There are some goals which transcend football. The kind which showcase a unique talent and an unmatched level of execution, reminding us of the talent and athleticism required to make it as a top-level footballer. Thanks to Santiago Vergini, these goals don’t even have to arrive at the right end of the pitch.
Even by Sunderland’s sorry standards, the club’s start to the 2014/15 season was pretty underwhelming. If you wanted to put a positive spin on the situation, you could point to the fact that the Black Cats avoided defeat in five of their first six Premier League outings; those who prefer their glass half empty, however, would rightly point out that they also failed to win in that time, while two of their draws were sleep-inducing scoreless stalemates against Burnley and Swansea City.
Gus Poyet’s charges looked to have turned a corner in early October, though, when they brushed aside Stoke City 3-1 at the Stadium of Light. That result lifted Sunderland up to 11th in the table after just one defeat in their first seven matches, as the club’s fans dared to dream (of a season in which they were not forced to endure another nail-biting relegation battle). As it turned out, any supporters harbouring such a notion were getting ahead of themselves.
On October 18, Sunderland made the long journey down to the south coast to do battle with a Southampton side who had made an unexpectedly strong start to the campaign, amassing 13 points from a possible 21 to sit third in the table. Ronald Koeman would have anticipated a tough encounter against the Black Cats, though; after all, their opponents had conceded only seven goals in their first seven games, including just one in their previous three. Vergini was key to the club’s new-found defensive solidity, so much so that he had recently been called up to the Argentina squad by new manager Gerardo Martino.
A fast start would be important, and the Black Cats’ defenders couldn’t be accused of not making a significant impact in the opening quarter-hour. However, as Vergini slammed a half-volley beyond Vito Mannone in the 12th minute, it became clear this wasn’t exactly the impact anyone in the northeast (except those who support Newcastle, perhaps) had in mind.
It was a striker’s finish in the purest sense; the sweetest connection you could ever hope for, something which becomes even more baffling when you appreciate Vergini and ‘clean contact’ never exactly went hand in hand at either end of the pitch.
The Argentine failed to score a single goal at the right end during his 51 games for the club, and indeed his entire professional career has only seen him find the net seven times. And yet, in that moment, facing his own goal, he looked like a natural.
If anything, it was typical of Sunderland’s luck for one of their defenders to turn into the world’s best finisher when facing his own goal. This is a team whose fans have suffered a lot: they ended up paying several million pounds to not sign Ricky Álvarez, a player who scored once for the Black Cats during a miserable loan spell. They had their record signing go AWOL for several months, presumably because he didn’t fancy staying in Sunderland. They spent an entire season with Jozy Altidore as their main striker. Indeed, on the scale of all the dumb things to have happened to the club in the last decade, Vergini’s goal only ranks somewhere in the middle.
Want further evidence? Sunderland scored two further own goals in the same game, and that wasn’t even the first time they had scored three own goals in the same Premier League match.
Mannone’s reaction to the goal might seem confusing in its relative understatedness, but when you give it a second look you can see it through the Italian’s eyes and realise there really is no other way to respond. It’s the look of a man so stunned by what he has witnessed that his eyes have begun rubbing themselves.
It’s a strike which makes no sense for all manner of reasons, and the keeper is mentally holding up a set of scales with ‘How?’ on one side and ‘Why?’ on the other, hoping gravity will provide him with an explanation.
Can you really blame Mannone for passing the ball straight to Southampton’s Dušan Tadić later in the same game? On the strength of what he witnessed from Vergini, he’d have had every right to feel his goal was safer with the ball at the feet of the opposition.