Anyone can score a good goal. A swing of the foot, a lucky connection, and a ball that on any other day – on every other day – flies wildly high and wide this time rockets into the top corner. This is how Nemanja Matic ends up on the shortlist for the Puskás Award.
The only fail-safe method of proving a goal was no fluke is simple: do it again, and again. Just as Dennis Bergkamp’s goal for Holland against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup made his earlier effort for Arsenal against Leicester all the finer, what makes Simon Cox’s goal for Swindon against Walsall in January 2009 even more mind-blowingly amazing is the goal he scored in a friendly against Fenerbahce in July 2008. The goals are not identical, but they are extremely similar. A long, high ball brought perfectly under control with a single gossamer touch from a player running into the centre of the pitch from the left, and an arcing, long-range shot that flew over the goalkeeper and dipped into the far corner.
Cox has scored more than 100 first-team goals, and has perfect recall of almost all of them. “If you tell me a goal, I’d be able to go back in my mind and tell you who passed it, or how it came about, or the feeling I had at the time,” he says. “When you talk about specific goals, or specific games, most players I’d imagine would be able to go back to that time and tell you a little bit about the day, or the game, or something that happened. There’d be something about it. For me, scoring goals is always quite memorable.”
Perhaps this is because there haven’t really been enough of them. At one stage, while at Reading, Cox went 471 days without scoring, not exactly ideal for a striker even if he started a lot of the matches on the bench. His total tally of top-flight strikes stalled at one. But it’s also because many of his goals are genuinely memorable. Yet from all the goals he has scored across his career so far – at 30 there should be quite a few more to come – four stand out in his memory, of which those against Fenerbahce and Walsall are two.
“I remember the Fenerbahce one really well even though it was just a pre-season friendly,” he says. “The ball got played into me. I remember that early in the game the defender kept trying to come tight, so I thought I’d try to flick this one over him and go for a one-versus-one race into the penalty area. But as it was it sat up really nicely and I thought: ‘Why not?’ Because it was a friendly it didn’t really matter if it went into Row Z or anywhere else, but thankfully it looped over the goalkeeper and into the net. So that one, it wasn’t quite luck but I had a different thought process about what I was going to do.
“The Walsall goal was special because I wasn’t actually on a very good spell of scoring. I’d probably gone seven or eight games without one. And Lilian Nalis just tried to loop one over the defence, again for a one-against-one foot race. I was thinking: ‘You can just control this and drive with the ball into the area.’ Again it popped up nicely. This one was more technique than it was power, more precision than trying to kick the leather off the ball.”
Most professional players probably have the ability, but they’re cautious about trying it in matches
Fabulous as these goals are, Cox himself rates neither as his favourite or finest. He picks out two favourites, one scored for West Bromwich Albion against Tottenham in April 2011, which secured his team 40 points, denied his opponents a Champions League place and remains his only Premier League goal. It was a lovely, curling shot from just outside the penalty area, which Harry Redknapp, at the time the Spurs manager, described as “world-class” and his own boss, Roy Hodgson, considered “superb”. The second was another fabulous piece of skill, for Nottingham Forest against Birmingham City in September 2002. “I’d got injured while playing away for Ireland,” he remembers. “I came back and really wanted to make the game, but I didn’t train until Friday. We were getting beat and the manager threw me on with 20 minutes to go and I came up with that. I can watch that one over and over again, and I have done. It’s not one you easily forget about.”
For those who haven’t seen it, or who have found it easy to forget about, here’s a reminder: “I had one of the biggest strappings you’ve ever seen on my foot and that’s probably what cushioned the ball more than anything else,” Cox says. “I remember the pass, the run into the area, and then it was just about being able to get something on the ball in terms of control.” The control was instant and suddenly the goalkeeper, rushing out ready to dive upon the ball, was hopelessly exposed. “When I saw him running out, he sort of made my mind up, as much as you have to do it all in a split second. I thought that if I could lift it over him, it’s only going to go in. If the goalkeeper hadn’t run out I probably wouldn’t have scored.”
You are unlikely to have seen the goal he considers the best of all. It is not on YouTube or on any season-highlights DVD, though it was recorded on camera. Cox has lost his only copy. “My best goal, my best ever, was in a reserve game for Reading,” he says. “I can’t find that one. I don’t think even Reading can find it. I scored four in the game, and my fourth one was the one I’m talking about. It was a volley from just inside the centre circle that lobbed the goalkeeper. That’s my favourite ever one. It sat there nicely to be hit, but it was the audaciousness to have a go at something like that. It’s not something you’d try if it was 0-0, that’s for sure.”
This all adds up to quite the collection of memorable goals. Those that it is possible still to see share a spellbinding beauty. They are, without doubt, among the finest you will ever witness. To author one of them takes cunning, lightning reflexes and impeccable technique. To do it three times demonstrates a level of consistent magicianship that should rank the player among the very finest. This one, however, is seeing out the end of what should be his peak years in League One at Southend, with a contract that expires in the summer.
“What puts the elite forwards into that category isn’t just that they have them in their bag of tricks, it’s that they’re more comfortable trying those sorts of things,” Cox says. “Whereas the people who are not in the elite, which is most of the world, will have a go at those sorts of things every now and again but are probably more happy to pass the ball wide and get into the box and score a header than try an audacious lob from 40 yards. Most professional players probably have the ability, but they’re cautious about trying it in matches.
“I’m quite happy with what I’ve done in my career so far. I’m still 30, still able to get in positions to score goals. Hopefully I’ll sign a new contract at Southend, or just see what happens at the end of the season. While I’m still healthy and able to run around a pitch I want to play for as long as possible. I’ve never had lightning pace. Teddy Sheringham was my idol, the way he played the game in terms of his intelligence. He wasn’t the quickest, and he had to be sharper in his mind than he was with his feet, so he was a role model of mine. And I admired Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who again wasn’t blessed with outstanding pace but always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
“I’m happy to have scored 100 goals. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d get that. I should have scored more in the Premier League, if I’d have got the chances to do so. For me personally, I probably got promoted to the Premier League a year early. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. I probably spent too many years sat on the bench, in my own opinion. More games than I wanted to. But in terms of where I’ve been, the teams I’ve played for, the leagues I’ve played in, I don’t think there’s much I can be too upset about really.”