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Golden Goal: Scott Sinclair for Plymouth v Barnet (2007) | Football


It was quite the calling card. With his team a goal up but under the cosh against lower-league opposition, a 17-year-old with fewer than 50 minutes of first-team football to his name was summoned from the bench and proceeded to settle matters with his first senior goal. And how – seven or eight seconds of carefully controlled chaos, it was one of those show-stoppers worthy of a more prestigious platform, but many among the 5,204 present on that perishing January afternoon left the ground speaking of little else but the moment of improvised brilliance with which this hitherto unheard-of teenager had put the fourth round FA Cup tie beyond the home side.

A decade, a host of clubs and millions in earnings later, the boy who scored has grown up, spending several of the intervening years flitting between the shadows and the tabloid glare. He continues to enjoy what is by most standards a stellar football career as a much loved staple in a team of all-conquering champions. But despite his success, the prevailing and possibly unfair view seems to be that at the age of 28 his is a talent that remains resolutely unfulfilled. Only Scott Sinclair knows for certain when he felt happiest and most alive on a football pitch, but around 4.42pm on 27 January, 2007 at Underhill is probably as good a guess as any.

With its six separate stands, the ramshackle ground which Barnet have since vacated for more salubrious digs can have staged few more breathtaking pieces of theatre than the stand-out soliloquy from Sinclair in an otherwise workmanlike but dreary production. On loan at Championship side Plymouth Argyle from Chelsea, who had poached him from Bristol Rovers for a song some months previously, the teenager was among the substitutes named by Ian Holloway, who had signed him 10 days previously.

Holloway, during his time as player-manager with Rovers, had welcomed the Bath-born Sinclair to training as a 10-year-old and would later cite the child’s precociousness as a sign he knew his own jig as a player was up. “Scotty’s one of the reason’s I packed up,” he said. “If you’re bringing in 10-year-olds who can run like that, what chance have you got if you’re 37, as I was then.”

Plymouth had travelled to London to face their League Two hosts in the FA Cup and took the lead through a spot-kick converted by Hasney Aljofree. A former Manchester United youth team player who now helps coach the current crop of kids at Carrington, the Plymouth defender would endorse his manager’s praise for Sinclair in his post-match interview. “I think the first day he came in for training we saw how good he was,” he said.

“Every single one of the back four looked at each other and we said we don’t want to mark him because we’ve seen him do a warm-up and he is lightning. The first attack he had he skinned us so I knew what he could do when he came on today. As a 17-year-old kid he went on and won us the game.”

While all who witnessed him do so can agree Sinclair cemented Plymouth’s victory in fine style, descriptions vary as to how exactly he did so. As a neutral observer accompanying a friend in the away end, I recall him chesting the ball down just inside his own penalty area before galloping down the inside left of Underhill’s famous slope and beating at least three opponents. Approaching the Barnet penalty area, he was shepherded wide by a defender until, from a seemingly impossible angle, he rifled the ball into the roof of the net past the goalkeeper Ross Flitney.

Scott Sinclair, well in his own half, sets off on his galloping and jinky solo run, which culminated in Sinclair smashing the ball into the roof for Plymouth’s second goal.



Scott Sinclair, well in his own half, sets off on his galloping and jinky solo run, which culminated in Sinclair smashing the ball into the roof for Plymouth’s second goal. Photograph: Mark Leech/Offside

The Guardian’s man in the press box restricted his description of Sinclair’s goal to a “memorable finish” in a piece devoted largely to eulogies from others about the boy’s promise, while his BBC counterpart saw the winger beat no more than two men and hold off another before “dinking a clipped shot of the outside of his right boot” goalwards. In an interview with FourFourTwo published a few months after he’d scored the goal, Sinclair recalled something similar but claimed to have taken on “four or five players” before modestly “poking the ball past their keeper”. Believe who you like, or just check for yourself on YouTube. I haven’t, because I don’t want the reality to be more mundane than my recollection.

However he scored it, Sinclair’s goal was the subject of no end of post-match praise from all who saw it, with Barnet’s manager Paul Fairclough being magnanimous enough to describe it as “stunning”, while Flitney generously conceded that “things like that happen in football and you’ve just got to applaud it”. The Plymouth defender Tony Capaldi, who can legitimately claim the assist having provided the original pass to Sinclair deep inside his own half, claimed his young team-mate’s solo effort “was the best I’ve ever seen with my own eyes”. The fact that it seems to have been the only post-match talking point suggests that it was indeed a truly special strike.

Wisely and somewhat presciently, Holloway was quick to preach caution and pointed out that Sinclair “has only scored one goal, he hasn’t played 100 league games yet so in my book: ‘Well done, son, a good start but calm down and concentrate on your football.’” Having compared his loanee to the movie character Dash from The Incredibles, he also conceded Plymouth had no chance whatsoever of signing Sinclair from Chelsea, who had sent Frank Arnesen, then their head of youth development, to Underhill on a watching brief. “When they’re buying 30-year-old players for £30m sometimes you get blocked up, so hopefully people like ourselves can nick them, borrow them and help them along in their career,” explained Holloway. “You can be at Chelsea, Arsenal, Man United and you get frustrated because you’re not going to get a chance.”

Sinclair would eventually get a chance at Chelsea, the odd one here and there between loan spells at QPR, Charlton, Crystal Palace and Wigan, before signing for Swansea City where he eventually settled and became a fan favourite after a Wembley play-off final hat-trick against Reading that helped take the club into the Premier League. Despite his experience at a big club where he’d been sidelined in favour of more senior, big-priced players, his head was again turned by the lure of a big-money move, this time to Manchester City, where over a three-year nightmare spell in the wilderness he started two Premier League matches for the club and was only a slightly less peripheral figure on loan spells at West Brom and Aston Villa, to whom he was eventually sold after an initial loan spell was interrupted by injury. “This is the happiest I have been in a long time,” he said. “Now it’s about kicking on with my career in claret and blue.”

One disastrous season later, with Villa relegated to the Championship, Sinclair was handed another career lifeline by Celtic’s manager, Brendan Rodgers, who had worked with him in the Chelsea youth ranks and at Swansea. Much like his solo goal for Plymouth against Barnet on the sloping pitch of Underhill, Sinclair’s playing career began innocuously and quickly slalomed downhill. After so much disappointment, maybe he can end it with a similar flourish.



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