The Manchester United goalkeeper kept coming back for more, bristling like a lovable cartoon puppy, the hardest kid in chess club, seeming to grow in conviction with every scragging
There is no real argument to be had when it comes to best sporting moment of the week. This arrived midway through the first half of West Ham versus Manchester United at Upton Park, and it featured Andy Carroll, no longer constrained by the more mannered demands of playing centre-forward for Liverpool – where he seemed always a little baffled and corseted, shoulders slumped, like some captive primate brought back from the new world on an Elizabethan spice ship, forced to wear a ruff and frock coat and batter away at the violin with his great hairy hands, paraded as a Frenchman, taunted by braying courtiers, dreaming of bananas – and now transformed into a boisterously uninhibited presence in the West Ham attack.
Carroll's full-contact "ravenous wolf" challenge on David de Gea has already been widely examined. The same night there was something of the JFK assassination film about its droolingly sensual slow-motion dissection on Sky Sports. This is the key frame. Watch it again. Carroll arrives in shot. De Gea falls back. And to the left. Again. Crushed beneath a blur of snorting, whinnying man-meat, he goes back. And to the left. As Carroll appears at an improbable height, mane flowing, as though arriving from the skies on a broomstick, De Gea falls back … And to the left.
It was, in fairness, pretty much impossible to grow tired of watching this. Not just for the sheer oddity of such extreme violence on a football pitch, De Gea entirely obliterated like a balsa wood movie door kicked in by some scowling cowboy, but also because, for differing reasons, it was a moment of mutually illuminating contact for both players.
It goes without saying that it was special for Carroll. This is essentially what he does, freed to roam and leap and bound in his unfettered state, occasionally wheeled out across the mud flats like a creaking artillery gun in order to unleash another fearsome left-footed goal-clunk, and generally providing an embodiment of basic footballing man-strength that remains oddly soothing to the English eye.
Mainly though, it was a great moment for De Gea, a goalkeeper who received a brittle reception at first on these shores, portrayed by many as a makeweight, a scarecrow, a vanity project. Albeit perhaps in early season the issue was as much one of perception as any significant straying beyond the accepted margin of error for a tyro goalkeeper. We heard a great deal about his adolescent slightness, his downy cheeks, his 1950s jazz-flute early music television hairstyle.
So much so it is hard to avoid the impression De Gea has been judged harshly because of wider anxieties, a lurking ambient dissatisfaction with goalkeepers generally, a sense even that we have come to resent the goalkeeper slightly. Traditionally goalkeepers tended to be sallow, reclusive, cave‑dwelling creatures, embodied best by early Peter Shilton, a glowering lump of green polyester, reproachful, obstructive, consigned to his dark and boggy place. Over many years the goalkeeper has since been rehabilitated and upgraded, introduced cautiously to polite society.
There are notable differences now. Where the old, frowning Victorian father-style goalkeeper would perhaps content himself with sinking to the turf like a sad dying horse after conceding a goal, modern goalkeepers have become jarringly prominent, sprinting out knees high, gloved fists pumping at the first sight of some distant chest-shoving melee. Like new dads, rattling primly past the organic butchers with their knapsack of wet wipes, modern goalkeepers seem over-eager, simpering, infused with celebrity extroversion. Perhaps it is to be expected they should also suffer a general thinning of patience in return.
De Gea has only really made two high-profile mistakes "under the high ball", but this has been enough to draw generalised accusations of effeteness, of lacking in some vital manly quality. In spite of which his form of the last few months has been quietly excellent, marked out by the twin highs of that stupendous reflex save in Madrid and this week's buffetings at West Ham. Even the traditionally meaningless stats (70% save ratio!) back up the impression of a goalkeeper who has settled where he might have wavered.
In this context De Gea's brush with Carroll might yet turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him in England. "How did it feel, steamrollered by six-foot four of Geordie, powering down on him," Sky anchorman Ben Shepherd purred over assorted shots of United's goalkeeper being lovingly pulverised. The answer to which is, no doubt, 'It felt really bad'. But still De Gea came back for more, bristling like a lovable cartoon puppy, the hardest kid in chess club, seeming to grow in conviction with every scragging. If you strike him down, it turns out, he will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
It has been a good few weeks in this regard for De Gea, who has remained the calm centre of this oddly confusing champion-elect United team, a team shot through with players who seem still to be finding their best role. Danny Welbeck can look brilliant at times, a player with every conceivable attribute. But what position does he play? Galloping attack-spoiler? False wing-back? Goal-curious run-fast man? What abut Phil Jones: man-to-man shove-hustler, striding central run-hulk? Even Wayne Rooney seems to be coalescing into a kind of footballing grated cheese, to be sprinkled over anything you fancy – attacking midfield, roving No9 – in the vague hope it might somehow taste a little better.
Driven back in recent weeks by more brilliant passing midfields, and now roughed up by the heavies of West Ham, this transitional United team have held firm, with De Gea an unheralded keystone. It's not just the nine clean sheets since Christmas, or the habit of making a save at some vital moment with just a finger tip or one of those endearingly gawky feet.
It is mainly his quietly assertive presence, the kind of understated charisma that flowers unseen, thickening out of accrued and incremental moments of substance. Sir Alex Ferguson was predictably outraged by De Gea's treatment at West Ham. But where this once might have resembled an expulsive assault, an attempt to buffet this stringy Spaniard out of English football, it now looks like the opposite: enclosed within Carroll's great bruising arms, perhaps even something of a belated welcoming embrace.