The best goal I ever saw was, by rights, one that I shouldn’t have been excited by. In fact, it was a game I shouldn't even have been at. I mean, Newcastle aren’t my team. OK, I've got a soft spot for the North East club, having lived in the city for a few years in the 1990s and seen them a few times, but I'm (and here's something you don't hear said very often) actually a Gillingham fan.
But you know how it is: a mate has a spare ticket, so why not. And 1996 was an exciting time for the Toon Army. The previous season had been the one when they’d famously squandered a 12-point lead to concede the Premier League to Man United, but now Alan Shearer had come back. Alan f***ing Shearer. The sheet metal worker’s son from Gosforth. The prodigal son – signed from Blackburn for a then-world record £15m. Nowadays, of course, he’s just the dour, grumpy-looking bloke on the telly, but it was very different then.
This was a man who, for a few wonderful weeks during Euro 1996, really had made it feel like football was coming home. A man who’d scored twice in England’s 4-1 demolition of Holland. Who won the tournament’s golden boot, bagging five. Who thumped in penalties in a remarkably un-English sort of way. This was a totally different era: one when Shearer had hair, for God’s sake (there again, it was a time when Gazza still had a liver).
"It proved the relentless optimism of football supporters isn’t misplaced. Every season is a new start. Every game is a new start."
It was 21st August. Big Al’s home debut against Wimbledon. He was always going to score: it was just a case of when. As it happened, he left it late – 88 minutes late, to be precise. A blistering 25-yard free kick curled into the top corner at the Leazes End of St James’ Park to seal a 2-0 victory.
It was a sign of things to come – he went on to net 206 for The Magpies, becoming the team’s all-time leading goal-scorer. The man himself reckons the best goal he ever scored for the club was his 2002 volley against Everton, but his opener was special for me. It epitomised so much about the beautiful game. After the crushing disappointment of the previous year, this was a new beginning. It proved the relentless optimism of football supporters isn’t misplaced. Every season is a new start. Every game is a new start.
Expectations were high. Optimism was at fever pitch. Anything could happen. There was the same frenzy of excitement as a few years before, when Gazza or Andy Cole had been their unstoppable best. It was a feeling that would again grip the Tyneside faithful when another local lad, the late, great Bobby Robson would leave PSV Eindhoven to manage the club.
Back at home, us Gills fans actually had stuff to celebrate (again, something you don't hear said very often). Under new manager Tony Pulis, we'd won promotion to the Second Division and were thinking big. Well, biggish. But when Shearer scored that goal, I wasn’t thinking about The Gills. Thousands of Geordies went nuts. I did, too. And for a few seconds, I almost wished I was a Newcastle supporter.