The greatest goal I have ever seen scored live took place on 23 March 2016, in a match between West Didsbury & Chorlton Reserves and Cheadle Town Reserves. It was witnessed by approximately 38 people, and 35 of those were the matchday squads and officials. It would have been 39 had my friend Paul not nipped to the clubhouse for another Krombacher as the sun beat down on the home of football, Brookburn Road in South Manchester.
Let’s be clear, I don’t say this lightly. I’m not Neil from HR who watches two games at the World Cup and then insists on talking to you about it on the team-building day that nobody has time for. In my time as a Leicester City fan, I’ve seen my fair share of spectacular goals.
I saw Lilian Nalis caress the most perfect of volleys, guiding his boot perfectly to meet the ball after it dropped a mile from the air. Joey Guðjónsson and I were in the same stadium when he looked up inside his own half and casually decided he was done with waiting around and wanted to score there and then. Finally, I sat drenched with rain and nerves in the home end as N’Golo Kante marauded up the field on a cold, wet Manchester day. He fed Riyad Mahrez, who sashayed through the Manchester City defence before slamming the ball past Joe Hart.
And yet my perfect goal, the one that tops them all, came six miles to the south of the Etihad and not even Manchester dared try to dampen it with rain. “And the goalscorer for West is Number 9, Tre Baldwin-Willis”.
The goal itself had clearly read the many opinions about what makes a perfect goal, as it combined a range of superlatives we all hold dear. Outside the box? Tick. A ludicrous piece of skill? Check. An overhead kick? You’d better believe it.
After a long punt forward, Tre Baldwin-Willis received the ball with his back to the goal outside the opposition box. It bounced once, and the unseasonably warm weather had given the pitch sufficient pep to rebound the ball high enough for Tre to fling his rotund body 90 degrees in the air. He caught the ball perfectly and it arrowed towards the perplexed goalkeeper.
To be fair to the Cheadle shotstopper, no goalkeeper in the world would have anticipated anyone trying this moment of skill, let alone in a reserve game in front of four people. He had no chance as it looped into the net. Cue spilt lager in the 30-seater stand. Enter stage left, our mate who had missed it all.
Tre Baldwin-Willis had a history of this kind of thing. His journey from ‘nearly kid’ to non-league star to not even making the first team is a path well-worn by many players. “Look at him go…”
It’s a couple of years before the goal of my dreams and I’m huddled over an iPhone in the clubhouse after a match, as the manager’s wife, Mrs Nelson, is showing me some YouTube footage of Tre running the length of the pitch in around seven seconds before an elegant finish.
I watch it with a tinge of sadness, as the Tre now playing for us has, in no uncertain terms, ‘enjoyed his summer break’. Whereas Wayne Rooney can dedicate his time to removing the excesses, Tre is a dad with a full-time job and football has to come second. For a moment though, we rewatch the YouTube video and marvel. This is the player that got Chelsea and Manchester City interested enough to give him a trial in his youth. He is pace, he is power, he has defenders absolutely terrified.
As with the majority of kids, the trials ended up with little more than a handshake and a ‘thanks for your time’ and that inevitably leads to the question of what’s next? For Tre, it meant a journey around the lower leagues, right down to Sunday league, before finding a home at West Didsbury & Chorlton.
His time at West was a golden era for him and the club, as Andy Nelson led the team to three promotions in three years. They remain at that level, in the North West Counties Premier League, just nine promotions away from the top flight.
Tre scored 26 goals playing as winger from 66 starts and 36 appearances from the bench. He also holds the honour for scoring the club’s first-ever FA Cup goal. Meteoric rises through leagues often leave people behind and Tre’s final first-team appearance came in a 6-1 away defeat at Silsden Borough in March 2015, a full year before this audacious acrobatic moment of perfection.
The Four Corner Model is used by the FA to help rate and improve players and it can be used to show us how Tre could be unplayable to both the opposition and his own manager. On two of the criteria, physical and technical, he has a lot going for him. In his peak, Tre was strong, remarkably quick and could be technically skilful. Yet this isn’t the full story. The model also looks at how a player is wired socially and psychologically. Here we see a player who, mentally and structurally, doesn’t have the attributes to perform regularly at a high level; or, as a senior member of the coaching staff put it, “he’s a space cadet.”
This makes perfect sense when looking again at Tre’s wonder strike. Physically and technically he had the ability to do something the majority of us can only dream of achieving. I grunt and groan getting out of bed, let alone propelling my whole existence into the air, perfectly timed to volley a ball over my head. But look closer and you’ll see the goal perfectly encapsulates Tre’s mercurial talents. Fully fit and switched on, Tre isn’t playing this far down the football pyramid, where his only option is to attempt something so remarkably ridiculous. It’s because he’s absolutely knackered and is past caring. It’s a goal of wonder, skill, absurdity and complexity.
My life has been spent watching Leicester City, the team who are, and always will be, mine. However, non-league football, and West Didsbury & Chorlton in particular, have now taken over my active fandom. In a selfish, and very internet-age way, this enhances Tre’s moment in the sun. There are no replays, no GIFs, and no kid in a playground pretending to score it. This was our goal, scored for our club by our cult hero.
We’ve painted the club house, hassled and harangued people to come down to watch, and run charity events to help people in our local community. It’s something that non-league has, that the macro leagues never will: true community. In the post-Leicester-City-as-Premier-League-champions world, it’s exactly where I need to spend my time. I saw the best goal of my life because we had a bit of spare time to give the clubhouse a tidy, the beer is reasonably priced for South Manchester, and the club is full of friends.
There’s also something wonderfully symmetrical about this goal as it fell on exactly the same day that another star of non-league was doing something extraordinary. A few hours after Tre had thrown himself at the ball 25 yards from goal, Jamie Vardy met Nathaniel Clyne’s cross with the back of his heel in a moment of pure invention to score against Germany in Berlin. Vardy, like Tre, had setbacks but found his way to cut through everything holding him back to take his place on the world stage. The quality and potential down in non-league is ready and waiting for you to explore.
Since Tre, I’ve had many more new favourite players who have either moved up, moved on or vanished completely. Gaz Lilley was a midfield enforcer, yet still the best footballer on any pitch that could pick out a perfect pass. He picked up a couple of injuries and lost interest in the game. Aaron Ashley is easily the best goalkeeper I’ve seen at that level, who got snapped up by Manchester City... to work full time coaching their next generation of kids. Carlos Mendes Gomes has just got his first pro contract at Morecambe. He’s already doing ridiculous Instagram posts like a true young baller.
Your new favourite player is waiting for you at your local club. It’s worth going to find them to get your own Tre moment of magic. Something you and a few mates can own, embellish and remember forever.
The greatest goal I’ve ever seen scored live took place on 23 March 2016 in a match between West Didsbury & Chorlton Reserves and Cheadle Town Reserves. It was witnessed by approximately 38 people and it was the last time I ever saw Tre Baldwin-Willis play for my club. And I wouldn’t change it for the world.
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