The Joy of Headers

Ally Moncrief returns to The False Nine with an appreciation of headed goals…

Growing up in a part of the country where people take genuine pleasure in fighting, in the spirit of self-preservation you learn to recognise a few things and one of the earliest lessons is to avoid at all costs the lad that likes to stick the nut in (that means headbutting in case you didn’t know). Where a punch can be evaded and swiftly recovered from, a well-timed headbutt is going to hurt and continue to hurt. Now whilst violence is clearly not to be encouraged there is something awe-inspiring about these dispensers of broken noses, there is something unnatural and wild about a headbutt, it is out of the ordinary and is impossible to defend against.

The same can be said of football’s version of the headbutt, the slightly less violent, header.

Headers can be both brutal and beautiful, used as a means of attack or defense and are the great leveller of football. They are also sadly unfashionable these days, unloved and unadmired. Often referred to as ‘aerial duels’ in these days of Americanised phrases, that moniker may seem degrading to such a majestic act but in fact merely serves to reassert it’s greatness. The key word is ‘duel’ for there is nothing in football apart from a penalty where the game is reduced, however fleetingly, to a straight fight between two participants. One will win and one will lose, the very essence of the sport.

As an attacking weapon the header is incredibly versatile and incredibly hard to stop. Take the humble flick on as a case in point. One defender is sent to fight the ‘duel’ so he is out of the game, the other, or others, mindful of dropping too deep are on their heels, the attacking team’s runners have the advantage here, if they can anticipate the trajectory of the ball then a well-timed burst will see them clear. The best headerers of a ball are able to angle and cushion their efforts to give them the best chance of finding those runs. Some defences in this situation react by dropping ever deeper, retreating to what they believe in their desperation is safer ground at the edge of the penalty area. Their mistake is quickly evident, even the greatest centre backs are reduced to quivering wrecks at the thought of a loose ball in the box. Suddenly those midfield runners going through one on one don’t seem so bad.

For some that is too ugly, not cultured enough and reliant more on blind luck rather than skill. Headers however can be magnificent in their precision, as artistic as any flick or chip or panenka. The most aesthetically pleasing goal of modern times was Robin van Persie’s sublime diving lobbed header during the Brazil World Cup. A move of such mathematical accuracy and theatrical drama it will continue to astound for years to come. It’s the kind of goal only the most imaginative would even dream of scoring.

When it comes to fending off attacks the header is once again a vital tool, it comes into its own during the later stages of the game when fatigue and desperation lead to ball after ball being lofted into the box. Nothing disheartens an attacking team more than a defender who appears to rise to meet and repel every ball. At times defenders like this have an almost magnetic effect; if it weren’t impossible you’d swear the ball was drawn to them.

There’s something inspirational about a header, they galvanise a team more than any other action. Take for example Roy Keane’s goal in Turin to drag Manchester United back into a tie that would eventually lead to their greatest moment (sealed with the a help of a flick on of course), or Steven Gerrard contorting his neck and taking Liverpool from the brink of a hiding to one of the outstanding moments in our sport. Chelsea have the head of Didier Drogba to thank for their European Cup, they weren’t scoring any other way, while Lionel Messi, not renowned for his height or aerial ability scored a magical looping header in the 2009 Final and lost a boot in the process.

How fitting it is that the premier headerer of the ball in football today is Cristiano Ronaldo, another with an exemplary record of Champions League final headed goals and a player that looks to exploit every possible avenue in his quest to score and score and score again. He recognised the edge he would have over his peers if he could master the art of heading and in typical style set about doing just that. Now for all this he does not play in a side that put the ball in the air on a regular basis but when the chance does come he is deadly.

Maybe others will follow where Ronaldo has led, maybe headers will become fashionable again, things often happen in cycles. Until then however, I and others like me will keep the flag flying for this unique piece of skill. And if you have a problem with that I’ll stick the nut on you.

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