16th March 1999
FA Cup Quarter Final
Barnsley 0-1 Tottenham
One of the tastier encounters of this weekend’s opening round of Premier League games sees Newcastle take on Spurs in Saturday’s evening kick off. Traditionally two of English football’s most exciting teams, over the last 20-30 years an illustrious list of attacking talent has turned out for both: Chris Waddle, Paul Gascoigne, Les Ferdinand, Ruel Fox…
Few if any of them however, could match David Ginola for pure artistry. The French winger had dazzling natural ability and – when he felt like it – could produce moments of breathtaking skill comparable to any player of the Premier League era. This goal was perhaps Ginola’s defining moment in English football. An effortless, slaloming run in which four Barnsley defenders are beaten with staggering nonchalance before ‘Le Magnifique” nonchalantly slots the ball into the bottom corner. Gary Neville might have referred to David Luiz as a “playstation player” in a negative sense, but this was a ludicrous goal of the type you might score on Fifa, Pro Evo or Sensible Soccer. This, Martin, was arcade football.
In 1997, Spurs paid £2.5m for the 30-year-old Ginola, as Newcastle manager Kenny Dalglish set about dismantling Kevin Keegan’s thrilling but trophyless ‘entertainers’ with an enthusiasm that bordered on the maniacal. However, life at Tottenham was not initially a bed of roses for the man from Toulon. Gerry Francis was sacked soon after signing him, and then Christian Gross rocked up on the tube with his “dream ticket”. A relegation battle ensued, and it took Ginola and a near decrepit Jurgen Klinsmann to drag Tottenham away from the danger zone at a surprisingly late stage of the campaign. Gross’ nightmarish reign was brought to an end early the following season, but further trouble for Ginola appeared to be on the horizon when arch pragmatist George Graham was appointed at White Hart Lane. It seemed inevitable that a player of Ginola’s extravagant talent, with little appetite for defensive duties, would struggle to find a home in one of Graham’s famously ‘well-organised’ teams. The cover of that month’s When Saturday Comes featured Graham hugging the Tottenham mascot, with the headline “New Role for Ginola”.
As it happened, these fears were unfounded – at least for a while. For it was under Graham in 1998/99 that Ginola – who previously did have a tendency to blow hot and cold – produced the best and most consistent football of his career, combining the tricks and showmanship with an end product and terrific delivery and showing his versatility, dropping into midfield at times and being deployed as a second striker. Whether Graham can be credited with this enhancement of an already major talent is open to debate – predictably, the biggest proponent of the argument is a Mr G. Graham – but whatever lay behind it, Ginola soon made himself the undisputed darling of the White Hart Lane faithful.
Which brings us to Oakwell, March 1999. This was the ground on which Spurs’ FA Cup hopes had ended the previous season. Now, at the quarter final stage, the game seemed to be heading for a drab stalemate. Chris Armstrong had squandered a couple of good chances (as was his wont) but precious little of note had happened in the contest until Mike Reed sent off the home side’s Adie Moses for two fairly innocuous bookings – the first of which had been brought about largely through Ginola theatrically throwing himself to the ground (as, unfortunately, was his wont). Space began to open up, and in the 66th minute, Ginola picked up the ball on the left hand touchline and set off on his one man mission. It was the only goal of the game, a shining moment of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity. George Best himself marvelled at it.
Spurs’ FA Cup dream ended in extra time at the semi final stage thanks to an Alan Shearer brace. They finished 11th in the league – respectable enough after a disastrous start – and reached the League Cup final against Leicester, which, despite Ginola somewhat incongruously being marked out of the game by Robert Ullathorne, they snatched in injury time through Allan Nielsen’s header. For Ginola however, the season was an unmitigated triumph, as he landed both the PFA and FWA Player of the Year awards. He remains the only player from a club finishing outside the top four to win the PFA crown – no mean feat in the season that Manchester United won the treble.
It wouldn’t last however. By the end of the following season, Graham and Ginola had fallen out, the manager increasingly frustrated by what he perceived as the Frenchman’s unwillingness to give everything for the team. Ginola meanwhile, claimed that he had become too popular and was thus a threat to Graham. In the summer of 2000, at the age of 33, he was sold to Aston Villa for £3m – to his own heartbreak and the Spurs’ fans fury.
The deal didn’t work out well for anyone. Spurs struggled following his exit, and the decision to sell, coupled with wasting £9.5m on flop Sergei Rebrov, were two early nails in Graham’s coffin at Tottenham. He would be sacked by March of that season. Ginola meanwhile, confessed that he had wanted to retire at Spurs and didn’t quite have the same passion elsewhere. He memorably fell out with John Gregory at Aston Villa when the ever-tactless manager accused him of being overweight – which led to Ginola celebrating a goal soon afterwards by taking his shirt off and flexing in the direction of the dugout – and later seeking legal advice from none other than Cherie Blair. He joined Everton for a brief, uneventful spell the following season, and finally hung up his boots in 2002.
In many ways, Ginola’s greatest strength was his greatest weakness – his ego. There’s little doubt his own self-regard and maverick stylings got up the nose of pretty much every manager he played under – even Keegan dropped him for the last four games of his final season in charge. This is a man whose self-obsession saw him refer to himself without irony as “a little prince” and, when asked if he was happy, as a Frenchman, that France had been crowned world champions in 1998, responded with a marvellously melodramatic rant that began: “No, it was awful. They stole my dream,” and ended ”Why? WHY?”
Yet it was that arrogance that made him the player he was, a footballer with the sheer brass balls to attempt the seemingly impossible and succeed, as if it was nothing. Marry that to immaculate technique that most certainly doesn’t come without some serious hard work and it was easy to see why he was – and still is – adored by fans of those same teams whose managers he so infuriated. This goal encapsulates that talent. Whatever you think of Ginola – frustrating, aggravating, theatrical, cynical player that he so often was – this is pure, distilled, footballing genius. Even if the likes of Chris Morgan and Nicky Eaden aren’t exactly Paolo Maldini. Enjoy.