The 50 Greatest Goalposts of All-Time: 50-41
No small part of the appeal of football rests in its ephemera. It isn’t just about the matches, the results, and who wins the league titles and the cups. The game is just as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a sport, and most of us take at least a little something more from it than merely the games themselves. Imagine, if you will, that you’re on a train or in a car, and that said train or car passes a playing field or a football stadium. It’s a familiar feeling, that tiny frisson as your synapses are tickled at everything that is suggested to you by merely seeing them in passing, and it can feel the same whether you happen to see the grand arch of Wembley or a lonely looking set of goalposts on a school playing field.
Goalposts matter. They’re the crescendo of the whole point of a game. When a ball hits a goal net, something happens. It’s the culmination of the reason why we’re there to such a point that, even if the ball hits the outside of the side-netting a roar of some description will go up from those whose viewing angle has fooled them into thinking that the ball has actually gone into the goal. They may sit at either end of the pitch, but they’re also its centre-piece. A football pitch without goalposts is just a patch of grass, even if the lines have been marked out. Add three wooden posts, two eight feet high and one eight yards wide, at either end, though, and it becomes something completely different.
And in recent years, it has started to feel as though clubs don’t care very much about them. There are reasons why practicality has come to overtake aesthetics in the modern game (and these will be covered throughout this five-part series), but the end result is the same. Football looks the same wherever you go in the world, these days. The same kit manfacturers churning out the same templates around the globe. Official league match balls which are mutually beneficial for manufacturers and leagues. And the same style of goal post, the box goal, its netting drawn taut, held up by poles sat back from it all, usually with a U-shaped metal bar around the bottom, holding it all down. And in this rush towards global conformity, something has been lost. Something sensual. Something that connects us deeply to how we feel about the game at its basest level.
Firstly, though, an origin story.
The Eton Wall Game, one of the australopithecines to modern football’s homo sapiens, is recorded as far back as 1717 as using a garden door at one end of the pitch and an elm tree marked in white at the other. The different rules used by different public schools in the first half of the nineteenth century couldn’t agree on what width and height they should be, and it took the codification of the game in 1863 to set the dimensions (arbitrarily, so far as anyone is aware) at eight yards wide and eight feet high. It hasn’t changed since. A line of tape was originally strung between the tops of the posts after a member club witnessed a goal being scored which passed between the posts but “quite 90 feet in the air”, and the first recorded use of a solid crossbar was in the Sheffield rules of the game in 1866, although the FA could not permit their use until 1875. A solid crossbar was made mandatory in 1882.
It soon became evident that, with goalposts having adopted this particular shape, something else was needed. With the game being played on pitches with little actual grass on them, with dark brown balls, and frequently in poor light (floodlights wouldn’t even be allowed for competitive matches by the FA fot more than half a century), it could be difficult to judge whether a shot had passed between the posts or wide of them, and the dawning of the professional game after 1885 may have fed the notion that the honesty of players couldn’t be trusted if the referee’s view was obscured or impossible due to the conditions. Adding a net to the goals was the idea of one JA Brodie, an engineer and referee from Liverpool, in 1889. The Football League sanctioned their use in 1889, and the FA agreed it almost immediately.
And whilst everything else concerned with football has changed over the intervening 130 years, the goal net is almost unique in that it hasn’t changed very much at all. Pitch technology has turned the vast majority of professional pitches into green carpets. Kits have changed from button-up shirts and knickerbockers into leisurewear for the masses. Match balls are no more made of leather, with more durable materials having been used since the early 1980s. Even pitch markings have changed radically as the laws of the game evolved. But the goal net has barely changed. Stanchions of varying types were added over the years, but the modern box net is, if anything, very similar to the design used by many clubs right up until the 1930s, tethered back by rope and poles in order to not get in a goalkeeper’s way.
*Such as they are.
