Goalmouth Scrambles: A Study of Footballing Chaos

The clue’s in the full name: “almighty goalmouth scramble”. A gift from the footballing gods.

In the midst of the usual ebb and flow of a football match, there are some occasionally unlockable mini-games. A bout of head-tennis, for example (with a strict minimum of four consecutive headers to qualify as such) or the disproportionately exciting spectacle of your team winning more than two corners in quick succession. Or goalmouth scrambles.

Goalmouth scrambles – true ones that is, whose minimum requirements I will expand upon below – are so rare and so cherished because they don’t happen by design. You can’t train for them, there are no tactics to encourage them (although a route-one approach arguably works best) and there’s little warning that one is about to occur.

But…what is a goalmouth scramble?

Before it eventually untangles and resolves itself, a goalmouth scramble represents the ultimate footballing stalemate: one desperate team not quite attacking well enough to score promptly, against another desperate team defending just badly enough to keep the suspense alive.

Goalmouth scrambles are characterised by pure footballing instinct on either side. Attacking legs swing, poke and stab, while defensive torsos are thrown in to stop them. While various FIFA clampdowns have discouraged any agriculture further up the pitch, the goalmouth scramble is the last remaining enclave for tackling with as much force as you like to prevent a near-certain goal, as long as you get some of the ball.

An inherent lack of skill is immediately obvious when a goalmouth scramble breaks out. It is not a coincidence that you’re most likely to watch one towards the tail end of a Football League highlights show or an FA Cup first-round goals round-up.

Some liken them to “pinball”, which really only reflects one aesthetic of the goalmouth scramble. The sight of the ball pinging around the six-yard box should, in a scramble of any standing, be punctuated by moments where it gets stuck under the midriff of a centre-half, where it may be hacked at until the scramble’s distant cousins – the melee, and then the 21-man brawl – break out instead. This distant 1990s edition of Lincoln vs Macclesfield – a fixture that sounds like it could feasibly be a ninety-minute goalmouth scramble every time it is played – offers a perfect example:

So, two goalmouth scramble essentials have already been established: the kitchen sink must be summoned, and all hands must be called to the pump in response. On, then, to the finer details of an A-grade goalmouth scramble.

Connoisseurs of the phenomenon are yet to agree on the ideal length of time that a goalmouth scramble should last, but at least three discernible and unsuccessful attempts to score a goal (and, thus, to prevent it) seems a conservative threshold to use instead.

The means by which those efforts are denied are not hugely important, but each has their own unique charm. Firstly, the flying block – a life-affirming moment for whoever performs it – is very much the goalmouth scramble’s bread and butter. Secondly – since most promising scenarios are prematurely ended by a successful hoof clear or a shanked shot into the stands – the back-up option of having a hapless teammate get in the way adds a convenient triple cocktail of longevity, calamity and blame. Thirdly, and what some goalmouth scramble experts regard as an optional extra, the woodwork has a part to play – the ball hitting the post, bar, a tantalising combination of both in the same movement all adds up to the defending team’s goal “leading a charmed life”.

Whichever ingredients you have – and the very nature of the spectacle dictates that any combination is surely possible – there is a final, golden, rule that separates a mere goalmouth scramble from an almighty goalmouth scramble. Quite simply, it should contain at least one more twist than you expect, even if you’re watching it for the 87th time.

Norwich vs Sheffield United, Carrow Road, 4th January 1997.

Unbelievably, there was no mention of this from Gerald Sinstadt on the BBC’s FA Cup third-round goals round-up, leaving it hanging in the memories of just 12,356 lucky people until it was unearthed by the magic of the internet nearly two decades later.

The ball is helpfully looped into the mixer early doors, giving the goalmouth scramble an early platform to get itself together. With Norwich goalkeeper Bryan Gunn stranded, no fewer than five heads (three Blades, two Canaries) compete for the first ball (of many), two of whom succeed in bundling it goalwards. So far, so good. The woodwork makes an intervention, but only thanks to a Norwich defender volleying the ball straight up on to his own crossbar. Only three seconds have elapsed, which will turn out to be a mere 20% of the whole bloody mess.

Some more waist-height confusion occurs (while being a good height for a keeper, it’s a dreadful height for anyone else, fraught with indecision and peril) as Norwich try and belt the ball clear, only to result in frenzied Sheffield United appeals for handball. That’s another delightful nuance of the goalmouth scramble – the ability to thrust both hands in the air to appeal to the referee while still keeping one eye on the possibility of bundling home a crucial goal.

Some brief pinball – hardly worthy of the name – evens itself out into a shooting chance from 16 yards. At this range lurk the outsiders of the goalmouth scramble – opposition full-backs. Not tall or talented enough to take their place on the front line, they wait for the chance to recycle the ball if it ever emerges, perhaps even with a spectacular long-range decider. Not this time, though, as the shot is dragged rather sadly wide, and the goalmouth scramble is finally ov…no, wait.

Lurking at the back post – looking suspiciously offside – is the Sheffield United No.6, who forces Bryan Gunn into a smart save down low. A gilt-edged chance squandered, but nothing compared to the 24-carat, gold-plated chance that follows. From a distance of quite literally one imperial yard, the No.6 – he may have a name, but it matters not – displays some serious dedication to the evolution of an almighty goalmouth scramble by stabbing the ball against the post so desperately, so brainlessly, that it pings back into the main crowd scene. The goalmouth scramble is 80% complete.

Finally – in a blur of red, black, yellow and green – this knackered old Mitre Delta is poked goalwards again, this time safely into the hands of Bryan Gunn (93% there now) who is briefly threatened with being manhandled into the back of his own net.

15 seconds, 13 unspeakably amateur attempts to strike a football (six of them from the attacking side, from an average distance of less than six yards out), three handball appeals, two hits of the woodwork (one own-goal attempt plus the worst miss in record history), zero goals.

All of which begs the question: shouldn’t an almighty goalmouth scramble end in a goal? Any club allegiances aside, you do find yourself hoping for all this sweaty hopelessness to end in the fundamental objective of football being achieved. Perhaps with the last kick of the game. When the attacking team are 1-0 down. Kicking towards the goal with all their fans behind it.

Blackpool vs Manchester City, Bloomfield Road, 30th January 1988.

Oh, just watch it.

(Many thanks to Crap 90s Football for the inspiration and the ammunition.)

Goalmouth Scrambles: A Study of Footballing Chaos
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