The greatness of a goal, like beauty, is probably in the eye of the beholder; or, as Eric Cantona might say, one man's meat is another man's poisson. Just what are the accepted criteria?
Should the goal of the year be, for example, a moment of sublime skill, such as Paul Gascoigne's up-and-over for England against Scotland and Karel Poborsky's loop for the Czech Republic against Portugal, both at Euro 96? Or David Ginola's left-footed volley, after cushioning the ball with his right, for Newcastle against Ferencvaros.
Then again, many might prefer a passing movement, which could see Alan Shearer's finish against Holland, set up unselfishly by Teddy Sheringham, receiving the accolade, run close by Steve Claridge's volley from Emile Heskey's backheel for Leicester against Manchester United in the Coca- Cola Cup.Should the goal have been in a big match, at a crucial moment? Cantona's, to win the FA Cup for Manchester United against Liverpool, might then qualify.
Normally this correspondent would ignore the long shot, someone getting lucky with a rare if sweet strike, and opt for a goal which captured more skills of the game. This year, however, one so unusual, so audacious and clearly lacking in fortune, demands the selection. It was, of course, David Beckham's goal for Manchester United against Wimbledon on the opening day of this domestic season.
The game was won - United 2-0 up with only minutes to go - which may have been why Beckham felt relaxed enough to attempt his feat. Nevertheless, what followed when he received the ball in an innocuous midfield position remains so staggering that many at Selhurst Parkthought they had witnessed a fluke. Not so, as repeated viewing of Sky television's film reveals.
Just inside his own half, slightly to the right of centre, Beckham glanced up and saw the home goalkeeper Neil Sullivan some 20 yards off his line. Then, 3.1 seconds later, a precise but powerful arcing right-footed shot of the type players practise when training is over - often attempting to hit the crossbar - was dipping under the bar as the hapless Sullivan scrambled back in vain. Sky logged the distance at 57.4 yards.
The 21-year-old midfield player claimed afterwards to have been embarrassed. The footage confirmed Beckham's range and priceless ability to see the furthest option first. It was left to Neil Sullivan to describe it best. "When he first struck it, I thought `this looks like it might go a bit close' and then when it started moving through the air and it went the other way, I thought `I'm not going to get this'. I've looked up and it's gone about an inch below the bar. And I was just hanging on the back of the net thinking `shit'."
Others claim to have surpassed Beckham's feat since; one Dutch player, a Wigan reserve who apparently scored from 71 yards. We will believe it when we see it. That kick of the boy David is a beauty forever.
The classic ride: Frankie Dettori
Frankie Dettori, inevitably, has provided some of racing's best memories of the year. Hype, flying dismounts, and stints as a disc jockey notwithstanding, he is the best man in the saddle today, certainly in Europe, and arguably in the world.
It is too simplistic to say that he wins races because he is on the best horse. Sure, having a superior engine helps, like Damon Hill and the Williams, but Dettori has gifts that take his art on to a plane that few of his rivals can dream about, let alone match.
The phrase usually employed is that "they run for him". That may seem a vague piece of horseman's lore, but it implies more than just fine judgement of pace and placing, the ability to keep balanced, and strength in a finish. Dettori has a rare empathy with horses, a knack of persuading them to gallop to the best of their ability or even beyond, without abusing them.
The combination of talents means he not only loses fewer races that he should have won than most jockeys, he also wins more that he should perhaps have lost. There are moments when he makes the difference between victory and defeat, and when they happen - the man crouched neat and low, the horse answering willingly, the pair combining athletic endeavour in one fluid movement - it quickens, and gladdens, the heart.
Dettori was seen at his best in both the first and last Classics of the season. In the 2,000 Guineas in May, he launched Mark Of Esteem, then immature but later to confirm himself an outstanding miler, out of the pack down the hill and drove him to hold on by a couple of inches. But his ride of the year was the one he gave Shantou to take the St Leger.