This series of articles is meant to entertain and tell some interesting stories, so while I, like many of you, have one or two preferred styles, I’ve disregarded that in favour of a few that tell interesting stories, a few that just look plain weird, and a variety from around the world. And whilst I’ve pulled out a top ten that will make up the final piece, I have neither the time nor the inclination to try and rank all 50 of these. The ranking isn’t what matters, no matter how closely we may associate anything football-related with league tables. There is a slightly Anglocentric bias to this list, for the simple reason that this is where I’ve seen the vast majority of matches that I’ve ever watched. That said, barely a third of the total list are from English clubs.
So, then… shall we?
Anybody who has ever walked a dog across a park at half past nine on a Sunday morning during the football season will be more than familiar with the site of someone balanced precariously on the shoulders of another, as though attempting an impersonation of The Anthill Mob without a trench coat, strips of tape in their mouth, wobbling unsteadily from side to side as they attempt to affix a goal net to a rusty crossbar which still has strips of tape from months and years gone by still stuck to it.
This is the goal net in its purest form. No poles holding it up, no stanchions, nothing but a small – and, as the season proceeds, usually diminishing – number of pegs to hold it in place. The Sunday league goalkeeper has a lot on their plate already. Lumps of brick or broken glass in the goalmouth are not, on the whole, something that professionals ever need to worry about. And near the top of that list of additional concerns is the goal net which, particularly on a windy day, may become detached from its mooring and blow across the goal-line, setting yet another trap for the hapless custodian. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this style of setting up a goal is never seen in the professional – or even semi-professional – game.
Tynecastle, the home of Heart of Midlothian, earns its place on this list for this curved stanchion, which sat in place at their home for around two decades, from the middle of the 1960s until they were replaced by a more familiar-looking D-stanchion in around 1983. Hearts had a slightly iffy patch during the late 1970s, getting relegated from the Scottish Premier League twice and promoted straight back at the first attempt both times, so it’s nice to know that their supporters had something this pleasant to look at during those troubled times.
A good number of traditional football grounds were built in central or residential locations and space was at a premium to the extent that the pitchside environment could be very cramped indeed. Clubs in this situation had to make do and mend, meaning that the touchline itself would be no more than a few feet from the crowd and the shallowness of the goals at such grounds (some of which are now departed or have been radically overhauled) meant that goalmouth scrambles would almost invariably end up with someone getting tangled up in the back of the goal.
Space was so cramped at The Dell that, as you can see from the attached video, the nets at the Milton Road end of the ground doubled back on themselves. Quite how this would be dealt with nowadays is a moot point. When Luton Town, who were in the same predicament space-wise, it was said that they had to replace their goals to standard box goals at the end of last season upon promotion into the Championship because those contain the required equipment for goal line technology. The club certainly had to spend £1m on improvements last summer, including shifting the position of the television camera gantry from one side of the ground to the other.
Manchester United had enjoyed a tradition L-stanchion at Old Trafford for years and years, but in the summer of 1981 the netting, which had been of the smaller mesh anti-hooligan variety since the middle of the 1960s, was hung down in front of the stanchions rather than wearing them like an overcoat. Initially, they were hung tautly, and quite close to the goal line, but as though growing with age they pushed back over the intervening years until the summer of 1986, when they were replaced with D-stanchions. These, however, only lasted eight years before being replaced by box goals.
Of course, there was likely a reason why Manchester United started to hang their nets in front of their L-stanchions around this particular time. On the 6th September 1980, Coventry City entertained Crystal Palace at Highfield Road, and there was huge controversy when a long-rang shot from Palace’s Clive Allen hit the back L-stanchion of the goal and bounced straight back out. The referee, however, somehow missed the fact that the ball had clearly crossed the line and played on as though nothing had happened.
It wasn’t the first time that this had happened. In 1909, West Bromwich Albion were playing Blackpool, but when a shot bounced out off a tightly-pulled net the referee urged the players to continue. Albion missed promotion that season by 0.0186 on goal average. But in 1980, television cameras were watching. Millions saw it unfold the following day on Match Of The Day. Allen’s disallowed non-goal became known as “The goal that never was”, and several clubs, not wanting to be caught out in the same way, hung their nets down in front of their stanchions. Coventry replaced their L-stanchions with D-stanchions at the end of the 1980/81 season.
