There’s nothing quite as unexpectedly glorious as a last-minute winner. Settling down and considering the ramifications of earning a single point, considering whether the performance had merited more, readying yourself for the journey home when, suddenly, it happens. The ball hits the back of the net, and the world is turned upside down. You embrace total strangers with a passion that even Casanova never knew. You empty your lungs and your throat into the screaming, writhing mosh pit of pure emotion. When it is finally over and you find yourself five rows closer to the pitch than you were before the goal, you get the chance to realise you’ve experienced one of the greatest adrenaline rushes someone simply watching sport can ever get. Comfortable wins are great in their own way, but nothing compares to that last-gasp winner.
It’s even better when a top side is put to the sword. In March 2007, Andy Johnson provided such a moment.
Everton were in fairly good form ahead of the visit of Arsenal, having lost just two of their last 11 league games. One of those came in the most recent game at Goodison, with Evertonians experiencing the last-minute winner emotional rollercoaster in reverse thanks to Jermaine Jenas and Spurs. There was no doubt who was driving David Moyes’ side; of the last 10 goals the Blues had scored in all competitions, eight were claimed by Johnson or Mikel Arteta. Everton were in a straight scrap for European qualification with Spurs, Bolton, Reading and Portsmouth – no, seriously – and could do with three points.
They took on an Arsenal side who could scarcely have been in better league form. Arsene Wenger had led the Gunners to victory in 10 of their last 14 outings, with only Sheffield United claiming a shock defeat against them in that time (memorable particularly for a goalkeeping cameo, and a clean sheet, by one Phil Jagielka). Though the Londoners had crashed out of the Champions League and FA Cup to PSV and Blackburn respectively, they were in a good place to win the fight for third with Liverpool.
Arsenal handed starts to Cesc Fabregas, who had mustered a league-high 51 shots without scoring a single goal, and Jeremie Aliadiere, who had not scored in the league for five years. How this didn’t end Everton 0-2 Arsenal (Fabregas ’8, Aliadiere ‘90+1) is anyone’s guess.
The game was no classic. Neither side were able to present their forwards with many chances, and it was the Everton midfield that were causing the most problems. Manuel Fernandes and Lee Carsley were getting the better of Abou Diaby and Fabregas time and time again, and the latter rattled Jens Lehmann’s post with a fine first-half effort. The dangerous Johnson almost reached a bouncing long ball before the German, but, as was a running theme for 90 minutes, the chance to score narrowly evaded the Toffees’ record signing.
Everton recognised early on that Johnson’s clever running was causing headaches, and opted more often than not for a direct approach that left strike partner James Vaughan out of the game. Even Vaughan, though, looked more likely to have an impact than Aliadiere or Julio Baptista for the visitors. The former of the Gunners pair fired one effort over the bar, and offered little else.
The woodwork was struck again in the second half, and again it was Everton who came inches away from taking the lead. Osman’s fast feet often put him in good scoring positions, and so it was here in front of the Gwladys. But the midfielder’s snapshot was denied, not by Lehmann, but by the frame of the goal. It was just one of those afternoons, then. Close, but no cigar. The aforementioned ‘Everton that’ result was avoided as Howard denied fairly tame Fabregas and Aliadiere efforts before Osman’s close call. That was that, then. A dull 0-0 draw.
In the pouring rain, Everton won a corner. The Gwladys Street rose in unison.
There were three added minutes to be played, perhaps with one chance still in the game. Arsene Wenger stormed to the touchline to bellow orders, then slipped on the sodden Goodison turf as he returned to his seat. It was the least of his problems.
Joseph Yobo, Alan Stubbs and Joleon Lescott ambled into the penalty area, wiping the rain from their brows. The Arsenal defence organised itself, much pointing, instructions doled out by senior players. The crowd watched, and waited.
Lehmann then clutched his face, claiming that substitute Victor Anichebe had inadvertently struck him. But Mark Clattenburg wasn’t interested in more stoppages. In came the corner.
Arteta’s set piece was fairly poor, but Johnson’s proactivity paid off. The forward sprinted clear of Fabregas and flicked the ball on. Anichebe went to bring the ball down, but Gilberto waved a foot in ahead of him. In the time the ball took to bounce, every player in the box turned to it. Every fan in the ground fixated on it.
Andy Johnson burst towards it and, without a second thought, lashed the ball between Lehmann and Gallas, and in.
Bedlam. That feeling of pure, uncontrollable joy. Falling, but loving it. Everton had found the last-gasp winner, Arsenal were sunk, and amidst the downpour came an outpour of jubilation.
Seconds later, it was over, and Phil Neville gleefully battered the ball into the Bullens. Those last-minute winners. They feel so good.