Shantou is by any standards a difficult horse. He regularly dumps his lad on the home gallops, tends to sulk if he is hassled, and has to be held up for a late pounce. In the Derby, ridden by the Italian, he had run out of his skin to finish third, but two subsequent indifferent efforts under different jockeys - Mick Kinane and Pat Eddery - meant he arrived at Doncaster with the reputation of a horse who was not wholly in love with the game. And the St Leger, over a mile and three-quarters, is a race to test the stoutest of hearts.
But Dettori produced a masterpiece to help the quirky little bay colt rise magnificently to the challenge. Two furlongs out Dushyantor, ridden by Eddery, had cruised into the lead. But just behind, Shantou was being wound up and, crucially, Dettori launched him wide of his old rival. "I knew he would fight back if he was challenged, " he said, "so I kept away from him."
The tactic proved decisive. The final furlong produced an epic struggle with both horses under maximum pressure; Dushyantor did not give up, but Shantou, in full flight and running sweetly in the silken hands of his favourite jockey - he has won for no other - did not feel threatened. His stamina reserves lasted three strides the better, and he was home by a neck.
The golden feat: Michael Johnson
Atlanta , the Olympic Games of chaos and avarice, did not deserve Michael Johnson. It was Johnson who transcended the fiasco and persuaded Americans that there was more to the Games than collecting pins and the chance to see a lot of millionaire basketball players in one team. The athletics highlight of Atlanta was the high point of the entire Games.
Johnson had won the 400 metres with imperturbable ease. At the start of the 200m he reacted to the gun almost has if he pulled the trigger himself. Flashlights sparkled like a swarm of fireflies. Three strides later, though, an absurd slight doubt crossed his mind. He said he stumbled - you would never have noticed at the time, but for Ato Boldon and Frankie Fredericks it was their only hope of felling the giant. No chance.
The tiny stumble cost Johnson an insignificant few hundredths of a second as he accelerated up to 25mph. As almost everyone in the world now knows, he has a long back and comparatively short legs. His feet are on the ground for fractionally less time than those of the best 100m runners, but what really mattered in Atlanta no amount of scientific research could explain - determination. He badly wanted that second win.
During the early paces of the bend Boldon and Fredericks were apparently making a race of it, but Johnson knew he was in control. Boldon said afterwards: "I just noticed a blue blur and a swoosh go past me. They say the fastest man alive is the winner of the 100m - I think that's wrong. I've just run against the fastest man".
Johnson now stood alone as the first Olympian to complete the 200m and 400m double, but that was not the half of it. His world-record time of 19.32sec was one of those rare short spans of action in sporting history that immediately plant themselves in the world's memory. He became the first to run under 44sec for the 400m and beneath 20sec for the 200m. Less easily remembered but equally astonishing were his times for the first 100m (10.12sec) and the second (9.20sec). They gave credibility to Boldon's remark that the man in golden shoes was the fastest in the world.
The longest throw: Denise Lewis
Ever since Fatima Whitbread and Tessa Sanderson started failing to hit their golden shots British athletics has been waiting for a woman to pick up the world-class standard beyond the boundaries of track and road racing. Fiona May, the long jumper from Derby, might have done it had she not struck Olympic silver as an adopted Italian.
Instead, another Midlander has flown the Union Jack in the field - and on the track. Two laps of the track in Atlanta secured the precious metal Denise Lewis now has as proof of her athletic worth. But an almighty throw of the javelin held the key to the bronze medal won by Britain's finest all-round female athlete since Mary Peters.
Lewis showed a glimpse of her potential when she captured the Commonwealth Games heptathlon title in Victoria two years ago, though 14th place in the world rankings for 1994 placed her achievement into global context. Her medal hopes in Atlanta looked to have disappeared when she followed a disappointing first-day with a long jump well below her best. In eighth position, with only the javelin and the 800 metres remaining, she made a tearful departure from the arena and considered not returning.
After a heart-to-heart with her coach, Darryl Bunn, she showed the heart of a true competitor, launching a personal best 54.82m with her third and final javelin throw. Having catapulted herself into the bronze medal place, she held on to it with a determined 800m run.
