‘If God', Brian Clough once phlegmed, ‘had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he'd have put grass in the sky'. Cloughie, a self-styled defender of the beautiful game's more beautiful principles, was of the ‘keep-it-on-the-deck' school of football tactics, pass and move, etc.: football, as his sound bite suggests, needs grass. His Nottingham Forest side, a slick counter-attacking outfit, provided some lovely grassy goals. Here's Garry Parker's equaliser in the 1989 Simod Cup Final (about a minute in), which is a fine example. Some of their most important, and similarly beautiful, goals, though, were more sky heavy; see Trevor Francis' winner in the 1979 European Cup final.
John Robertson's beautifully flighted cross is not exactly cloudy, drifting only just out of reach of the near post defenders then into range of Francis' dive. Some crosses, though, do have a more aerosolic journey: like this one from Roberto Carlos before Zinedine Zidane's Champions League final stunner, or this European Championship final classic from Marco van Basten. Indeed, the distinction between a cross and a long ball can even be a fine one. A long ball, posted to the back post, from Ronald de Boer set up Denis Bergkamp's finest moment. Beautifully described by Bergkamp in an interview with David Winner (first published in The Blizzard), this quarter-final winning strike was the culmination of a series of perfectly efficient movements: de Boer's deep, deep cross was simply the most economic way of providing Bergkamp with the chance towards which his movement was directed. Alex Song's recent line in lovely lob-wedged assists, for Theo Walcott at the weekend and for two of Robin van Persie's finest goals this season, is the product of similar principles.
The premise, even, that team football, the pass-and-move principle, is necessarily hostile to the aerial ball is a shaky one. This Mick Channon goal, by a Kevin Keegan sporting Southampton, involves a couple of very unusual lofted passes and a bizarre, move-preserving header from Keegan himself on the touchline at halfway; it is still great.
All of which indicates that big can be beautiful. There's Carlos Alberto's carpet-based World Cup classic, of course, but Wayne Rooney's Manchester derby-winning wondergoal was only made possible by the ball ballooning into the sky off Pablo Zabaleta's shoulder.
There isn't, then, one perfect formula. Goals come in all shapes and sizes. (If you've got some time, have a look at the diversity of the favourite goals of a number of different writers, collected here). So too do strikers, and this brings us (oh so neatly) to Peter Crouch whose goal against Manchester City has become Match of the Day's goal of the season elect.
As everyone knows already, and with almost mythical perfection, the ball, having been cleared towards Crouch by Asmir Begovich didn't touch the ground until it was beyond Joe Hart in the City goal. High, direct and efficient, Crouch's goal is the perfection of the Stoke model. That is what makes it great.
Great. Not in a subjective, ‘this is why I like it', way but in a 'this is objectively brilliant' way. It is a great goal. In fact, it's perfect.
It is perfect because, just as there is no one formula for the perfect goal, there is not formula either for a great team, or a great player. The diverse goals above share a common feature, that each of them captures something of the essence of their scorer (both in a collective and an individual sense). Zidane's finish comes from his apparently ethereal control of time. Bergkamp's is the beautiful culmination of Dutch spatial awareness. Southampton's is a microcosm of a certain type of seventies team spirit (and also highlights Keegan's incredible work ethic). Carlos Alberto's is samba football.
And Crouch, himself a totem to the kick-and-run cloudy football, that despite Clough has never gone away, has thrown to the great god of football a beautiful offering on the cloud people's behalf. He deserves our thanks: thank you, Peter Crouch; thank you for being you.