For Beautifully Red: Reinventing the Heel

This was written for Beautifully Red, the United site dedicated to cataloguing the beautiful moments that might normally pass us by…

These days in the Prem, when the ball flashes across the box a little behind the striker after an over-cooked cut back, or perhaps as the result of the attacking player mistiming their run towards the near post, without a moment of hesitation said player will attempt a back-heel flick. It’s a familiar sight which produces a wide range of outcomes, many of them are infuriating, some amusing, others embarrassing, but very occasionally the outcome is breathtaking.

At United we have three strikers in particular who are considerably gifted in the craft of the back-heel flick: Chicha, RVP and back-heel flick ambassador, Danny Welbeck.  It’s only right that we should have our fair share of Flickists, as it was in fact our very own Lee Sharpe who created the concept at Old Trafford on the 19th October 1994.

The only thing players in the professional leagues of English football used their heels for prior to this, was as a bracing anchor of sorts, as they planted their standing foot, hoofing and toe-nebbing their way towards the opposition goal. So neglected was the heel, that substitute players were routinely checked before entering the field to see if they still had theirs attached. Players in the starting eleven, who may have foregone these checks in their eagerness to get on with the hoofing and nebbing, were encouraged, at breaks in play – particularly during corners – to run these inspections themselves by stamping their heels against the base of a post. It would be a lie to try and pretend that players hadn’t used the back portion of their lower leg as a passing tool at all before Lee Sharpe pioneered this particular technique (during this, the goal I’ve chosen as my favourite of all time), but it would be a misnomer to refer to those graceless out-moded actions as back-heel flicks; more accurate perhaps would be ‘calf-punts’.

The build up to this goal – which would become the antithesis of its finish – was typical of its chief architects: Ince and Keane. Ince was proof, if it were needed, that God does not in fact love a trier – not the God of football anyway. The football was not a friend of Paul Ince and much of his career was spent attempting to bully it into submission. Occasionally the ball would surrender, adopt a glazed look and shift in a direction similar to Ince’s intended target, but more often than not it would instead take pleasure in nestling awkwardly between his feet, whilst he was in full flight, and then delight in watching as he planted his face deep into the Old Trafford turf (Ince tried many things to out manoeuvre the football; he would attempt to trick it into thinking that perhaps he wasn’t playing that day, by coming out the dressing room last, or waiting until the last moment to put on his shirt, or he would adopt a disguise, like periodically trying to grow a moustache, but so poor were his attempts that he now receives royalties from the organisers of Movember).  However, what Ince did have in abundance was his own high opinion of himself, which afforded him an enviable tenacity.

And then there’s Roy Keane.

The truly special thing about this goal was how it triumphed in spite of itself. As Ince wrestles with the ball and lunges two-footed towards his own player, in isolation, the first part of this goal plays out like an excruciating brutalist opera (not in a good way), but then, just as he loses his perpetual war with gravity, he manages to stab out an ugly toe and prod the ball in the direction of an unmarked Roy Keane. From there, so shocked is Roy Keane to find himself in the number nine shirt, that he attempts something nearing a forward pass. Unfortunately, his automated functions kick in part way through his angry back lift, and he scuffs an awkward grasscutter goal-wards … this is the point at which The Universe steps in, and though it has its work cut out, redresses the balance and restores parity:

Lee Sharpe

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