"I was in despair after the long jump," she reflected. "I really didn't think I could solve anything. But, lo and behold, the javelin was my saviour again." It had been in Victoria, where she defeated Jane Flemming, the defending champion from Australia. And in Atlanta it made Lewis only the fourth female British athlete to win an Olympic medal away from the track (exclusively, at least) since 1972.
Her talents may not include penalty-shooting, as she showed in the Sports Review of the Year - "I didn't have the right shoes" - but at 24 the future is bright for the bronzed Birchfield Harrier.
The low punch: Andrew Golota
Sportmanship and boxing parted company around the time in 1786 when Benjamin "Big Ben" Brain found himself in trouble after a mere 30 minutes of milling against John Boone, "The Fighting Grenadier," at Bloomsbury. Both Brain's eyes were swollen shut, necessitating the implementation of plan B: a group of his friends broke into the ring, and under cover of the ensuing melee a surgeon lanced the swellings and restored his vision. Ten minutes later, the Grenadier waved the white flag.
It is depressing to reflect that probably the only thing which would be done differently today is that Brain's corner would be miked up to relay the surgeon's words to the watching nation, while the commentators flapped and tut-tutted in much the same helplessly disapproving way Pierce Egan and the rest of the ringside scribblers did 210 years ago. Boxing has always had its Corinthians, of course, but they have rarely prospered to the extent which the Polish heavyweight Andrew Golota has done through his two disqualifications against the former world champion Riddick Bowe this year. The umpteenth and final right which Golota drove deep into Bowe's groin in Atlantic City last weekend made him the hottest property in boxing, and ensured that this, rather than Evander Holyfield's inspirational defeat of Mike Tyson, would be the abiding image of the sport in 1996.
As in their first fight in July, when the Pole's overdue disqualification set off the worst riot in the long history of Madison Square Garden, the fouls were utterly unnecessary. He was a few (legitimate) punches away from stopping Bowe each time, so his actions did not have even the limited justification of desperation. There are only two possible explanations. Either the man is mad, a thought which has occurred to his trainer Lou Duva, who suggested this week that he seek psychiatric help; or he has set out cold-bloodedly to create for himself an "ogre" image even more intimidating than Tyson's used to be.
Chris Eubank also deliberately made himself the "Man You Love to Hate", but his transgressions were verbal rather than physical and his conduct in the ring was always above reproach. You could be amused by Eubank, but never appalled by him. But Golota's serious, dangerous and repeated fouls will earn him millions, and that is plain wrong. If a professional footballer, Saturday after Saturday, shattered an opponent's shin in lingering close-up on live television, he would be sent off, charged with bringing the game into disrepute, fined heavily, banned for a long time or even charged with assault in court.
Nothing so unpleasant awaits Golota. He will rocket up the rankings and is virtually certain to be rewarded with a crack at one of the assorted world titles, in 1997. If you seek a perfect cameo of the cynical, money- driven, ethic-free zone which professional boxing has become (or maybe always was), look no further than the moment when Bowe's face contorted in agony and his body jack-knifed to the canvas. In this game, the wages of sin are bloody good.
The perfect ball: Glen Chapple
It happens , Glen Chapple reckons, about two or three times a season, and when it does you can bet your cricket boots hardly anyone is there to see it. But at Lord's on an overcast September afternoon, there were 25,000 witnesses to the moment that, Chapple says, "every bowler dreams about" - the perfect ball.
Chapple, the Lancashire seam bowler, sent down 2,895 balls last summer, of which 2,894 spanned the range from rubbish (not too many of those) to brilliant. This ball, however, went beyond brilliant and into that magic realm where trajectory, length, direction and movement come together in such a way that nothing any batsman does is going to stop it bowling him. And it came in the middle of the most devastating spell of bowling the NatWest Trophy final had ever seen as Lancashire skittled out Essex for 57 to win their second one-day knock-out competition of the season.
