So long as they are content with their childhood heroes being of the capeless variety, the type to hail from ordinary old Earth and wield their powers on football pitches as opposed to the streets of fictional crime hubs perennially in peril, young fans proudly encamped within the sky blue half of Manchester are offered today a quite stunning array of choices.
Each is seemingly cut from the same super fit, supremely preened, astronomically priced yet majorly marketable cloth; the likes of Sergio Agüero, David Silva, Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sané all present worthy causes for widespread exaltation. Young Citizens, take your pick. However, many blue moons ago, juvenile City fans were once accustomed to the deification of heroes rather more quotidian than those available at present. Undoubtedly the most popular of the everyday heroes was, in fact, the very antithesis of those found throughout Manchester today.
In six fondly-recalled years poised either side of the new millennium, one particular footballer, lanky, unorthodox, and from the unlikely North Atlantic isle of Bermuda, captured City hearts in a way so few had done before him and with a style that likely none shall ever conspire to again. That man was Leonard Shaun Goater.
Inconceivable though it may be to imagine, there once was a time when Shaun Goater was far from City’s favourite footballer. In fact, he spent his early months at the club wildly misfiring up front, despite originally stating he believed he would hit 25 goals in his debut season having done just that for previous clubs Rotherham and Bristol at the same level. Some City fans quickly succumbed to face-reddening frustration at the mere sight of Goater, and weren’t afraid to let him know so from the stands.
At a loss as to why his move to Manchester had seen him relinquish his every predatory instinct, Goater chose to tackle his adversity head on and devised a two-point plan that he hoped would refine both his mental and physical attributes and help him to win over the City faithful.
The first step of this plan involved attending routine sessions with a sports psychologist to help rediscover his confidence. As it would happen, the psychologist tasked with playing the role of goat-whisperer was a City supporter, who amusingly took no issue in telling the striker he fully agreed he had been dreadful thus far. Their open and frank conversations aided Goater in refocusing his aims and ambitions, helping him to make ground on them once again with renewed vigour.
The second phase of Goater’s plan was undertaken with the intention of reinventing himself on the pitch, and to do this Goater took the extraordinary measure of shadowing fellow striker Paul Dickov at every given opportunity. Goater’s reasoning was that there was no City teammate of his more loved by the fans than Dickov – yet they seemed to hate him – so studying the differences between them and working to gradually eradicate them could only help his cause.
Goater concluded the difference between himself and Dickov was a simple matter of perspective with regards to effort and work rate. “It was because of his aggression and tenacity, the way he got in people’s faces and chased lost causes. Before I’d think: ‘What’s the point in chasing a ball I know I can’t get?’ But it wasn’t about that, it was about the one ball that I did manage to keep in play and maybe started a move that led to a chance or triggered a change in the game’s attitude. So I started to do that.”
The latter phase of his grand plan appeared to work just as well as the first as City’s fans came to appreciate Goater’s inspired work rate almost as much as they had his muse’s, though initially their affection appeared to manifest itself in a way somewhat reminiscent of an elder brother or sister becoming protective of their younger sibling, in a “hey, nobody can insult them but me”-type fashion, and their embracing of Goater’s graceless endeavours seemed at times a touch ironic.
But as Goater began to deliver – and deliver he did, with sufficient prolificacy to see him end four consecutive seasons, between 1999 and 2002, as Manchester City’s top goalscorer – the most genuine of fondness followed and the two soon came to impart a direct influence on one another. The harder Goater worked the more passionately the City fans would sing his name, and the more Goater heard his name sung the better he played for his adoring fans.
Having weathered the early storm in his debut season for City, Goater hit 21 goals in his second campaign to help his team secure playoff victory in the most dramatic fashion. Wembley watched on in disbelief as his side scored twice in stoppage time to break Gillingham hearts and take the game to penalties, which they would win, to guarantee their return to the second tier.
In his third season in Manchester, when City achieved the second of their back-to-back promotions, Goater lead by example again with 29 goals. Consequently, Goater was formally recognised for his immeasurable influence, named as Manchester City Player of the Year by supporters as well as being awarded the freedom of Bermuda and having 21 June officially named as ‘Shaun Goater Day’ by his home island’s Sports Minister.
