1st March 1995
FA Cup 5th Round Replay
Southampton 2-6 Tottenham
His first touch was almost perfect. Latching onto a decidedly un-Liverpool big boot from the keeper (this was the Souness era), ‘Rocket’ Ronny Rosenthal calmly and skilfully took the ball round Nigel Spink in the Aston Villa goal and, with nobody near him, was tasked with slotting the ball into an empty net from four yards. Jan Molby turned away to celebrate with the away fans at Villa Park. But the cheer never came. You know what happened. That inexplicable miss, with the Israeli striker smacking the bar when faced with the entirety of an open goal to aim at, has become the most famous of its kind, certainly in English football. It is the one moment that everyone recalls when Rosenthal’s name is invoked. Not the perfect hat trick he scored on his full debut for Liverpool. Not the last minute winner in front of the Kop in the Merseyside derby in 1993. Not the solo effort after running from his own penalty area, voted Israel’s “goal of the millennium”, against Azerbaijan in 1996. Not even the goal he scored that seismic afternoon in Birmingham.
In some ways, it’s fitting that that one moment of tragicomedy is Rosenthal’s calling card. If David Luiz is a “Playstation player”, Rosenthal’s style was pure ACME – in full flight he resembled the Road Runner, dashing at incredible pace with his head down, seemingly oblivious to anything that was actually going on around him, occasionally throwing in the occasional Wile E. Coyote-esque pratfall for good measure. Dashing around with the spring heels of a gazelle, yet looking like your history teacher, Rosenthal, would enjoy some small degree of redemption; it would take three years however, and require a change of scenery…
Arriving at Ossie Ardiles’ Tottenham in 1994, it must have been slightly galling for the striker to learn that his transfer fee was a paltry £200,000 – just four years after Kenny Dalglish had made him the first million pound overseas player in the history of English football in turning his loan move from Standard Liege into a permanent one. Even then, it seemed like a bargain; when he was first borrowed from Belgium (snatched from under the noses of Luton, who had him on trial), the ‘Hebrew Hitman’ was a sensation – after that astonishing debut hat trick, against Charlton, he added a further four crucial goals (seven in the final eight games of the season in all) to almost single-handedly haul a creaking, wobbling Liverpool side over the line to claim what remains their last league title to date. “Ronnie gave us momentum,” Kenny Dalglish would recall. “He had five starts, three appearances as sub and seven goals. That was a very good return which helped us to win the championship.” Once he officially became a Liverpool player however, he was never quite the same, having to settle predominantly for a super-sub role. In truth, his stay on Merseyside had started to fizzle some time before that fateful miss in 1992, and his reputation had taken quite a hit by the time he made it to White Hart Lane.
Despite a 20-yard header (!) on his league debut, Rosenthal struggled to establish himself as a first team player at Tottenham, and he seemed to fairly quickly acquire a very different kind of cult hero status in North London compared to the adulation he’d received in those early days at Liverpool. The Guardian’s David Lacey described him during this time as ‘a rogue rocket, waiting to be aborted by mission control’. His prospects weren’t helped when, the following season, Spurs added world cup stars Jurgen Klinsmann and Illie Dumitrescu to the likes of Anderton, Sheringham and Barmby to create a formidable pool of attacking talent. Yet when Tottenham found themselves 2-0 down at The Dell in an FA Cup fifth round replay, they turned to the ‘rogue rocket’ himself…
Originally, Spurs weren’t even supposed to be competing in the 1994/95 FA Cup. The previous summer, the FA had meted out one of their most severe punishments ever after finding Spurs guilty of making illegal payments to players, fining them £600,000, banning them from the cup and handing them a 12-point deduction in the league. Spurs appealed, but it would be December 1994 – two months after the competition proper had started – that the ban would be quashed (with the points deduction erased as well). With Klinsmann banging them in, and Gerry Francis replacing Ardiles, Altrincham and Sunderland were disposed of in rounds three and four before Southampton managed to grab a draw at WHL in round five. Alan Ball’s Saints raced into the lead in the replay, and when 90sfootballparty favourite Matthew Le Tissier made it 2-0 five minutes before half time it was no more than the home side deserved. During the interval a desperate Francis hauled off defender Stuart Nethercott (don’t ask) and threw on Rosenthal.
What followed was the most dazzling of one man shows as Rosenthal – the focal point of a Tottenham attack that threw everything at Southampton – tore the Saints to shreds. What was notable about the hat trick he plundered that night was the sheer quality of all three goals. For the first, Sheringham’s brilliant backheel found Barmby, who whipped a low ball across the box for a charging Rosenthal to meet at the near post and loop beyond his old mate Bruce Grobbelaar at frightening pace. For the second, he collected a hopeful ball in the right hand channel, evaded a couple of challenges as he cut inside, and then just cracked in a shot from 25 yards that again fizzed past Grobbelaar before he’d even seen it. That took the game to extra time, and it wasn’t long before Rosenthal picked the ball up on the left, hared towards the box, and hit another 25 yarder that swerved deliciously away from the Zimbabwean custodian at the last and flew into the top left hand corner. Utterly shell-shocked, Saints shipped another three in extra time to Sheringham, Anderton and Barmby.”I have never seen such an emphatic hat trick” declared Gerry Francis afterwards.
Spurs saw off Liverpool in the last eight before coming unstuck against a Daniel Amokachi-powered Everton in the semis – (you could argue their big mistake was not giving Rosenthal enough time to repeat his heroics – he only got six minutes in that game at Elland Road). They would finish 7th in the league that season, largely due to Klinsmann’s goals. Rosenthal’s overall impact at the club could kindly be described as ‘modest’, managing just 11 goals in 100 appearances for the club. In 1997 he joined Graham Taylor’s Watford, and, looking far too good for the third tier, helped them to promotion that season. Retiring shortly afterwards at the age of 35, he continues to live in England, working in the disconcertingly vague role of ‘football consultant’, and a few years ago, he somewhat bizarrely emerged as a potential buyer for QPR, which could have been fun.
Invariably wheeled out these days when anyone misses a sitter, Rosenthal looks back on that day at Villa Park with philosophical good humour: “If you asked me if I’d want to do it again I’d say yes, because it put me on the map.”
Meanwhile, this weekend, Spurs visit Southampton, and with both involved in high-scoring games this season, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see a repeat of that result from 1995. It just won’t be the same without Rocket Ronny though.