It’s May 1987 and I’m at a family gathering in Hartlepool with the flotsam and jetsam of the Campbell household. The annual FA cup final game is playing on an ancient Rumbelows telly that’s buzzing with anticipation of what’s about to unfold. Already Coventry City and Tottenham Hotspur have conjured up a Saturday afternoon classic. The North London side are 2-1 up, but there is the feeling that there is much more to come on the Wembley turf.
There is tension in the room too. This is mainly due to creepy uncle Clive regaling us a story about his time in the Merchant Navy with a boy called Reece he bunked alongside who had “beautiful cheekbones”. As he gets to the part about a romantic stop off in Hanoi, everyone prays for an intervention. We are about to cop a break, however. As the Sky Blues’ danger man Dave Bennett rushes like a Midlands whippet past the Spurs defence, and stands up a tantalising cross, we are about to witness one of the most iconic goals in the tournament’s history; a thunderbolt of a diving header by Coventry’s talisman Keith Houchen that threatens to burst the net like a flying comet.
In playgrounds all over the country the following Monday, teenage rapscallions would end up with prematurely capped teeth as they tried to replicate Houchen’s pistolero moment. It wasn’t so much the goal itself, but it’s artistic merit. Whilst the Brazilians always had their back heel, and the Dutch their esoteric Cruyff turn, to a certain generation the British diving header would retain an avant-garde-ness all of its very own.
It’s a terrace thing really. From the early ’70s onwards the image of a mad bastard centre-forward risking his dentures – and indeed decapitation – in the name of death or glory would be a blue touch paper moment for those looking for genuine excitement on a Saturday afternoon. For the players too, it carried a certain kamikaze kudos. The incredible feeling of scoring a diving header in front of a baying Kop or home end, symbolically must have been like sticking your cock through their collective, tribal letterbox.
Although not a late developer by any means – the diving header had in fact been prevalent since the birth of football – it seemed to be the explosion of colour television football coverage that gave the goal-scoring method it’s poetic, sporting edge. Those rustic pitches that seemed to cry “mud, glorious mud’, coveted by men who seemed to resemble Mick Ronson on steroids meant that the ’70s seemed to be the perfect era for such a demented practice.
Throughout the decade, in fact, the list of luminaries willing to throw themselves into the opponent’s box like flying deck chairs would guarantee them cult status. Whether it was Brian Kidd launching himself into the stratosphere for Manchester City against Aston Villa, or Allan “Sniffer” Clarke scoring in an FA cup final for his beloved Leeds, the diving header would retain its iconic stature amongst fans. An “I was there” moment that would be regaled in clubs and bait cabins with wide eyes and exaggeration for years afterwards.
As the ’80s unfolded it would still retain its sense of romance too, although the changing face of the game and its rising professionalism meant there were less lunatics willing to attempt headed Harikari in the opposition box. There were always exceptions of course, usually Scottish men like Andy Gray and Maurice Johnston who would cry “Bonzai!” as their cranium’s disappeared through a sea of flying boots.
There was a certain pathos to their flight though. In tough political and social times, the diving header would almost take on a subtle protest as an ode to the ’80s: a time of powerful unions and working class allegiances. Not only did it seem a two-fingered salute to Thatcher and authority, but the draconian FA too, as the accelerating modernism and the looming Premiership in the distance meant that certain age-old football traditions would ultimately be lost forever.
So it would prove. The diving header would die an unfashionable death as the influx of talented foreign players eventually flooded into England’s top division. Diving with your clavicles into an opponent’s box just didn’t suit their modernist slant on the game. There was the risk to their health for a start, but they also figured out quite correctly that it was a pretty pointless exercise. “Why head the ball six inches off the ground when God gave you two feet to kick it?” they rightly argued. “Wasn’t this a bit like swimming with your elbows or making love with your earlobes?” their cultured accents argued. Whilst this was true, of course, it was a definite shift from the traditional into the aesthetic, and a sad finale for the art of flying football.
The dust would pretty much settle on the diving header after that. There would be sporadic moments but it seemed a skill for a bygone age. It would have one more astonishing swansong, however. At the 2014 World Cup, in a match between the Netherlands and reigning champions Spain, the football God’s would shine down on it once again. As the so-called untouchable Spanish side cruised to a 1-0 lead against their opponents in orange, a touch of English alchemy would turn the game on its head.
Just before half-time a hopeful punt forward by Daley Blind was met by the run of Robin Van Persie. As the ball fell perfectly for him however, something strange and magical came over him. The spirit of the diving header suddenly seemed to possess the sublime Dutch footballer. As the wind suddenly swept his hair like the bass player from The Sweet, and his teeth suddenly became bent and crooked, Van Persie flung himself like a mad bastard into the Brazilian night air and connected his forehead beautifully with the ball, steering it into the Spanish net.
It would leave the whole world open-mouthed at its sheer audacity, and lead to a second annihilation that the Spanish would take years to recover from. It would also thrill a certain generation of men sat at home in England watching it on television sets. It’s almost as if they were being transported back to a better time and place. When football was great and the diving header really was the dogs bollocks.