In 2000/01 Manchester City’s bubble burst as, despite another top scoring season from Goater, who found himself limited to a comparatively meagre 11 goals, his side yielded to immediate relegation from the Premier League. However, in the following campaign, desperate to return to the top flight at the first time of asking, City did just that, coasting to the second tier title with Goater – who became the first City player to surpass 30 goals in a season for three decades along the way – displayed proudly on the bow of the good ship City, fronting the charge back to the promised land.
And as they careered forwards, upwards and towards the top tier once more, a rather eclectic medley of songs provided the soundtrack to their great revival, each one aimed unashamedly at one man in particular.
‘Who Let The Goat Out?’, a thinly-veiled parody of The Baha Men’s relentless party anthem, ‘Come On Feed The Goat’, a repurposing of Slade’s 1973 number one hit, and the everlasting favourite, ‘Feed The Goat And He Will Score’, the song that could so often be heard echoing in all its hymnal glory around the Maine Road stands after his every goal, and from which Goater’s 2006 autobiography would eventually take its name.
Soon after bursting unabashedly through the doors to the Premier League party, City boss Kevin Keegan set about hurriedly recruiting reinforcements he believed would help his team to remain at the top. The bulk of Keegan’s financial outlay would be spent acquiring attackers and this inevitably resulted in Goater reluctantly parting with his starting position in favour of fellow forwards Jon Mackem and Nicolas Anelka, both of whom were signed for club record fees amounting to almost £20m.
But Goater was no stranger to adversity – he had been forced to battle for a place in the Manchester City team since the very beginning and he wasn’t afraid to do so again. He would simply have to make the most of whatever minutes he was afforded.
On 9 November 2002, with City having invited their cross-city rivals Manchester United to Maine Road for the final time in their stadium’s illustrious 80-year history, Goater chose quite the occasion to remind his manager exactly why City had come to rely on him so in recent years as he orchestrated what would live on as perhaps his most memorable appearance of all.
The score already one apiece just eight minutes into the tie, the derby seemed destined to be a frenetic one. Goater, meanwhile, appeared determined to ensure that whatever happened, the points would be staying on his team’s side of the city. After so long without a win against their rivals, City fans were beginning to forget just how sweet that particular victory tasted.
With almost half an hour played, Marc-Vivien Foé found himself in acres of space in the centre of the field. Foé looked up, spotted Goater teasing a forward jaunt, and launched the ball upfield, only to skew it some way wide of the forward. Such was the backspin on the ball, though, for it to cross the byline and exit the field for a Manchester United goal-kick, it required some cautious shepherding out of play by Gary Neville. Shaun Goater wasn’t about to let the United full-back do so unchallenged.
The Goater of old, the Goater who valued goals above all else, may well have left Neville to his task and simply jogged back into position ready for the restart. But the Goater who watched the ball sailing by him was at that time five years deep into his love affair with the Manchester City fans and their demand for effort was diluted not one part by their obvious affections. Goater, of course, was more than happy to oblige with a challenge to Neville’s nerve.
As he approached, the ball held up slightly on the turf and Neville became stranded between two minds. Shield or pass, shield or pass? Goater’s increasing pressure forced a fault in Neville’s thought process, and in the end, the defender accomplished neither. Goater leaned in, robbed Neville of possession, and turned to find an area devoid of support. With no option but to continue alone, Goater took two touches further infield, glanced at the goal one last time, before slamming the ball under a panicked Fabien Barthez and into the far corner of the net.
It was a goal entirely of his own making, apposite in its combining of both the instinctive goalscoring knack that had earned him a move to Manchester City and the persistent industry he had consciously sought to add to his repertoire in order to endear himself to the club’s fans. Goater drank in the applause – but his afternoon’s work wasn’t yet complete.
