There are some goals which transcend football. The kind which showcase a unique talent and an unmatched level of execution, reminding us of the talent and athleticism required to make it as a top-level footballer. Thanks to Santiago Vergini, these goals don’t even have to arrive at the right end of the pitch.
When Sunderland travelled to Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium in October 2014, they were on as much of a roll as could be expected of any Sunderland team this decade.
The first seven games of the season had brought one win, one defeat and five draws, and the three matches ahead of the long trip south had seen them concede just one goal.
Southampton had started strongly themselves, picking up 13 points in seven outings as new coach Ronald Koeman made a strong start to life on the south coast, but there was still reason for the visitors to be hopeful. Sunderland had conceded just seven goals in their first seven games, compared to 16 the season before, and centre-back Vergini had been rewarded with an international recall under new Argentina boss Tata Martino. Things were looking up.
A fast start would be important, and the Black Cats’ defenders couldn’t be accused of not making a significant impact in the opening quarter-hour.
However, as Vergini slammed a half-volley beyond Vito Mannone in the 12th minute, it became clear this wasn’t exactly the impact anyone in the northeast (except those who support Newcastle, perhaps) had in mind.
It was a striker’s finish in the purest sense; the sweetest connection you could ever hope for, something which becomes even more baffling when you appreciate Vergini and ‘clean contact’ never exactly went hand in hand at either end of the pitch.
The Argentine failed to score a single goal at the right end during his 51 games for the club, and indeed his entire professional career has only seen him find the net seven times. And yet, in that moment, facing his own goal, he looked like a natural.
If anything, it was typical of Sunderland’s luck for one of their defenders to turn into the world’s best finisher when facing his own goal. This is a team whose fans have suffered a lot: they ended up paying several million pounds to not sign Ricky Álvarez, a player who scored once for the Black Cats during a miserable loan spell.
They had their record signing go AWOL for several months, presumably because he didn’t fancy staying in Sunderland. They spent an entire season with Jozy Altidore as their main striker.
Indeed, on the scale of all the dumb things to have happened to the club in the last decade, Vergini’s goal only ranks somewhere in the middle.
Want further evidence? Sunderland scored two further own goals in the same game, and that wasn’t even the first time they had scored three own goals in the same Premier League match.
Mannone’s reaction to the goal might seem confusing in its relative understatedness, but when you give it a second look you can see it through the Italian’s eyes and realise there really is no other way to respond. It’s the look of a man so stunned by what he has witnessed that his eyes have begun rubbing themselves.
It’s a strike which makes no sense for all manner of reasons, and the keeper is mentally holding up a set of scales with ‘How?’ on one side and ‘Why?’ in the other, hoping gravity will provide him with an explanation.
Can you really blame Mannone for passing the ball straight to Southampton’s Dušan Tadić later in the same game? On the strength of what he witnessed from Vergini, he’d have had every right to feel his goal was safer with the ball at the feet of the opposition.
As a small postscript, Sunderland would win their next away game, a 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace, but not without giving their hosts a helping hand when Wes Brown volleyed past his own goalkeeper to hand Palace an equaliser.
By this stage, Mannone had been replaced between the sticks by Costel Pantilimon, and the Romanian was not the type to respond to this sort of thing with dumbfounded silence.
Instead, the keeper let out the most piercing, guttural scream – so loud you could hear it even with the TV on mute.
The best thing about it all, though? Sunderland would end the campaign securing their safety thanks in part to a win in the reverse fixture against Southampton in May.
Who finished that game at centre-back? None other than Santiago Vergini. Funny old game, football.
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