On Sunday, England face Italy in the Euro 2020 final, an event which promises to be the defining sporting occasion of our generation. I'll be watching it on the television with my parents, but I have been lucky enough to witness some moments of sporting greatness in person throughout my life. Here are six of the best.
#6 - Alan Shearer's hat-trick for Blackburn against QPR
Growing up in a pub, the brewery would treat us to tickets to matches once a season. The first of these, which was the first football match I ever saw live, was Blackburn Rovers vs Queens Park Rangers, during Blackburn's title-winning season. That day, I saw the greatest striker ever at his imperious best, as Alan Shearer rattled home a hat-trick in a 4-0 victory. The goal that sealed the hat-trick, an absolute thunderbastard from thirty yards that smashed in off the crossbar right in front of me, remains the greatest - though not most memorable - goal I've ever seen live. I got to meet the great man afterwards, and though I didn't know how much he would come to mean to me in the future, it was still a special occasion.
#5 - England hit a century in the Rugby World Cup
Though my passion for rugby has waned in my adult years, limited now to World Cups, the Six Nations and games against the All Blacks, back when I was in school, it nearly superseded football in my heart. Maybe it was because I was better at playing rugby than football, maybe it's because my rugby coach, Mr. Kremer, was one of the greatest men to ever live, but for a few years it was touch-and-go which sport would emerge as my favourite. During that time, Mr. Kremer organised a school trip for the rugby lads to Twickenham, to see England play Tonga in the World Cup. I'd never been awake so early in all my life to catch that bus, and as we filed into the iconic stadium, I was shattered. The English performance that day reinvigorated us all, as they ran in thirteen tries and a century of points. It would be another four years until they lifted the trophy, but seeing them break three figures was something very special indeed. Exhausted from the travel, my school team got hammered when we played the following morning, but it was more than worth it.
#4 - Kazuchika Okada vs Minoru Suzuki at NJPW Royal Quest
You can argue wrestling isn't a sport, but I don't really care. Throughout the 2010s, New Japan Pro Wrestling established itself as the leading wrestling company on the planet, delivering classic after classic of hard-hitting 'Strong Style' matches based around the concepts of honour, integrity and fighting spirit. Now, in the closing months of the decade, they came to England for the first time, and the iconic IWGP Heavyweight Championship was on the line, with the iconic champion Kazuchika Okada defending against one of the hardest-hitting of them all, Minoru Suzuki. For over thirty minutes, these two warriors traded blows, giving those in attendance a classic battle of skill, endurance and heart. So used to seeing wrestlers take it easy on these shores, Suzuki and Okada instead left it all in the ring, giving us one of the best matches ever held in this country. That I got to see it with an old school friend I hadn’t seen in a decade made it even more special.
#3 – Tino Asprilla's hat-trick against Barcelona
Sir Bobby Robson's famous quote about going to your first match and falling in love could have been written for this night. Having won tickets to the game on Long Wave Radio Atlantic 252 (what a great radio station that was), the first time I would see my beloved Newcastle play was against the iconic Barcelona, featuring stars like Ivan de la Peña, Luis Figo and the mighty Rivaldo. I had never heard noise like in St. James' Park that night, and the lads rose to the occasion to match the fervour of the fans. It was the night Faustino Asprilla wrote himself into Newcastle folklore, scoring a hat-trick to give Newcastle a famous victory, and he carved his name into my heart at the same time. In fifty years, Viva Asprilla will still be remembered as one of the greatest nights in the history of the club. I still can't believe I was there, especially given the unbelievable circumstances of winning a radio contest to get there, and it's a night I will cherish forever – even if I will always regret getting Tomasson on the back of my shirt before the match, rather than the name of the iconic Colombian.
#2 - Gary Anderson's nine-darter at the Matchplay
Until the pandemic, going to the Matchplay darts at Blackpool had become an annual tradition for me and my friends, and we'd seen some great matches and had some wonderful nights. None, however, topped seeing darting perfection achieved by one of our collective favourite players. The atmosphere was already electric, with the crowd chanting Gary Anderson's name from the moment the previous game finished right through the early legs. As he opened the fourth leg with a 180, the roars went up, and the volume increased as his fourth, fifth and sixth darts crashed into the treble twenty bed, the roars getting louder and more prolonged with each one. As Cullen threw his three darts, barely anyone paid attention, too busy grabbing each other in anticipation of being witness to something truly special. The seventh dart flew into the treble twenty, and the roar went up, louder than before. The eighth dart hit the treble nineteen, and we were bruising each other's arms, so tightly did we grasp, so close we were to pure magic. Anderson took aim, and threw the final dart. All eyes were trained on the centre of the double twelve, thousands of people hoping and praying it went in. The roars were replaced with a mass holding of breath. We heard the thud of dart hitting the board, and a split-second later, the big screen revealed its final destination. Nestled in the middle of the thin sliver of red, the unmistakeable sight of the ultimate tungsten triumph was undeniable. The ninth dart was in. Anderson had done it. There may have been over thirty thousand fewer people in attendance, but the roar that erupted matched the one Tino Asprilla created against Barcelona, a joyous rapture at being present for the first televised nine-dart finish in four years. As the sweat dripped from the ceiling of the Winter Gardens, Anderson and Cullen went on to have the greatest darts match I'll ever see live, culminating in a come-from-behind victory in additional legs and a night of raucous celebration, one that my friends and I will talk about for the rest of our lives.
#1 - Jimmy Glass saves Carlisle United in stoppage-time
I’ve been present for some truly special sporting occasions, but I don’t think anything will top this. A journeyman goalkeeper signs for a club on an emergency loan, after the transfer deadline has passed, and saves them from being relegated out of the Football League in stoppage-time, writing himself into football folklore and local legend forever. It’s the sort of story that, had you presented it to Hollywood studios, would be dismissed as being too unrealistic, but reality surpasses anything writers can create. I was about fourteen at the time, and went with a couple of school friends more for the banter and experience than anything else. We kept getting glared at by old folk who were incensed by our calling the rotund ginger Plymouth striker ‘The Big Beef,’ and our generally-jovial tone was not appreciated by those for whom the situation was far more grave. As the match went on, though, it was impossible not to get sucked into full-blooded support for the team twenty miles up the road, who were fighting against all odds to stay as a professional club. After going behind, they managed to level the scores, but as the game entered stoppage-time, the confirmed results elsewhere meant only a goal would save them from possible extinction. As it went out for a corner, a roar of terrified defiance went up from the crowd. Jimmy Glass ran forward, made his way into the centre of the huddle, and as the keeper saved a header, the ball fell loose inside the six-yard box. The fastest to respond was Glass, who swung his right boot at the ball and fired it into the corner of the net. The stands emptied as the unlikeliest of heroes was buried beneath thousands of jubilant fans, a number that, by this point, included my friends and me. The local club, saved by a goalkeeper who shouldn’t have been there, with a stoppage-time winner that defied belief. When we’re old and grey, there’ll be a hundred thousand people who claim they were there. I was lucky enough to actually be there, for one of the greatest stories in the history of sport. Just incredible.
Quote of the Chapter:
“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
Sir Bobby Robson
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