Whatever happened to goalmouth scrambles? FourFourTwo investigates a lost phenomenon

Better pitches? Cowardly players? Who's to blame for the disappearance of penalty-box pile-ups? Nick Moore tried to find out... 

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Men smoking pipes. White dog poo. Leaving huge piles of cash, jewellery and heirlooms unattended on your doorstep and them not being seized by dark web sex gangs. These all are things hopeless nostalgists wonder why you never see any more.

And to that list we must sadly add the goalmouth scramble.

To the addled brain that recalls pre-Premier League football through a rose-tinted lens, picturing a day when men were men and shinpads were for conscientious objectors, there was a proper slab of six-yard box warfare every single week. There was nothing more British than 20 moustachioed sadists, all called either Glenn or Alan, thrashing violent approximations of a kick at an elusive Mitre Delta.

It was a welcome break from the real game, like a dog on the pitch. Smokers on the terraces would yell “ONE OF YOU!” in despair. Bodies would pile up like a vile orgy. Somebody would lose an eye, and eventually a totally exhausted Alan would lump it clear, or a sweaty Glenn would deflect it into the net and wheel away, laughing at the madness of it all.

Bodies would pile up like a vile orgy. Somebody would lose an eye, and eventually a totally exhausted Alan would lump it clear, or a sweaty Glenn would deflect it into the net and wheel away, laughing at the madness of it all

So why doesn’t it happen any more? Why doesn’t Virgil van Dijk end up falling on his backside after Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott have hammered 17 shots off his shins? Why oh why are Joe Hart’s testes still in tact? FourFourTwo decided to investigate – and even if we don’t get to the bottom of it, at least we’ll get to watch six hours of scrambles on YouTube: something we recommend you do as soon as you have finishing reading our findings.

Don't make 'em like they used to

Our first suspect is the modern, pampered player. Some will allege that our carefully-coiffed generation are all too lily-livered to stick their shins where it hurts.

In contrast, witness history’s greatest goalmouth scramble, in which a fearless defence came out on top against a bunch of bruisers: Norwich City vs Wimbledon, September 11, 1993. Here, the Canaries’ goalkeeper Bryan Gunn was right in the thick of it. The entire Crazy Gang, including John ‘Fash the Bash’ Fashanu, ended up on top of him in a ding-dong more reminiscent of a rugby ruck.

As the players are eventually peeled off, the granite Scot emerges with the ball. It’s a snapshot far removed from the current game.

“It was a corner that turned into something straight out of a Benny Hill sketch, with everyone chasing each other,” Gunn tells FFT. “The ball ricocheted everywhere before I pounced on it. Then the whole mad lot of them just decided to pile on top of me. Those are the sort of moments when the madness of being a keeper really hits home. Thankfully, I was unscathed and still had a big smile on my face. But it shows how committed players were.

“Everyone’s eyes were focused on the ball. Defenders are putting their bodies on the line. Hands and heads were thrown in, and boots were flying.”

Bryan Gunn, Alan Smith, May 1989

Bryan Gunn clears over the top of Alan Smith, May 1989

Yet Gunn – whose son Angus is a professional keeper with Manchester City – doesn’t believe that the courage level of participants has changed. “Angus would jump into that situation, if that’s what it took,” he says. “In fact, I think Vinnie Jones might even be a bit wary of jumping on top of him because he’s 6ft 6in – much more intimidating than me!

“So I don’t buy into the whole idea that players are less brave. There may be fewer messy situations now due to the tactics. The game has advanced and we’ve got things such as zonal marking. When the ball comes in, you clear from your area. You might not even be standing beside a man, you’re just marking some space. It’s less physical, and that must be a factor.”

The end of long-ball play, and the abolition of the back-pass rule, have contributed as well.

Gunn adds that, for a goalkeeper, a pinball situation is a total lottery. “Repositioning yourself in that scenario is pure luck. You’ve made that first movement and have shifted your body weight. All technique is out of the window and you just do what you can to avert the danger.”

Gunn also mentions the way the sport is officiated in the present age might have contributed to the death of the six-yard box melee. Always happy to blame the referee, we decided to give a notorious whistleblower a bell – and he’s willing to play along.

“The game has totally changed from the days of chaos in the area,” says former Premier League ref Jeff Winter, author of Who’s The B*stard In The Black.

Celtic and Hibernian

Celtic and Hibernian show some modern 'bravery'

“Referees stop the action quicker than they used to, and they will penalise any sort of contact in the box as a form of prevention.

“You could argue that it's good management to snuff out the mayhem before it happens, because present-day footballers are not prepared to take it. They're rolling around on the floor when you get that kind of close proximity.

“So the referee might now blow up and pre-empt a situation, thinking that it’s better safe than sorry. If they get to the point where there are arms and legs flying all over the place, they think, ‘oh shit, I’ve left this too late’. The whistle will go before a scramble can happen.”

Winter also points out other situations where pros are no longer willing to subject themselves to potential maiming.