The act of celebrating a goal is a rich and varied art. Do you play it cool or erupt in emotion? If you have a pregnancy to announce do you go the thumb-in-mouth route or for the the ball-stuffed-under-your-shirt? Which font on your tailor-made undershirt will be easiest for the cameras to pick up? For the superstars, meanwhile, the celebration has become just another extension of the personal brand, every goal stamped with an unmistakable visual jingle to remind you once more who this particular goal was brought to you by. However, for all this complication, the importance of how you mark finding the back of the net is never more delicate than when you do so against one of your former sides.
At one end of this most fascinating spectrum sits Wes Hoolahan, who readers may recall refusing to celebrate after scoring for Norwich a few years ago on the basis that their opponents, Aston Villa, had expressed a tentative interest in signing him in the preceding transfer window. While a halo may have bloomed above Hoolaghan’s christ-like cranium in that moment, somewhat sharper objects, not to mention a plastic stool, found themselves whizzing past the head of Emmanuel Adebayor following his length-of-the-pitch, arms outstretched, double knee-sliding masterpiece for Manchester City against Arsenal, which has since established itself as the template of how to inflame your old flame. In fact, such was the potency of the Togo striker’s effort that it has undoubtedly become the defining moment of his career and will be remembered long after any of the not insignificant number of goals he scored for some of the league’s biggest clubs.
Adebayor is plying his trade in Turkey these days but his spirit was very much carried on via Marko Arnautovic’s performance for West Ham against Stoke on Saturday. Having slipped seamlessly into the role of pantomime villain from kickoff, the Austrian proceeded to squander a procession of excellent chances, hitting the woodwork twice and reminding those present as to why Mark Hughes let him go in the summer and solidifying in the minds of those present the feeling that their taunts would go happily unavenged by a player who has always flattered to deceive.
Yet such was Arnautovic’s desperation to stick it to the home fans he decided that, with his team ahead and looking fairly comfortable, why not start celebrating regardless of personal success as he threw up the ‘irons’ gesture to the away end. Now the Stoke fans were truly frothing at the mouth. Here was a player so entitled, so self-absorbed yet simultaneously limited as a footballer that he wanted to reap the rewards of scoring against a former side without actually scoring against his former side. That’s not how it works Marko. This is England. You have to earn the right to act like a bellend here sonny boy.
And then it finally happened. Arnautovic played a lovely little give and go with Manuel Lanzini before finally poking the ball through the legs of Jack Butland and ending his personal narrative arc. And boy did he savour the moment. Seemingly as surprised as anyone watching that he’d actually fulfilled his destiny, David Moyes’ winger-turned-striker rushed to his chosen section of Stoke fans and embarked on a beautifully executed knee slide on a greasy surface that he probably assumed have been prepared by God just for this occasion.
However, where Adebayor had taken the most direct path towards the narrow pocket of Arsenal fans at the Etihad all those years ago, Arnautovic, like any pioneer, amended the technique. Instead of sliding forwards, he chose to glide sideways, parallel to goal line, in order to goad as many Stoke fans as possible and generate maximum exposure for his efforts all while staying consistently out of coin throwing range. Having then swaggered back to his own half, Moyes decided that was quite enough and the time had come to protect both his lead and his player from potential backlashes. But Marko wasn’t done yet. This was his curtain call, his encore, his last chance to say goodbye and breathe in all the fumes of hatred emanating from all corners of the ground. He looked around, took it all in and slowing but proudly departed with a verbal barrage from Mark Hughes his parting gift similar to the bouquet of flowers the lead actress in a play receives upon a show’s end.
Much like Adebayor, Arnautovic will look back on his weekend’s work with great affection. Here are two players, neither with the mentality to elevate themselves into the elite bracket as players, but respectively the King and Crown Prince of pissing people off. Marko, Emmanuel, we salute you with our middle fingers knowing you wouldn’t want it any other way.