The nets on the goals at the Råsunda bore witness to the arrival of Pele on the international football scene, and they were of a different design to those used for most of the rest of the tournament. Most of the grounds used in Sweden for the 1958 World Cup finals had a D-support stanchion (1958 was the only tournament at which these were seen), but the national stadium went instead for the more traditional full support L-stanchion, with nets hanging loosely over them which gave them the impression of leaping to their feet as Pele thundered his opening goal in the match. The Råsunda, which was located in Solna, just to the north of Stockholm, was demolished in 2013, with the 50,000 capacity Friends Arena, having replaced it.
The Inter Cities Fairs Cup is one of the great half-forgotten tournaments of European club football. Set up to promote trade fairs and not organised by UEFA, it was initially only open to teams from cities that hosted trade fairs and where these teams finished in their national league was considered an irrelevance. In order to not interfere with league fixtures it was initially played over the course of three seasons before going annual in 1960, and a London XI, Birmingham City and Leeds United all reached the final before Newcastle United finally became its first English winners in 1969.
Newcastle won their first leg by three goals to nil against the Hungarian side Ujpesti Dozsa, and when the second leg came around in Budapest, there was an omen in the air in that the goal posts at the Megyeri úti Stadion were painted in… black and white stripes. Duly, Newcastle won the second leg, and took the trophy with a 6-2 aggregate win. This, however, was the beginning of the end of an era on two fronts. The Inter Cities Fairs Cup was superceded by the UEFA Cup in 1971, and Newcastle United haven’t win a major trophy since. The stadium was renamed the Szusza Ferenc Stadion in 2003. It’s goal posts, regrettably, now plain white.
Conditions were not easy for England, when they travelled to Greece to play a European Championship qualifier in Thessalonika in November 1982. There was, predictably, violence amongst the travelling England support before the match, and the pitch at the Kaftanzoglio Stadium was uneven and rain-sodden. Furthermore, had the weather been any better the players might have needed sunglasses, considering the luminous orange goal-netting hanging at each end of the pitch. Curiously, the goals also had not only their bases painted black, but also the junctions between the posts and the crossbar painted the same colour. England, wearing arguably their finest ever kit (the red Admiral kit, as used in the 1982 World Cup finals), won the match three goals to nil, in arguably their best performance of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to qualify for Euro 84.
There are few major football stadia in the world as instantly recognisable as La Bombonera, home of Boca Juniors. Formally known as El Estadio Alberto J Armando, it’s known as La Bombonera on account of its unique shape, with one almost flat stand and three steeply banking stands, all combining to create stadium with a capacity of 54,000. The goal posts there haven’t changes in their style in a very, very long time indeed, with poles used as stanchions creating a box shape which only seems to add to the sense that the crowd are almost literally right on top of the pitch. We don’t pay anywhere near as much attention to South American club football in Europe as we should, but we’ll find out over the course of this series that South Americans seem to have a sharper sense of the aesthetic importance of the goal itself.
They say that the best World Cup is the one held closest to your tenth birthday, so I make no apologies for the 1982 World Cup finals making more than one appearance in this list. El Moninon hosted two of the most notable matches of the group stages of this tournament, one for all the right reasons, one for… not the right reasons. The biggest shock of the first round, Algeria’s 2-1 win against West Germany was played here, but so was a match which has subsequently become known as the “Shame of Gijon”, West Germany’s pedestrian-paced 1-0 win against Austria, a match which ensured that both teams qualified for the second round of the tournament at the expense of Algeria, and that the final rounds of group matches would be played simultaneously in order to prevent a repeat of such shenanigans from 1986 on. El Molinon, whose goal nets were further enhanced by an extra line of cord halfway down, is the oldest professional football stadium in Spain, having first opened in 1908, and remains in use by Sporting Gijon to this day.