The best goal I ever saw live had everything. It was a technically brilliant finish by one of the most gifted players ever to wear my club's shirt. It came in a pressurised situation, towards the end of the first leg of a play off semi final, away from home. It was live on TV, a rarity for my team. It even prolonged the lucky streak for our special 'gold' (more like mouldy bronze) away kit which was used on something like 12 occasions and never saw a defeat. But most of all it signified the end of a decade of decline.
My team is Stockport County. The unfortunate post-script to what I'm about to write is that we have since experienced unprecedented decline, only recently coming out of administration. To some, what has happened to our club in the last 18 months or so has tarnished all the good work that went into the previous 30 months. But to me, the moments are frozen in time, even if they were achieved by spending what we did not have.
Our best decade was the 1990's, with pioneering foreign manager Danny Bergara kicking things off with promotion from the old Fourth Division in May 1991. Dave Jones then helped us up into what is now the Championship, giving us our best ever season in 1996/97. I was growing up and it was a golden era that I look back on with immense pride. Even after Jones left us for Southampton, we still spent five seasons in the second tier, one of which was above the thorn in our side in terms of fanbase - Manchester City. That period saw us play them many times, only losing once and winning in dramatic circumstances several times. A rare period of bragging rights was cherished and they've never forgiven us, whatever they say. That said, when Gary Megson was unfairly sacked in 1999 the decade of success gave way to a decade of decline.
His replacement Andy Kilner had a tough job. He had his best players sold from under him and replaced by loan players and short termers seeing out their careers. Our demise was inevitable, and accelerated by the arrival of Carlton Palmer as Kilner's replacement. While we struggled it wasn't until the club and ground were sold to Brian Kennedy, owner of Sale Sharks that the rot really started to set in. The details are far too complicated to go into but it's fair to say when ensued very nearly led to the club ceasing to exist.
But then came Jim Gannon and fan ownership. For a brief time we were once again pioneers, just like when Danny Bergara became the first foreign manager to lead an English club side out at Wembley in 1992. We were early adopters to the supporter run model. When Kennedy relieved himself of the troublesome football club, he kept our home and allowed us to continue playing there. The fans took on the club and signed a deal to stay at Edgeley Park. It's a measure of the feelgood factor created by Jim Gannon that for a short time, the feelings of woe related to our home were put aside and we tolerated the parasitic rugby club. Gannon arrived with the club sitting adrift at the bottom of the football league having just been humiliated by Macclesfield Town, a side we traditionally looked down on in an almost fond way. With around 13 miles seperating the clubs they relished playing us on an equal footing and promptly hammered us 6-0. This was rock bottom.
As a fan, that moment where you think "Don't hit it, you'll never score from there" was in my mind and probably the minds of many of the away fans behind the goal we were attacking. But he hit it.
Gannon helped us avoid relegation to the conference and while it was clear the team was poor, he gradually remodelled it into a dynamic young squad rarely seen in the lower echelons. Most of the successful sides this low down were built on brawn and competitive spirit. Our team played an expansive 4-2-3-1 formation, with what Gannon called 'floating wingers', basing much of his philosophy on the continental way, referring to his left back as playing "the Grosso role" and talking of a "point striker". We also had the best disciplinary record in the league and in Gannon's first full season in charge we ended the campaign with a stunning 5-0 win at Darlington. It was only goal difference that denied us a place in the play offs. A fantastic turnaround for a club that had avoided non-league by the skin of their teeth just 12 months previous.
Then came the season which will live long in the memory. While we were eventually promoted via the play offs at a rain sodden and rather underwhelming new Wembley, it was the play off semi final first leg that stood out above all other goals that season and maybe for some, above pretty much any goal we'd ever seen.
Having secured a play off place, our opponents were to be Wycombe. We took a healthy following to Adams Park for the first leg, pretty much selling out the away end despite the off-putting kick off time (Sunday tea-time) and the fact it was on TV. Having experienced a horrible, rapid decline over the previous 8 years the mood was buoyant. We were going to do it weren't we? We were better than this shower. We were going up. But then Wycombe scored. We actually gave them the goal. John Ruddy, the Everton loanee who had kept our goal so admirably in the run-in pretty much gifted Wycombe a headstart and suddenly, the party mood was soured. Great. That's it then. We were used to failure and while we were positive, it was a fragile positivity. They've scored. That's it then. We're destined to be stuck in this shit league for 21 years like we were before Danny Bergara arrived a generation ago.
While we competed for the remainder of the game, the mood about the place was one of anti-climax and disappointment. We still gave plenty of support but as the game wore on without that telling away goal we started to feel desperate. A hopeful ball into the box was cleared back out. Paul Turnbull clipped it back in but again it was returned with interest.
Then it happened.
Having experienced a horrible, rapid decline over the previous 8 years the mood was buoyant. We were going to do it weren't we? We were better than this shower. We were going up. But then Wycombe scored.
Stephen Gleeson was a classy Irish midfielder who Jim Gannon had likened to a young Liam Brady. A bold comparison but one that seemed to be justified, as the promising player we'd borrowed from Wolves picked up international honours while with us and prospered in a formation that allowed him to express himself.
He watched the ball as it dropped out of the sky. As a fan, that moment where you think "Don't hit it, you'll never score from there" was in my mind and probably the minds of many of the away fans behind the goal we were attacking. But he hit it. And he scored. He scored the best goal I've ever seen. The goalkeeper was a future England squad member, Frank Fielding. The swerve on the ball and the technical excellence is captured perfectly by the TV cameras. Unfortunately, what is also captured by the TV cameras is yours truly skidding onto the pitch to join the players and dozens of other travelling fans to celebrate a goal that was not just technically brilliant, but also perfect in so many other ways. For me and many friends I have spoken to since, in punctuated the end of that horrible era. It was the moment when we all knew without any doubt in our minds that we were getting promoted. With the second leg plus a Wembley final to play that may seem arrogant but we just knew it was our time. What is also clear on the TV replays is the defiantly stoic, professional Jim Gannon losing himself momentarily and declaring his side as "a fucking proper team". I'm not normally a fan of Sky's input in the game but I'll forever be grateful for the various angles they captured of the goal, though not so grateful at them catching me totally losing myself in the moment, something I have never done before or since.
While we may have hit the rocks quite badly since, that elevates the special moment even more. We've been accused by such luminaries as Keith Hill as "cheating" our way to promotion that year because we overspent. To some, that takes away from the achievement. But to me that moment is crystalised. Nothing can take away from how so many of us felt. That sheer euphoria.
Paul Lambert was interviewed post match about Gleeson's goal. "That goal changes nothing" he claimed, quite laughably. It changed everything Paul. It changed everything.
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