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It’s OK to love and celebrate deflected goals

A deflected goal can never truly be brilliant. But sometimes it doesn't matter.

West Bromwich Albion v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Last weekend, Manchester United went to visit West Bromwich Albion, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic had quite the game. After five minutes he nutted Manchester United into the lead and shortly afterwards he barged into an airborne Craig Dawson with enough force to draw a yellowy-orange card. Then, just before the hour, he collected a pass from Wayne Rooney on the edge of the penalty area, cut inside and in between two defenders, then larruped an unstoppable one past the flailing goalkeeper. It was a goal of exceptional venom and class ...

... except it wasn't ...

... because the ball had hit the defender on the shin and deflected from over there to back there, from one side of goal to the other. This meant that Ben Foster, in goal, had no choice but to abandon his now-useless dive, sit down, and look sad and vaguely confused. Although in fairness, that is Ben Foster's default expression.

Now, for all that elite footballers are capable of manipulating the ball and themselves in extraordinary and imagination-defying ways, it's a stretch to imagine that playing for deflections ever gets more elaborate than hammering a cross across the box and hoping somebody sticks a foot out. Yes, Ibrahimovic is ridiculous, and yes, he can score side-footed lobs and contorted overheads from distances and angles that don't seem plausible.

But not even he, in all his improvisational majesty, can control the angle and speed at which Dawson swings his leg. Everybody does their best to pretend that it was still brilliant, of course. In part, one suspects, this is down to simple embarrassment at the initial overreaction.

You may recall Marcus Rashford's debut hat trick for the England U21s, and in particular the second goal, an impertinently glorious lob from the edge of the box against Norway ... or, in truth, a perfectly decent shot that hit a defensive foot and spooned up and over the goalkeeper.

It didn't matter. By the time anybody noticed, the word "glorious" and its synonyms had made its way out of the stadium and out through the radio and the internet, had settled into people's minds. And so glorious it remained. Everybody had already gone all in.

So, we've been fooled: this extraordinary thing was, in fact, just an ordinary thing followed by another ordinary thing. And often, we've been fooled by television. These moments — the ohmygoddidyouseethatohwaitithitthedefendernevermind goal — aren't just reserved for broadcast.

They are nevertheless quite a televisual thing, assisted by the flatness of the screen, the immediacy of the reverse angle replay, and the fact that commentators — working in the moment as they must — can't really get away with "And that was a goal, of uncertain provenance!"

Deflected goals seen live can quite happily remain brilliant forever, assuming that no highlights or other people are rude enough to ruin them for you. Television gives you a few seconds of celebration and then: pop! There went the bubble.

But an interesting sensation remains. With a popped bubble, there's always a lingering taste of washing-up liquid in the air. With a great-no-not-great goal, the sense and pleasure of greatness still hangs around, even though it should never have existed in the first place.

After all, whatever chemicals the body sends flooding around in moments of high footballing excitement have been released. Hordes of endorphins in replica kits are waving their scarves and doing knee-slides through your brain. The goal may not have been legitimately brilliant, but the response absolutely was.

What's happened, ultimately, is that you've been given a moment of pleasure that you should never have had. You've tricked yourself into thinking things were better than they are. And while the temptation is to feel a little bit silly — "Did you see that? Did you see that? Oh, I didn't see that ..." — perhaps we should instead relax into these moments. They may not have happened, but they felt good nonetheless. Sure, you were lied to, by the world, the television screen, and by your lying eyes. But it was fun.

Such goals are accidental gifts from a sport that otherwise seems determined to disappoint with one foot, and enervate with the other. Whether they actually happened is, frankly, unimportant: there was a goal, and it looked great, and while it may not make any end of season lists, the feeling lingers.

There aren't enough great goals in the world. Those moments when the brute and uncaring universe, which generally seems to lurch between indifference and active hatred, leans down to your ear and whispers "I love you, and in this instant I want you to be happy."

That didn't happen here. We know it didn't. We've got the tapes. But you still heard it, just the same, and you smiled.