A few minutes into the second half, with City still holding their 2-1 lead, the ball was switched from their left flank inwards towards resident playmaker Eyal Berkovic. Acutely aware of Goater’s dart between defenders, Berkovic deployed his first touch to flick the ball on towards the striker. Goater took the ball in his stride, nudged it inside to keep it on his favoured right foot and dismiss the attempted interception from Rio Ferdinand, before dinking the ball impudently beyond Barthez, the Frenchman splayed powerlessly on the floor before him. Goater had made it 3-1, and 3-1 it would stay.
Scoring a sublime double to sink United, that day had suddenly assumed a dream-like quality for Goater. His goals had secured his team’s first win over their local rivals for 13 years, and in the process ensured the last Manchester derby to be held at their soon-to-be demolished home of eight decades would always be remembered with hearty delirium. For the Bermudian, though, single-handedly toppling United on that afternoon had added significance, even beyond that particular brace being his 99th and 100th goals for the club.
It was at Manchester United that Goater had first embarked upon a professional football career, having been signed on the back of a successful trial in 1988 as a creative midfield player. He was never afforded the opportunity to break through into United’s squad, though, and was soon released. Against the team that had let him go all those years before, and the very manager who had seen no merit in keeping him at the club, Goater flourished and enjoyed his finest hour. Remarkably, Goater wasn’t done with Sir Alex Ferguson’s men just yet.
In February of the same season, in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford, Goater entered the fray with little more than five minutes remaining of the match. Appearing in his then-typically restricted capacity, Goater required mere seconds to level the scores – nine to be precise – heading the ball home from a neat Shaun Wright-Phillips cross to set a new Premier League record for quickest goal scored by a substitute.
It would be unlikely to presume, even for a moment, that as Goater twice came back to haunt United in his final Premier League season, Sir Alex regretted letting the striker slip through his fingers all those years before. By all accounts, United seemed to do just fine without him. Nevertheless, for Goater, those goals meant the world and so too did the choral praises that filled the air with his name on both occasions.
While for many players becoming a cult hero at one particular club often precipitates an inevitable hatred from others, as controversial comments or celebrations enamour the player to home fans while serving only to alienate and offend the opposition’s, Goater required no such controversy or menial pandering to tribal fidelities. As a result, he often transcended the boundaries of domestic rivalry.
Television appearances and interviews throughout the years consistently showed Goater smiling, always, and beamed his humble and genuine disposition far beyond the borders of Manchester.
A hilarious case of mistaken identity on British football-themed breakfast show Soccer AM arguably brought the best out of Goater. The player was left at home during one particular show while his part-namesake Shaun Williamson, better known as Barry from Eastenders, was accidentally booked in his place, Williamson willingly faced the very questions written for should-be-guest Goater, pretending to be the Manchester City striker.
The two fully embraced the mishap and appeared on the show together on numerous occasions with Williamson the repeated recipient of City-oriented inquiries and adoring Goat-related chants, all the while Goater was inversely interviewed about impending cabaret performances and stage shows. Regardless of fan’s diverging devotions, it proved almost impossible to dislike Goater.
But, of course, few loved him like City and such was the measure of their lasting adoration, in Goater’s final game in English football while turning out for Southend United, back in the third tier for one last season, as many as 400 Manchester City fans descended upon Southend to attend their old hero’s last hurrah and serenade his final walk off of the pitch.
Though it has been over 15 years since they last witnessed the forward adorned in their famous sky blue, their love for Goater persists more than any other as his status at the club epitomises more than just a player who played many games, who scored many goals, or whose goals won games. Goater exists as perhaps the final true hero of the old Manchester City, the club before their formative financial revolution of 2008.
Wanting nothing more than his fans’ affection, and endeavouring never to be known as anything beyond honest and hard working, Goater came to personify a bygone era, a simpler time; a slowly fading representation of the romance of yesteryear.
To many, Goater is everything their beloved club once was. The Manchester City he and his fans shared was less record transfer fees, Champions of England, and dramatic nights on the continent, but rarer and therefore more dearly cherished derby day victories, trophies held that little bit more tightly simply because they didn’t know if there would ever be another, and what was once thought to be unrealistic dreams of one day leaving all of that behind.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp