Football loves its heroes, but there are some acts of self-sacrifice that deserve greater respect: outfield players going in goal, goalkeepers coming up for corners, or anyone attempting to interview Pep Guardiola before or after a match.
Defending is, in the most part, a hugely unglamourous and thankless task. Holding the line, putting your head where the boots are flying, and having to chase £70m wingers are all decidedly unenviable responsibilities, but there is one scenario in which defenders can briefly consider themselves as superheroes.
If we are to properly and comprehensively overanalyse the art of the goalline clearance, we must first identify each of its sub-genres. The first, and arguably most heroic of all, is the sliding goalline clearance.
Its heroism stems from the long, drawn out drama. The ball, poked towards goal by its imminent scorer – who could be forgiven for wheeling away in celebration already – rolls agonisingly closer to the line. The defender is in hot pursuit and, even if there’s a sniff of a chance of salvaging the situation, the slide must be perfectly timed.
There’s no little skill involved, with the added spectacle of the hero himself ending up entangled in the back of the net. There’s usually no celebration involved, rather the sort of stern receiving of teammates’ congratulations that you’d normally see from a goalkeeper after they’ve saved a penalty. Goalline clearances, clearly, are a serious business.
Things get a little more complicated, though, when the ball is airborne. Once again, timing is everything, especially in the age of the Goal Decision System.
Invariably, this requires some sort of acrobatics and/or some brave battling against one’s own backward momentum in order to generate enough power to get the ball clear, and make sure the only thing nestling in the back of the net is one’s own arse.
Where these variants of the goalline clearance rely heavily on athleticism, sometimes it’s all about sheer reaction time.
Ashley Cole developed something of a specialism in being the last man standing, most notably when limiting the damage for Chelsea in the Champions League in 2012 – giving his side the chance to overhaul Napoli in the return leg at Stamford Bridge.
In fact, Cole has since taken his unique brand of last-ditch rescuing to MLS, where he continued to thrive as the occasional last line of defence.
On rare but glorious occasions, defenders can combine multiple variances of the goalline clearance to reach peak levels of last-ditch heroism. Step forward, Mathieu Peybernes:
Heroism aside, most of your common garden goalline clearances occur while on post duty at set-pieces. As per the unwritten rules of Sunday League, it’s usually the full-backs tasked with this important job, hacking and heading clear when necessary.
Unfortunately, when an amateur tries to get involved, things can go rather comically bad.
Speaking of which, this brings us to the final sub-category of the goalline clearance: the Steven Taylor Simulation.
It’s an exquisite example of cheating because, rather than trying to win a penalty or have an opponent sent off, it’s almost admirable in its attempt to convince the referee that you’re close to death when you’ve simply handballed on the line.
An emergency blend of skill, dexterity, timing and bravery: goalline clearances are the sort of life-affirming acts of footballing heroism that make all that mundane defending worthwhile. Embrace them.