Lancashire had batted first and struggled to 186 all out. The pitch was offering considerable help to the quicker bowlers, but still it did not look anything like a big enough total. "There was no way we could stop them getting the runs in 60 overs," Chapple remembered. "We knew we had to get them out. We were just hoping it would continue to do a bit."
It didn't just do a bit. It did a lot, and by the time Chapple replaced Ian Austin at the Nursery End, Peter Martin had reduced Essex to 25 for three. "We knew by then we had a chance," Chapple said. "For me it was just a case of settling down quickly, because no matter how bad the pitch, they could still get the runs."
An element of panic entered Essex's batting. Even Chapple admits that his first two wickets were rather handed to him. There was Ronnie Irani, done by a shooter, and then Darren Robinson. "It wasn't great bowling," Chapple says. "It did swing away but it was quite wide and he probably didn't need to play at it." But he did, and he was caught by Neil Fairbrother at slip.
That was 33 for five. Graham Gooch was still in, and if Essex were to have any chance they needed the new batsman, Robert Rollins, to stay with him. But little did Rollins know as he prepared to face his first ball that he was about to experience what Mike Gatting did when he was Shane Warned in the Ashes series of 1993.
"I sent it in towards his middle stump," Chapple says, "and it swung and left him off the pitch and took his off stump. You can't really get a bat on a ball like that. To do it on such a big occasion made it even better."
Gooch was next out, lbw to Jason Gallian's first ball, and Chapple took the last three wickets to end with the best figures ever in 33 years of 60-over finals - 6 for 18 in 6.2 overs. The groundsman got it in the neck, of course, and Chapple never got the credit he deserved. "I wasn't worried about that," he said. "I knew I'd bowled well." Quite right, too.
The two aces: Tim Henman
For as long as most people can remember. heroic failure has been the best one could hope for from a British player at Wimbledon, and when Tim Henman stood at two match points down to Yevgeny Kafelnikov in this year's first round he looked poised to join a tradition stretching back to Andrew Castle, John Lloyd and beyond.
Henman had already exceeded expectations by taking the first two sets off the No 5 seed and newly crowned French Open champion. We could forgive him his subsequent fall from the heights - it was de rigueur for a Brit, after all. Serving at 3-5 and 15-40, the great adventure was surely over. Not quite.
"I got the two balls from the ball-boy," Henman recalled last week, "and I thought, `I've got nothing to lose. If I'm going to go, I may as well go down fighting'. I tossed the ball up and gave it a whack." Henman says he didn't think through the serve tactically. The decision to go wide to Kafelnikov's forehand was instinctive. It flashed across him and landed just inside the tram-line. Kafelnikov started to move towards it, but he had no chance. Ace. 30-40. The crowd go mad.
But Henman was not off the hook. He needed another one just like that. The choice this time was more clear-cut. "If you're serving into the ad court, you're more likely to go down the middle because the ball's swinging away," he said. "If you go wide to the backhand he's got more of a chance of covering it, and in any case you've really got to land it on a sixpence. So I went down the middle." And how. Ace No 2. Deuce.
Henman does not remember how he wrapped up the next two points to bring it back to 5-4 on Kafelnikov's serve, but he knows that from that moment on everything changed. "It becomes a psychological thing. You've given him a scent of victory. He's had chances to win. And to break to win is what he would have wanted. Serving out to win a match is not always easy." As Kafelnikov showed when a missed volley and a double-fault helped Henman break back to 5-5.
"The pressure was really on him," Henman said. "And once I held to 6- 5 I had a new lease of life. I walked out to the biggest ovation I've ever had, and although I was so close now I still had the attitude of keep going for it. In the last game every point had something about it."
A missed volley cost Henman the chance of two match points at 15-40, but at 30-30 he played a point he reckons was as big as either of his earlier aces, a rally of constantly shifting fortunes which culminated in a cross-court forehand winner to take the score to 30-40. Kafelnikov then put a backhand into the net, and Henman remembers an "unbelievable, amazing cauldron of noise" filling the Centre Court.
