cup final when he will topple Peter Reid. 18 days later, a young man called Nigel will pull on the number nine shirt and make his debut Forest in a 2–1 home win over Ipswich Town and Forest will stumble into ninth position in the final reckonings.

But that’s all in the future for now. That’s not important right now.

In the first half, United take the lead. Frank Stapleton beautifully dissected the Forest defence to send Alan Brazil through on goal. For some weird reason, Hans Segers decides to eschew the tried and trusted convention of utilising the flappy things on the end of his arms and slides in feet first with the glee and recklessness of an eight year old hurtling down a back-garden water slide on a summer’s day. The result is inevitable – penalty awarded after Brazil ends up eating turf, limbs flailing like an upturned turtle.

Gordon Strachan dispatches the spot-kick with nonchalant panache, even taking time to point to the corner of the goal in which the ball is snugly nestled as part of his celebration, as if to indicate that the resting place of the ball from this penalty was always thus.

Shortly after, a misplaced ball from the right back area is intercepted in midfield and lands at the feet of Strachan. Although 25 yards out, he takes aim for that very same bottom corner of the net and expertly finds his target – not with pace or power but beautiful precision. Segers looks a defeated man, hunched shoulders and a wee midfielder pulling the same card trick on him. Two goals down. Life is a real downer sometimes.

Nonetheless, the stage is thus set for perhaps the most satisfying scoreline a fan can hope to enjoy. Steve Hodge reduces the arrears after finding himself one on one thanks in part to a deflection. With the minimum of fuss, he slams the ball into the Trent End net. Into the 77th minute and a trickle of a cross is woefully dealt with the Manchester United defence. The ball falls to Gary Mills around nine yards out and he wallops the ball past Gary Bailey. Look carefully though and you’ll see the distinctive gait of the rather avuncular figure of Metgod lurking around on the six-yard line after lumbering up to support the attack. He fancies a goal. A comeback from two down, rescued in the last minute is great – but it gets better.

Forest are awarded a free kick deep into added time. The ball is positioned just outside the penalty area and Metgod steps up. Ian Bowyer stands a few yards back, hands on hips – he’s seen it all before, he was here when Brian Clough walked through the doors, he’s scored a decisive goal in the European Cup semi final, he’s won the goddamn European Cup. Having said that though, he’s probably seen more free-kicks ballooned over the bar more times than mere mortals like us have put socks on inside out.

But not this time.

Metgod ambles up to the ball and seems to scoop it over the wall with a side-foot. This is all before David Beckham’s weird off-balance striking position and before Cristiano Ronaldo mastered the skill of making the ball go all wobbly at pace. His strike is not powerful but it is perfectly placed in the top corner, beyond Bailey’s despairing dive. He crumples to the floor with a thud just as the crowd behind him jump in unison. The fall of their first jump neatly coincides with Bailey’s body clunking onto the damp, cold City Ground turf. Johnny Come Lately cares not a jot though – he’s off.

There are numerous factors which make this goal particularly memorable: in a beautiful symmetry of tessellation, all of the goals are at same end, the kit sported is a club classic, the SKOL sponsor, the cold, dark early evening of a winter’s game at the final whistle after the sepia sunlight of the early afternoon kick off, the celebration…oh my, the celebration.

He runs towards the Brian Cough Stand (then the highfaluting Executive Stand) with all the athleticism of Carl Lewis…but only briefly. Suddenly the adrenaline starts to subside – he slows. The right arm is used to punch the air, mimicked neatly by Davenport in pursuit. A brief windmill with the same right arm and then...where is everyone? Keep up, fools. Where are you? What kept you? He is eventually caught and halted, at which point, he looks absolutely done for, relieved that he can now stop.

Of course, there is that other goal that came later against West Ham United on the 2nd April 1986: that goal for which he is most famous. That goal against West Ham United and that accompanying celebration. Scott Murray of The Guardian beautifully captured both events:

The best goal of the 1980s, and the greatest celebration of them all as well. His side having been awarded a free kick at least 30 yards from goal, Forest midfielder Johnny Metgod - a taller, funkier, less desperate version of George Costanza - stepped up to take it. Subtlety was not in his mind: he simply belaboured the ball in a straight line, thinking (not unreasonably) that anyone getting in the way would either be taken with it, or decapitated. As it arrowed into the roof of title-chasing West Ham's net, Metgod simply turned round and prodded his finger in the air five times. An innocently gleeful act which communicated the sheer violence of the strike, in the style of a barstool philosopher who has slipped into "But this is what I'm saying" mode after his seventh pint.

The best goal of the 1980s - perhaps. The most startling goal of the 1980s - definitely. The most iconic celebration of the 1980s - undoubtedly.

But the winner against Manchester United in added time to herald a famous comeback, well…we’re deep into the woods of football fan perfection with this goal.

The talented Dutchman would spend three years Trentside, making 116 apps and 15 goals, before being sold to Spurs where he lasted only a season before returning to his homeland – Feyenoord – and then embarking upon an extensive coaching career in Holland, England (Portsmouth and Derby) and America (Colorado Rapids).

Johnny Metgod, signed from Real Madrid, with a right foot capable of unleashing symbiotic power and beauty. His goals are an important brick in the history of Nottingham Forest.