Great Goals Revisited: Dimitri Payet vs. Manchester United (2016)

It’s never just about the music. A tedious refrain perhaps but, while time machines remain the preserve of science fiction, music has the power to effortlessly transport us back to certain times in our lives. Whether it evokes the festival where you came of age, the song playing on the car radio while digesting difficult news or the soundtrack to the first eye contact with your future spouse, humans have the ability to invest their own meaning onto a subjective artform. An innocuous noise for one person can equally be life defining for someone else.

While not as universal as music, goals hold a similar place in the lives of football fans. Some are shared by many – fans of a certain generation will all remember Gary Lineker’s equaliser against West Germany at Italia ’90 or Eric Dier’s winning penalty against Colombia at Russia 2018. Equally, it can be as individual and unique as the first goal you ever saw live.

However, there are also the goals that represent moments of unadulterated joy. When Saturday Comes described the typical outlook of a football supporter as a ‘fusion of cynicism and stoic despair’ but some goals represent times where pessimism is trumped by hope. When, against all ingrained instincts, you believe this might be the moment where your team finally achieves tangible success. The moments that remind you why you fell in love with football.

Four years ago this month, Dimitri Payet scored an stunning free kick to put West Ham ahead in their FA Cup quarter final against Manchester United. The team’s outstanding player, Payet was the focal point of West Ham’s best season in a generation. At Old Trafford, his goal had put the club to within twenty minutes of the FA Cup semi-finals, where their opponents would be either Crystal Palace, Everton or Watford. At the time, it tentatively felt as if West Ham’s name was on the Cup. Looking back, it all seems as remote as the possibility of personally witnessing the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It also seemed unlikely in the summer of 2015. After four years in charge, West Ham parted company with manager Sam Allardyce. A balanced individual with a chip on each shoulder, Allardyce claimed he was treated harshly by the club’s owners. While he had re-established the club back in the Premier League, the team was unarguably going stale under his tutelage.

In fourth place over Christmas 2014, Allardyce’s decision to reinstate Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll to the starting line-up destabilised a previously successful first eleven, playing in a 4-4-2 diamond formation. The team limped to 12th by season’s end and Allardyce’s time was up. Nevertheless, he left behind a solid if unspectacular squad that was crying out for some creativity.

Enter Payet. A squat, diminutive attacking midfielder, Payet seemed a throwback to playmakers from previous eras where technique trumped physique. The Frenchman had created the most goalscoring opportunities in Europe’s top five leagues with Marseille the previous season, so it was a coup when new manager Slaven Bilic managed to convince the player to move to Upton Park. Proving that even broken clocks are right twice a day, co-owner David Sullivan exclaimed the Hammers had signed a ‘world class player’.

Supplemented by another summer signing, obscure Argentine midfielder Manuel Lanzini, West Ham were a revelation during the 2015/16 season. The previously stodgy football played the team seemed transformed by the introduction of midfield creativity and the club started picking up some notable scalps.

There were eye-catching victories away at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City, alongside a home win over Chelsea where Jose Mourinho was sent off at half-time for arguing his innocence with the match officials with a conviction only held by the truly guilty. Successive wins over Sunderland, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton left West Ham just outside the Champions League places by March 2016.

The promising league form was accompanied by an FA Cup run. Wolverhampton Wanderers were dispatched in the Third Round, followed by Liverpool after a dramatic winning header by Angelo Ogbonna in the last minute of extra-time in the Fourth Round Replay. In the Fifth Round, Championship side Blackburn Rovers were demolished 5-1 with a man-of-the-match performance by Payet.

Two goals, including a free kick described as a ‘humdinger’ by Guardian reporter Jamie Jackson, crystallised the view that West Ham possessed one of the form players in world football. A season that had started with fears of relegation in the final season at Upton Park had turned into something much more romantic – attacking football sound-tracked by Billy Ray Cyrus. Consequently, 9,000 West Ham fans travelled to Old Trafford for the quarter-final with quiet confidence.

This mood was also down to the travails of Manchester United. By now firmly stuck in a post-Ferguson funk, United were below West Ham in the Premier League table amidst protests at the quality of football on show. Under the management of Louis van Gaal, a man with such preposterous self-confidence that he made Boris Johnson seem like Mark Corrigan, United played the kind of slow-paced possession football that saps enjoyment from players and supporters alike. Tellingly, the midfield was anchored by Wayne Rooney, his attempted metamorphosis into Andrea Pirlo hampered by crab-like athleticism.

Eliminated in the group stages of the Champions League, and subsequently the Europa League by arch-rivals Liverpool, a consensus began to grow that only an FA Cup victory could potentially save van Gaal’s job. Alternatively, many Stretford End regulars hoped that defeat against West Ham would hasten his departure. By the time of the quarter-final the stakes were high.

As is often the case with such occasions, the first half failed to live up to expectations. West Ham created the better chances despite having less possession while United failed to have a shot on target. The presence of Marouane Felliani, a player almost exclusively composed of elbows, in a midfield once graced by Paul Scholes demonstrated their decline.

Payet had a quiet first half, although he demonstrated his class with some nifty footwork to release Aaron Cresswell to cross for the half’s clearest opportunity. Emmanuel Emenike, an otherwise forgettable loan signing, headed straight at David de Gea when a header into either corner would have put West Ham ahead.

