On a Sunday afternoon in 1994, Mark Hughes provided one of my earliest football memories. After 90 minutes at 0-0, Manchester United’s FA Cup semi-final against Oldham went into extra time. Early in the second period, Neil Pointon capitalised on a rare Peter Schmeichel error to put Oldham 1-0 up. All looked lost. United had huffed and puffed but had been unable to break Oldham down or get anything passed Jon Hallworth, keeping goal valiantly for the Latics. Without the suspended Cantona, they lacked the key to unlock Oldham’s sturdy backline.
I had slumped into my chair. We were on for the Double that season. This was before the European Cup was an achievable ambition. The FA Cup was essential. But we were going out. In the last minute, we were trying to launch the ball into the box but it kept coming back. Until, after a bit of pinball, Brian McClair was able to flick a ball over his head from the edge of the box. It got behind the last line, but one player had anticipated the flick. There, with an outstretched leg, was Mark Hughes. Impossibly, while leaning back with a defender either side of him and exhausted after 120 minutes of football, Hughes connected with the laces of his boots and kept the ball low enough to fire into the corner of the net. Hallworth didn’t move. United raced towards the fans. The clock was seconds away from 120 minutes. What a moment.
That goal forced a replay which United won with ease and they went on to beat Chelsea 4-0 in the final.
It was also the birth of my love with the volley.
Mark Hughes was a particularly amazing executor of a volley. Even whilst managing Manchester City over 15 years later, he could hit a fierce one.
And the volley has a tradition among the finest players in football history. One of the most famous goals of all time was scored by Marco van Basten. On one of the grandest stages, in the 1988 European Championship final, van Basten watched a cross from deep float all the way to him at the back post. About 6 yards from the by-line, but close to the side-edge of the 18 yard box, the only option seemed to be to get the ball back across goal. Ruud Gullit had drifted in and shaped up to receive the ball, sure that van Basten was going to square it. But no. Van Basten swung his leg, timed to perfection, as the ball dropped to him and guided it impossibly over the goalkeeper and into the opposite side of the net.
Modern football keeps producing sumptuous volleys. Two players from British football stand out: Paul Scholes and (pre-Manchester United) Robin van Persie. Scholes has scored a few, but one against Aston Villa stands out due to the trajectory at which the ball arrived to him.
Van Persie, in his last season at Arsenal, scored 2 of my favourite volleys ever. Again, the difficulty in them came from the way in which the ball arrived to him. His goal against Everton should have been goal of the season.
And my love of the volley came full circle as recently, instead of benefitting from one in the FA Cup, Manchester United were eliminated by one. Not a power volley in the mould of van Basten or Scholes, but a beautifully controlled volley with the ball arriving over-the-shoulder from Chelsea’s Demba Ba.
The reactions of the goalkeepers in the above clips tell a story in themselves.
But recently, the term “volley” has lost its meaning with fans and pundits alike referring to lesser goals as volleys. Peter Crouch scored a very good goal for Stoke. Coming against Manchester City, who were locked in a battle for the title with cross-city rivals United, the goal was high profile. A long ball was flicked on by Crouch and was headed straight back to him after he had turned well to face the goal. About 25 yards out, Crouch controlled the ball with his instep and struck it at about waist height with a beautiful, balletic technique. It looped over Joe Hart and into the top corner. A marvellous goal. But in the hours and days ahead, the goal kept being referred to as a volley. I am afraid it wasn’t.
Aston Villa’s Matthew Lowton scored a similar goal this weekend. Again, fans and journalists have been referring to it as a volley. But, similarly to Crouch, Lowton took a touch before his strike. They key to both goals was the touch both players took to control the ball before striking it.
Anyone who has played football can understand the difference. Hitting the ball first time is a lot harder than taking a touch and then hitting it. This applies with a ground ball, but it applies even more so with an aerial ball. When you take a touch to control a ball you are, by definition, in control of it. But when a ball is coming to you through the air from another player’s pass, you aren’t. To strike that uncontrolled ball first time is difficult. To direct it towards goal, more difficult again. To beat a keeper as well; well, that requires the most glorious skill.
How many of us, as kids, spent hours in the garden throwing the ball up in the air, watching it come down and then attempting to strike it cleanly as it dropped? I know I did. And I know that 90% of the time I kicked nothing but air. If I had controlled it on my knee first, I’d have connected with the strike 99% of the time.
The volley is beautiful. Keep it sacred.
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