In football, there aren’t many moves that are as well respected as the overhead-kick. We have all tried it at one point or another and only a few will have succeeded. The overhead, commonly known as “the bicycle-kick”, requires a great deal of strength, remarkable athleticism, impeccable timing, and more importantly, complete disregard for one’s own safety. Consider the overhead-kick a three-pronged forking path, if you will – on the one hand, this one moment could land you legendary status, a bronze statue outside of the grounds of your local Powerleague as well as a story worth telling the grandkids. Yet, with vaulting ambition comes great risk, or two great risks in this case: serious injury or total humiliation. Nevertheless, the moment you see that ball soaring through the air, your hips are already beginning to swivel, your back is suddenly turned towards the goal, and the next thing you know – as a popular noughties boyband once said – you are flying without wings.
More than once during the Covid-19 lockdown, I found myself deep in a YouTube vortex as a result of the world’s most unprecedented footballing drought. It would be unusual to see a working-from-home day go by without watching a ridiculous fifteen-minute video of “the streets will never forget” kind of players, doing what they do best. Naturally, the bicycle-kick is commonplace in the showboating repertoire of unnecessary trickery and, not before long, studying it became a routine pastime for me. So, get YouTube at the ready for this one.
The way I look at it, for as long as there has been a ball, people have been trying to do stupid things with it (and long may that continue).
I started off with the famous bike riders of the high-stakes games – I am talking about the Champions League here, football on the biggest stage. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Mario Mandžukić came to mind first of all. Ronaldo’s NBA-like height and flawless technique against Juventus in April 2018 was sensational enough to have the Grand-FlairMaster Zinedine Zidane with his hand on his head in disbelief. The goal then received a deserving standing ovation from not only the Real Madrid supporters but also what seemed like the entire population of Turin (supposedly a deciding factor in why Ronaldo opted to join the Italian giants further down the line). Madrid thumped Juventus 3-0 away from home in that quarter-final first leg and Ronny was runner-up for the Puskas Award for his aerial assault on the Italians. Rewinding only a year earlier and perhaps we find Cristiano’s inspiration. In Cardiff, 2017, Mandžukić set the bar with one of the best equalising goals of all time after some chest-tight control and a bicycle-kick in the Champions League final against Madrid. The audacity to attempt such a daring stunt during the latter stages of the tournament is one thing, but a final? Now, that is bold. While Mario definitely scored the best goal of the game, it was unfortunately the only one for Juventus as Madrid went on to win 4-1. Mash these two goals together and we end up with Gareth Bale’s magnificent copycat acrobatics against Liverpool in the final of 2018. Say what you like about GBale’s attitude at Madrid, because, ultimately, he has completed it, mate.
What struck me about each of these three goals is that the YouTube captions and comments equally suggest that these are the “greatest goals of all time”. Before you know it, I am scrolling and clicking with the intention of singlehandedly proving or disproving this theory.
It became clear quite early on that the overhead-kick is certainly nothing new; Pelé probably has a dozen or so lost to a world before video compilations and highlight reels. I will always remember Eidur Gudjohnsen’s effort against Leeds in 2007 and Rivaldo’s winner to complete an outrageous hattrick versus Valencia in 2001, when shirts were less aerodynamic and pitches were not so accommodating for a soft landing. As a phenomenon, the bicycle-kick is likely to have existed since the creation of the sport many moons ago. The way I look at it, for as long as there has been a ball, people have been trying to do stupid things with it (and long may that continue).
I began to cross-reference, looking for patterns, trying to establish some sort of step-by-step instructions in preparation for my long-awaited return to Sunday league. What impressed me most of all, however, was that the overhead-kick is not beyond anyone’s reach. Shape/size is no obstacle. Yes, it probably helps if you have go-go-Gadget limbs like Peter Crouch or Andy Carroll but it is far from essential. Standing at about five-foot-five, Xherdan Shaqiri, with his strike for Switzerland in the Euros of 2016, proved that small men can in fact jump, only the ball is likely to find its way into the bottom corner rather than the top. Either way, a valiant effort during an international knock-out competition. Wayne Rooney also proved that the strongest and stockiest of builds can reach new heights with his seventy-eighth-minute winner to settle the Manchester Derby in United’s favour in 2011.
You do not have to be a prolific attacking player either, it seems. Sometimes such magic can come from truly unexpected sources. A good friend of mine immediately drew my attention to Rory Delap’s mind-blowing finish at St. Mary’s against Tottenham in 2004. This goal was Rory’s first in two years. Yet, the best part about this strike is that when you start typing “Rory Dela…” into YouTube you are given several options, of which a multitude of videos containing the words “throw-in” sit proudly above the one titled “overhead-kick”. Another honourable mention goes to Gary Cahill for his first goal for Villa in 2006. His strike against Birmingham in the Second City Derby was particularly impressive seeing that he is usually praised for simply being a big defender and getting in the way. A man with no fear, nonetheless.
Still, after watching all of these clips, I realised that world football has some “serial cyclists”, those who have managed to defy gravity on more than one occasion. For if I were to perfect the art, the performance, this interpretive dance, I was going to have to learn from the masters of the craft. There are players who have performed the stunt for more than one team, bicycle-kicking in a variety of settings – consider the likes of Ronaldo, Crouch, and of course, Zlatan Ibrahimović. Looking at the Swede’s thirty-yarder against England, one can only describe this remarkable feat as a unique style of martial arts. This was not your everyday overhead-kick and that is certainly not how I would choose to ride a bike. I wouldn’t even go so far as to try that on the bounciest of castles. It was the sort of thing you’d only unleash against your cousin as you leapt off the sofa like one of the Hardy brothers in a ladder match for your imaginary WWE title as a child. No human being should be throwing their body around like that, let alone at work. But then again, as Zlatan would be sure to tell you, he is no mortal man and that goal is evidence.
Despite the potential health risks involved, I was delighted to see the return of the English Premier League in June, much like the majority of the country. But last Tuesday, I was even more delighted to see the impromptu return of the overhead-kick. Thank you Danny Welbeck. Watford versus Norwich was never going to be the highlight of my week but with that finish, and very little else going on, it wasn’t far off. In a few years from now, when that guy Welbz looks back on his career, this will surely be a favourable memory for him. It is likely that this will be the best goal of his career, and quite rightly too. Sadly, Welbeck’s stunner was only appreciated by a delayed computer-generated applause (probably a soundbite taken from a bog-standard tap-in earlier in the season), followed by a shriek from my front room. Danny’s goal was more like the sort of madness produced in a training session that would send people utterly berserk for a few minutes, but, at the end of the day, it is only the bike rider who is still talking about it. Callum Wilson must have cared though, for he tried to emulate Welbeck’s technique just two days later to clinch a winner against Tottenham. However, VAR wouldn’t let anyone have the crown in this match, the goal was chalked off due to a handball from Josh King who was very much in the wrong place at the wrong time. It does make you wonder the extent to which clubs, players and particular circumstances influence our collective footballing memory. I have a feeling that although Welbeck will never forget his time closest to the sun, others will soon enough. Alas, I don’t think Welbz is destined for the opening sequence of Match of the Day for it will take a lot more to dislodge Sir Wayne Rooney’s effort, even if he did shin it…
A quick shout-out goes to all those who I didn’t mention but easily could of – I am thinking of Berbatov, Ronaldinho, Higuain, Mexes, Keegan, Hughes, Sinclair etcetera and, of course, the countless amateur ballers out there who are willing to risk their lives for the beautiful game. I salute you and your limitless bravery.