The Greatest (Own) Goal I Ever Saw: Norwich's Bryan Gunn vs. Ipswich Town

When a pitch divot became an Ipswich legend...
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When a pitch divot became an Ipswich legend...

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The Greatest (Own) Goal I Ever Saw: Norwich's Bryan Gunn vs. Ipswich Town

The mid-90s weren’t exactly the best time to be an Ipswich Town fan. After a couple of seasons of steady decline, they were relegated from the Premier League in 1995 with, what was at the time, a record low points total. Also in that season, they were shellacked 9-0 at Old Trafford – a result that has yet to be beaten in the top flight for sheer, embarrassing one-sidedness. Then, when they started the 1995/6 season in Division One, they decided that the best colour scheme for their away kit was green, purple and mustard. Why, Ipswich? Why?

That said, garish get-up aside, the first season back in the second tier wasn’t too bad. Now they were facing teams of the stature of Port Vale and Southend United rather than Liverpool and Arsenal, they were firmly ensconced in the top half of the table for much of the campaign. Not only that, their fierce local rivals, Norwich City, had also been relegated from the Premier League in 1995, but were finding it tougher going in Division One than the Super Blues.

Norwich had little to play for when they visited Portman Road on 13 April, 1996, but it was a different story for Ipswich. A promising campaign looked to be in danger of petering out thanks to successive defeats at the hands of Reading and Grimsby and, with only half a dozen games of the season remaining, they were in desperate need of a win.

Mulletted footballing throwback Ian Marshall put Ipswich ahead in front of the largest crowd of the season, but gradually Norwich found their way back into the game. Jamie Cureton – still playing in the Football League to this day – came on as a substitute and stole an equaliser. It’s bad enough to concede a goal at the best of times, let alone to a player who had died their hair bright green for the equation. There’s a joke in there somewhere about Cureton being an “evergreen” player, but it seems impossible to make it without it being a grim exercise for everyone.

It looked like the game was destined to end in a frustrating stalemate. Ipswich pushed for a late winner, but their efforts were scuppered by their own nerves, and by the pitch, which was full of bobbles, ruts and divots – the kind of which you forget most playing surfaces were littered with at the time.

However, one of those divots was about the come to their rescue.

With just a few minutes remaining, yet another Ipswich attack broke down, and the ball ended up safely with the Norwich defensive line. Under pressure from striker Alex Mathie, Norwich defender Robert Ullathorne elected to pass the ball back to his goalkeeper, Bryan Gunn. But Ullathorne slightly overhit his backpass, giving Mathie the encouragement to continue chasing the ball. With Mathie bearing down, Gunn decided to attempt to clear first time.

What happened next remains the stuff of Ipswich legend.

At the precise moment Gunn looked to connect with the ball, a well-placed divot provided just enough spring to take it over his outstretched foot, and it rolled slowly into the net. Utterly deflated, Norwich couldn’t mount a comeback and Ipswich won the game 2-1.

Watching the video of the goal again one more time (alright, ten more times), you begin to notice things. You notice the way Gunn tries to kick the ball so hard, his momentum makes him almost pirouette before falling to his knees. You see Gunn look behind him, realise what’s happened, consider chasing the ball back to the goal, and then recognise the futility of his actions (or, perhaps, life itself) – all of this takes place in about a quarter of a second. The camera lingers on Ullathorne’s face, and his expression is that of a man who used to think he understood all that this world had to throw at him, yet is being forced into questioning his entire belief system. Poor Robert Ullathorne, looking like the bass player from a second-rate Britpop group – he may well have been the first English player to move abroad under the Bosman ruling, but in Suffolk, he’ll always be associated with that moment.

Yet as all supporters know, football is a cruel game, and so it proved for Ipswich at the climax of the season. Going into the final game, Ipswich required a win at home to Millwall to sneak into the play-offs and be part of the four-team showdown for promotion. With the game heading for a goalless draw, substitute James Scowcroft evaded his marker, and planted a header past the goalkeeper and towards the bottom corner. The ball struck another divot, changed course, hit the base of the post and bounced out. The match finished 0-0, and Ipswich ended the season in seventh, two points outside the play-offs, when a win would have taken them into fifth.

It would take another four years – and a much improved playing surface – for Ipswich to re-enter the Premier League, where they’d surprise everyone by finishing fifth and qualifying for Europe in their first season back. In November 2001, they beat Internazionale 1-0 in a UEFA Cup tie, but somehow, there’s still something more satisfying about getting one over on your local rivals, and in such humiliating fashion.

@joeripcord