There’s nothing in football as emotional or dramatic as a last-minute goal but then there’s also nothing in football as deceptive or misleading as a last-minute goal.
Every single such strike comes with a considerable conundrum: is the fact a team needed the goal an indication that they don’t really work as a collective and have temporarily overcome such an issue, or is the way they got it a show of their strength and spirit? It is a conundrum further complicated by the fact that a late goal can transform a side from one who suffer the former into one who enjoy the latter.
Even if some strikes like that are down to little more than luck, their effect can bind a team together, make the players believe and become more committed to a manager’s ideas that are at that point nowhere near to being fully applied. They can be the difference for such teams. Alternatively, they can just delay the inevitable, until a team's fundamental problems erode even their ability to produce lucky late strikes. We must wait to see what it is with Sam Allardyce's England.
A classic example of the positive side is, naturally, a classic late-goal team. Manchester United were scrappy and looked very short of European champions when they trailed Leicester City 2-0 at home on the opening day of the 1998-99 season, but earned a point through a Teddy Sheringham header that somewhat fortunately diverted a David Beckham long shot, and then a 93rd-minute free-kick from the number-seven.
The description of the goals almost says enough. This wasn’t the typical United siege, where they were battering down the door. It was much more disjointed and scrappy than that, requiring the relative pot luck of strikes from distance, meaning those goals were by no means inevitable. The point, however, is that a tone was set. A faith was fostered. The confidence derived from that strike helped United get to the point where, no matter what was happening in games, panic didn’t set in. They had the belief that they could keep doing that. That belief in turn ensured the team worked better as a whole, with every individual action and collective move imbued with the intensity that can only come from unhesitating trust on what you’re doing. That was evident in every late siege, and did make it inevitable that United would score 21 goals after the 80th minute that season - nine of them properly consequential, and two of them the most famous goals in the history of the game, as they beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.
Almost the reverse perception took hold with that match at Camp Nou. Because United got two late goals, and the German side hit the frame of the goal twice in the second half, it is commonly painted as a smash-and-grab. The 67th-minute withdrawal of Dwight Yorke to a number-10 position, and restoration of Beckham to his usual right-wing role, however, had already started to turn the game. By the final 10, United were subjecting Bayern to one of those sieges, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer went close with a header and the ball so narrowly evaded Yorke and Nicky Butt.
Either way, those last heroics were pretty much a continuation of what happened on the opening day.
United are obviously the extreme example, and it would be ridiculous to expect their success of any such team, but the point here is how much they convey the general influence of late goals.
We might have witnessed elements of it with Antonio Conte’s Chelsea already, given how two late winners have helped them look more like the Italian’s ideal, and it remains to be seen what it will do for Allardyce’s England.
They are almost a perfect case study, given that this 1-0 win over Slovakia was his first game and we have so little other evidence to draw on. How would it have been viewed had Adam Lallana not got that fortuitous late strike? Was it a poor and incoherent attacking display only aided by a Martin Skrtel red card, or was that an impressive show of perseverance because it is an opening game? Does that speak to a new spirit in the team?
This manner of victory is even more relevant because Allardyce spent such a long time afterwards talking about psychology.
“I think they were probably a bit nervous. I saw a little nervous tension. It [Iceland] is bound to be in the back of their mind, isn’t it? They had a holiday, a pre-season, started the season with their clubs and then it comes to the first England game after Iceland and maybe there was nervous tension.
“It was too negative in the first 45 minutes. I think it was possession for possession’s sake rather than trying to break the opposition down. That was maybe sub-conscious, players thinking: ‘I don’t want to be the one who gives that ball away.’ I could see that: ‘What if I make that pass? Oh, I don’t know …’ But we have to be brave.
“I haven’t asked what their biggest fear is because I didn’t want to talk about fear. I wanted to be positive and tell them what the future is. The only thing I mentioned about the past was to learn from it and the only thing I said was don’t feel like that again next time around.”
They didn’t. This time, they felt that unique relief that only a late goal can bring.
At the very least, it is a finishing touch that provides something to build on.