He has not looked back since: quarter-finals at Wimbledon, last 16 at the US Open, semi- finals of the Grand Slam Cup. "It wasn't just the moment that changed my career," he said. "It changed my life."
The symbolic try: Carlos Spencer
The explosive manner in which Carlos Spencer arrived on the international stage at Twickenham last month was as symbolic as it was stunning. As much as anything else in 1996, it defined the continuing disparity between two rugby-playing hemispheres who might be worlds apart.
It was not merely that the try Spencer conjured for the All Blacks in sheep's clothing, the New Zealand Barbarians, was audacious in conception and stunning in execution. Its illustration of what the world leaders have in reserve, and the fact that it pushed England towards their heaviest defeat in 12 years, lent it a greater significance than its impressive- enough face value.
Tim Stimpson, who scored a peach of a try himself that day and who has emerged as England's "find" of 1996, confessed he had not even heard of Spencer before he set off in vain pursuit after the 21-year-old Aucklander had beaten Chris Sheasby and Phil de Glanville with a sway of the hips, then swerved past Andy Gomarsall and sprinted clear to the line. The audacious solo effort came as no surprise, however, to Andy Blyth, the England A centre and Newcastle colleague with whom Stimpson shares a house.
"I played against him for England schools in Dunedin in 1993," Blyth recalled. "Jonah Lomu was playing for New Zealand too. They were streets ahead. But Spencer really was class. I don't think he scored a try but he didn't miss a kick. I thought he would have made it to the senior All Blacks team sooner."
Stimpson said: "To be honest, and this is not sour grapes, the best tries to me are the ones that involve 10 or 15 players. I've seen better individual tries, but Spencer's was a good one. Just because you're on the other end of tries like that doesn't stop you appreciating them.
"The fact that he's such a confident player made it all the more impressive. He was grinning when he came on. To have pace like he has at No 10 is a great advantage too. It's getting more and more that you need to be an all-singing, all-dancing act in every position now.
"The All Blacks have got Andrew Mehrtens at fly-half but I'm sure we'll see more of Carlos Spencer."
The Master stroke: Nick Faldo
You could call it the defining shot of the defining round of the career of Nicholas Alexander Faldo. Twenty years to the day from becoming a professional golfer, Faldo combined the sort of perfect analysis and perfect execution that he has always sought to achieve.
Augusta's 13th hole is the last in Amen Corner. A par five, it measures only 485 yards - reachable in two by any standards in the professional game - but dog-legs left and features a rocky stream in front of the green. Faldo stood on the tee on the last day of the US Masters, totally against reasonable expectation, two shots ahead of Greg Norman. The Australian, enduring the worst collapse of any major championship, had sunk in Rae's Creek at the 12th, completing a six-shot swing in five holes.
All Faldo, about to take his third green jacket with a brilliant last- round 67, had to do was hang on. His drive left him with 228 yards to the green, 206 to carry the stream. Fanny Sunesson, his faithful Swedish bag carrier, handed over his five wood. "I was carrying the five wood in the bag all week especially for that shot," Faldo said. "I can fly the ball 215 yards with the club and then get a soft landing. When that green gets hard, especially on the last day, you don't want to take an iron, get a hard bounce and go through the back. With the pin where it was, it would have been a really tough up and down."
However, despite Norman's problems, Faldo could expect the Australian to play the two back-nine par fives in at least birdie-birdie, which is exactly what he did. Faldo could have picked up a parking ticket while he mulled over the implications of his shot. "It took for ever," Faldo said. "I put the five wood behind the ball but with the side-hill lie, it just didn't look right. I said to Fanny that if I wanted to go for it, it had to be the two iron."
Finally, to gasps from the gallery, the wood went back in the bag and out came the iron. The shot came off perfectly, finishing around 30 feet from the hole and setting up a two-putt birdie. "It wasn't just my best shot of the year, but one of the best, full-stop," he said.
Andy FarrellReuse content