The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw: Arsenal's Petrovic vs Stoke, 1983

It wasn't recorded by any TV cameras but when that deadball was kissed into life by the laces of Vladimir Petrovic at Arsenal on a cold Saturday afternoon in January 1983 it was almost like a mirage.
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The deadball was kissed into life by the laces of Vladimir Petrovic at Highbury on a cold Saturday afternoon in January 1983.

A curling, swirling strike, from way beyond the edge of the Stoke penalty box, it left visitors goalkeeper Peter Fox grasping thin air. This stunner from the ‘Pižon’ (pigeon) as he was nicknamed seemed to take a moment to sink in, such was the rarity of goal of such quality back then. But when the penny dropped, the North Bank went mad and I remember having to clutch my NHS specs tight as were all forced into a celebratory 'po-go' amongst the monkey nut shells and cigarette ends carpeting the terraces.

That goal undoubtedly was the highlight of a season that was book-ended with the buying of Lee Chapman in August and the bombing out of the FA Cup semi-final to Manchester United in April.

Those who witnessed it - sadly none of them operating a TV camera - were left in awe. This was a time when - as most Gooners will agree - we were shit. Among those who were there that day was Paul Simpson, founding editor of FourFourTwo magazine. He would later describe the goal on the magazine's website as almost 'a mirage'.

I've since been lucky enough to see the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Davor Suker score momentary crowd silencers of sheer class at Highbury. I've also revelled in much more successful seasons than 1982-83 - but this strike from Petrovic still burns brightly in my memory.

When I got the chance to speak to Brian McDermott, Petrovic's Arsenal team-mate at the time about it, he had nothing but praise for the bit-part 'pigeon'. “Vladimir turned up not speaking a word of English,” says McDermott. “But he could see a pass where others couldn’t and was truly ahead of his time. It was just a shame he wasn't there for long. I remember he set up an easy tap-in goal for me at Upton Park with a perfect pass from the wing after beating his man - a real quality player, but very light, physically, which didn't help him.”

While flitting, delicate midfielders with all the consistency of a weather front have become the mainstay of Arsene Wenger's transfer policy in recent years, back in 1982, when Petrovic arrived from Red Star Belgrade he was a continental novelty.

Back in Yugoslavia he'd left a mark. He was the leader of Red Star team who were runners-up of the 1979 UEFA Cup, and Yugoslav Player of the Year in 1980.

From Arsenal he went to Antwerp in Belgium where he teamed-up with Ratko Svilar, a Serbian goalkeeper who was later linked with a money laundering and fur-coat smuggling racket.

“He was a very intelligent player; a thinking, highly imaginative technical virtuoso with an impeccable vision of the game, a superb passer who also scored goals,” explains Aleksandar Holiga, editor of FourFourTwo in Croatia.

These days he'd be comparable to Luka Modric. He'd get the same protection too. But back then referees took their inspiration from the band on the Titanic. When another North Bank hero, Charlie Nicholas, was exorcised into the stands by a challenge from Graham Roberts at White Hart Lane, the man in black simply waved 'play on'.

These were tough times off the pitch too. Especially for players wanting to leave the Eastern Bloc. “At the time Yugoslav players were not allowed to move abroad until the calendar year in which they were to turn 28,“ explains Holiga. Arsenal wanted Petrovic to sign immediately after the 1982 World Cup on a three-year deal. But when Yugoslavia failed to get beyond the first stage of the tournament, the nation's FA insisted on the age ruling, which put the move on hold for six months.

By the time Petrovic did sign, on a short-term deal, Arsenal were already adrift in the league and out of the UEFA cup. This, coupled with his failure to deal with the physical side of the English game, meant that a goal he scored after setting up Brain McDermott for that toe-in at West Ham in May 1983 would be his last in an Arsenal shirt.

From Arsenal he went to Antwerp in Belgium where he teamed-up with Ratko Svilar, a Serbian goalkeeper who was later linked with a money laundering and fur-coat smuggling racket. Petrovic then moved to Brest, in France, returned to Begium to play for Standard Liege before finishing his career with French side Nancy.

Today the pigeon is the national manager of Serbia, but his campaign to get them to the finals of Euro 2012 has not gone well. It began with a defeat to Estonia and was followed by the abandonment and forfeit of their tie with group C leaders Italy because of rioting by Serbian fans.

“I'm really glad if I managed to leave some trace at Arsenal, if I'm remembered,“ Petrovic told Serbian newspaper Politika last year. I for one will think of him fondly, especially when Rory Delap 'towels up' against us this season.

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