Earlier in the week we wrote about the death of Dalian Atkinson. He had a solid career in football but he left the game with a relatively bare trophy shelf. His only real taste of glory was in 1994 when Aston Villa won the League Cup. The thing he’s most well known for was a spectacular solo goal scored away at Wimbledon in 1992, during the inaugural Premier League season.
On the surface it seems a little derisory to talk about a footballer’s career and primarily reference one goal. But a truly magical scoring effort is something worth remembering, and talking about, and sharing with future generations.
To wit: David Beckham won plenty of glory in his career, particularly with Manchester United. He has plenty of silverware to boast of. But when you talk about the amazing things Becks did in a pair of boots, the thing that perhaps comes up most often wasn’t a title win. It was one particular goal, scored in the early years of his senior year.
This week we look back at the opening weekend of the 1996-97 Premier League season, and the goals worth remembering.
Wimbledon hadn’t quite begun the inexorable slide that would conclude at the end of the 2003-04 season, but the stagnation had definitely settled in. They were once again playing their home games at Selhurst Park and were more or less content with midtable finishes. 1996-97 marked 20 years since their election to the Football League and their meteoric rise to the top flight, yet the feeling around the club was that things had plateaued a bit. With barely any money available to bring in new talent, Joe Kinnear’s job was mostly concerned with managing expectations.
Their first game of the 1996-97 had them at home against the defending champions. Manchester United rolled up into Croydon having won the double the previous season, thanks in part to an astonishing return for Eric Cantona, who scored 19 goals in all competitions despite not being able to play until October of that season due to suspension. United were looking for a repeat title win and whatever silverware they could get their hands on.
And they got off to a tremendous start to their campaign by absolutely throttling their hosts. Cantona fired home in the 25th minute to put United in control, and in the 57th Denis Irwin scored from a tight angle to seemingly wrap things up. The visitors could’ve sat back and coasted for a solid opening day effort.
But suddenly: Beckham.
David Beckham, starting his second full season with the senior squad, was given the #10 shirt in preseason, inheriting it from Mark Hughes. David Beckham, young and cocky and with something to prove, took the ball seconds after a Wimbledon turnover inside his own half just three minutes from time. He sauntered ahead a few feet, the ball rolling merrily ahead of him. As it reached the halfway line, Becks launched the ball into a high loop. It sailed through the air and over the head of Neil Sullivan, landing with a droop in the goal.
It left people breathless. The away fans could barely believe what happened. And in the middle of a stunned Selhurst Park stood David Beckham, resplendent in his red shirt and his Jonathan Taylor Thomas hair, his face plastered with the kind of smirk you get when you know you just won Final Jeopardy.
United closed out the game 3-0. It’s probably a good thing that goal came at the very end of the game, because it’s hard to see how any team could possibly carry on for more than five minutes after conceding a goal like that.
Wimbledon finished that campaign in 8th place and semifinal runs in both domestic cups. Not bad, but also probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Meanwhile, United did go on to secure a repeat title win, although it came at the cost of early exits from both cups and losing in the semifinals of the Champions League to Borussia Dortmund. Their successful title defense was due in no small part to David Beckham, who secured an automatic spot on the team sheet thanks to that goal against Wimbledon and scored 12 goals in all competitions that season.
Beckham had a long and remarkable career afterward, at United and later abroad. But that goal, that singular moment, was special. And as it turns out, when we talk about the football we remember when we got older, the grind of the league campaign and the transfer rumors and even the trophy lifts aren’t the parts that stand out. It’s always the goals. Becks accomplished a lot in his career as a footballer. But even if that goal at Wimbledon were the only thing he were remembered for, it’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.