Jamie Casey recalls a moment of madness that ranks among the most memorable of Phil Babb’s international career.
I remember it so clearly yet, rather frustratingly, many refuse to accept that it ever actually happened. It was a damp Wednesday night some twelve years ago - a beautiful, jaw-dropping piece of improvisation from a player who was not exactly renowned for his technical ability.
For the average football fan, Phil Babb was just that guy who crushed his goolies against the post in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Chelsea’s Pierluigi Casiraghi netting from an acute angle at Anfield.
For the wittier football fan, Babb was a figure of ridicule, often subjected to ironic cheers from opposing fans when putting a foot right (the irony being his knack for wrongdoing).
To this day I have yet to see a replay of the incident I witnessed in Dublin that night, as Republic of Ireland snatched a creditable 3-2 win friendly over Czech Republic at Lansdowne Road, with Robbie Keane the hero having scrambled home an 87th minute winner.
It was a strange game. Former Sunderland centre-half Paul Butler endured his only half of international football and was taken to the cleaners by powerhouse forward Jan Koller, who netted twice in the opening period. The star-studded Czechs looked a cut above the Irish, but had somehow been pegged back on two occasions, first through an own goal before Ian Harte levelled once more.
Although the record books suggest Jason McAteer replaced the diabolical Butler at half-time, Babb’s interval introduction was effectively a straight swap at centre-half, with McAteer picking up the midfield void left by Babb’s old mucker Mark Kennedy, also withdrawn at the break.
With the second-half failing to live up to the first, the home support resorted to entertaining themselves, primarily consisting of cheering Babb every time he picked up possession for no apparent reason other than his usual figure of scoff.
It didn’t appear to bother the London-born centre-half, as time and again Babb showed for the ball, all too willing to distribute from the back. After 40 minutes of fairly competent play, despite his own fans refusing to take his presence seriously, a rogue cell in Babb’s boisterous brain appeared to suggest: “Right, have some of this…”
And with that, he collected the ball and streamed forward beyond the half-way line. Spotting an opening to his left, Babb fed the ball wide left and continued his run. As the return cross drifted in the former Coventry defender was approaching the penalty area with uncharacteristic speed, venom and determination.
What happened next has, in some quarters, gone down in Celtic myth, such was the fantasy of the occasion. Babb leapt from the Lansdowne pitch and, in a scene akin to the ludicrous, Hollywood-influenced trilogy Goal!, executed the most audacious, perfectly-timed bicycle kick, connecting beautifully from around 20 yards.
Hitting the target with power, the only flaw in Babb’s attempt was that it was fairly central, allowing Czech ‘keeper Ladislav Maier to tip it onto the crossbar and behind for a corner. Before Lansdowne could catch its breath, though, Robbie Keane had pounced from the resulting corner to tuck away the winner, fading Babb’s near-masterpiece deep into the memory of those lucky enough to have observed.
Of course, a spectacular attempt at goal - no matter how out of character – can never honestly be considered the pinnacle of a professional footballer’s career, as this article heading half-heartedly implies. And least of all Babb, who was voted Portugal’s Overseas Defender of the Year during Sporting Lisbon’s double-winning season of 2001-02.
Prior to that, the Babbster reached double figures from centre-half in a prolific debut season at Bradford and went on to impress at the 1994 World Cup on the back of being voted Coventry City’s Player of the Year that season, achievements that would eventually prompt former Liverpool boss Roy Evans to make him Britain's most expensive defender.
So, not all squished testies and ambitious bicycle-kicks, but it’s most certainly the latter that’ll stand out in my mind when the name Phil Babb is mentioned.