By contrast, the second half was later described by journalist Rob Smyth as ‘wild, desperate and richly enjoyable’. Payet became increasingly influential, picking up a booking for a foul on Jesse Lingard and was the centre of the game’s first controversial moment. Escaping Felliani with the ease of time escaping an alcoholic, Payet fell just inside the penalty area under the challenge of Marcos Rojo.

Subjectivity comes into play here. Howard Webb, working on the match with BT Sport, claimed it was a clear penalty. His manager, Slaven Bilic, argued the same point vehemently after the game, offering to ‘defend my point at Cambridge’ presumably having mistaken the post-match interview for an episode of University Challenge.

A more balanced interpretation would suggest Payet had dragged his foot to ensure there was contact with Rojo, attempting to win a penalty. Certainly, it would have been a soft decision and referee Martin Atkinson waved away the claim. However, if Payet was adjudged to have dived, by the letter of the law he should have been shown a second yellow card and dismissed. This ambiguity would impact what was to follow.

Minutes later, West Ham were awarded a free kick around thirty-five yards from goal. There was no doubt who the travelling fans wanted to take it; Payet’s chant filled Old Trafford with enough intensity to suggest the game was being played in London. On BT Sport, co-commentator Michael Owen remarked how Payet was practising free kicks in the pre-match warm-up without ‘hitting any on target’.

What happened next was described by Smyth as ‘close to perfection’. With a five-step run-up, Payet hit a curling right-footed free kick that managed to curve inwards and beat de Gea. Deliciously, it hit the inside of the right-hand post on its way in – it is one of football’s truisms that a goal that hits the woodwork before crossing the line provokes immense satisfaction. Demonstrating Nemo-like memory, Owen cried that ‘practise makes perfect!’.

In his post-match report, Daniel Taylor emphasised the ‘almost impossible amount of curl’ Payet had put on the shot and it was generally agreed to have been a magnificent goal. Typically, Paul Scholes commented that de Gea should have saved it. It was all a long way from Sam Allardyce.

It could be argued that Payet scored an even better free-kick weeks later against Crystal Palace. From just outside the penalty area, Payet managed to lift the ball over the defensive wall and just below the cross bar – many Palace fans behind the goal initially jeered an effort that seemed to be heading into the crowd.

However, this was more than just a terrific goal. BT commentator Ian Darke emphasised that West Ham were ‘on their way to Wembley’ and many neutral viewers would have agreed. After the game, van Gaal agreed that his team had been ‘second best’ up until that point and given the trajectories of both club’s seasons, it seemed likely that West Ham would go on and win. Elusive success seemed tantalisingly close. Like Di Canio and Tevez before him, Payet seemed to have scored a famous winner for West Ham at Old Trafford.

Some things are just too good to be true. With the withdrawal of Felliani, United belatedly pressed for an equaliser and found one ten minutes from time. Ander Herrera lifted a cross to the far post and, with the considerable aid of Bastian Schweinsteiger’s backside, Anthony Martial had an empty net in which to turn the ball home. West Ham protested afterwards that Schweinsteiger had fouled goalkeeper Darren Randolph but to no avail. If Payet should have been sent off before, then Martial’s goal should have been disallowed. For all its deserved criticism, VAR would probably have ruled it out.

The game petered out into a 1-1 draw. At this point, West Ham were favoured to win the replay but goals from the emerging Marcus Rashford and Felliani saw United win 2-1 at Upton Park. Despite winning the competition, manager van Gaal was sacked almost immediately afterwards.

For West Ham, the feeling of lost opportunity was overshadowed by immense satisfaction with the season as a whole. Finishing in their highest position since 2002, with a positive goal difference for the first time in the Premier League era, the club seemed well-set for a period of sustained success. Payet, included in the PFA Team of the Year, was central to these hopes.

There was to be no fairy-tale ending. By the following January, the team were mired in a familiar relegation battle and Payet wished to leave. He claimed that a 1-0 win over Hull, in which the man of the match award was given to the goalpost that saved three certain Hull goals, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Rumours abounded that his wife wanted to return to Marseille and that Payet had to be talked into staying after starring at Euro 2016 with France.

Whatever the truth, it cannot be denied that he defecated upon his West Ham legacy from the height of the Eiffel Tower. Images of him that adjourned the London Stadium were hastily removed and the club felt inclined to accept a £25 million offer from Marseille. In less than a year, Payet had captured the imagination of West Ham fans and managed to squander this affection. Like many intense relationships, the ending was bitter and acrimonious. No wonder he was quickly re-christened ‘le snake’.

Yet to solely remember Payet by his departure masks the cherished moments he provided. For one season, West Ham possessed a player that was the envy of English football and fitted the image of maverick playmaker the club has always craved. His goal at Old Trafford encapsulated the feeling that success was just around the corner, that the club was on the verge of something special.

As Tim Canterbury said in The Office, ‘Life isn’t about endings is it? It’s a series of moments’. In this context, Payet’s free kick deserves to be remembered without being overridden by his complicated legacy.

If the words to ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ summarise the feeling of supporting West Ham, Payet’s goal was the moment the bubbles nearly reached the sky.