City DNA #92:
Feeding the Goat...
City DNA#92: Feeding the Goat
The inspirational story of a man who earned the right to be called a Manchester City legend...
Anyone looking for the perfect example of a modern-day cult hero need look no further than Bermudian striker Leonardo Shaun Goater, a man who refused to give up on a dream and despite not being blessed with the skills of his boyhood heroes Zico and John Barnes, he possessed the heart of a lion and immense courage and determination in his quest to follow his dream.
His is a story that borders on a modern-day fairy-tale and is a perfect example to anybody who refuses to give up on their dream, but to achieve his status as City’s favourite modern-day player, he had to embark on a journey of self-discovery with an apprenticeship that would have seen off many a hardened pro to win over a set of supporters who, in football terms, were more often than not on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Goater’s tale began in the anything-but-ethereal surrounds of Court Street in Hamilton (above), capital of Bermuda. Born into a large, close-knit family, he was for most of his younger years only child with his father, in typical style of one of the ghetto areas of the picturesque island, little more than a puzzle; a shadowy figure in the background and someone he would know nothing of until he was in his late teens.
“I didn’t need my daddy,” says the eloquent Shaun. “I had my momma, aunts, cousins and, the rock of the Goater family, my grandmother, Dorothy Dillon. We got along just fine and I had a happy childhood.”
Civil unrest, caused by the assassination of the island’s Governor meant that a four-year-old Shaun was living – and playing - in the middle of rioting youths and looters, but the Goater Family reputation for strong-minded independent women, several of whom lived at Shaun’s grandmother’s house on Court Street, meant that any local hoodlums or drug pushers ensured the naive kid was kept out of harm’s way. Better that than feel the unbridled wrath of Dorothy Dillon or her daughters.
“We didn’t have much money but my mom would always make sure I had everything I needed,” recalls Shaun. “She worked hard as a housemaid in the local hotels, often having two jobs to make sure we had food on the table and clothes on our back. It was a good grounding for me because it ensured I always counted my blessings and appreciated everything I had.”
He soon earned the reputation as a promising young footballer, often urged on by his mother (“pass the ball to my son – he’ll score the goals!”) and by his teens he was playing for one of the island’s best sides, North Village.
It was his prowess as a footballer that would earn him a scholarship in the USA, but a strange twist of fate was about to turn his world upside down and present an opportunity that would – controversially – offer him a path to one of the most famous clubs in the world.
“I was doing okay in my schooling, but was missing home and playing football,” recalls Shaun. “I returned to Bermuda during the Thanksgiving break and discovered Manchester United had taken a short mid-winter break to the island.”
An alleged incident in a local nightclub led to a Manchester United player being arrested and accused of a serious assault. Though no charges were brought and the case being dropped, Shaun has always felt that the political wheels didn’t just begin to turn following this event, but rather spin furiously and he found himself the centre of attention when, following an exhibition match showcasing Bermuda’s best young talents, Manchester United invited him to England for a trial.
“I did okay in the match,” he says. “It was a kind of pre-match entertainment before United played the national team, and I was considered one of the best young players in Bermuda, but the offer of a trial seemed almost too good to be true.
“I have always believed there were politics involved in the offer – a kind of headline diverting move by United and possibly officials in Bermuda, too. The stigma attached to the accusations was damaging to Manchester United and the future of such clubs visiting Bermuda in the future – not that I was complaining. It’s just a gut-feeling I have backed with no solid evidence that I was being used as a pawn.”
The offer of a trip to England and the chance of following his dreams of becoming a professional footballer were in conflict with his schooling, but everybody he knew and cared about agreed this was a chance too good to turn down. He simply had to make the trip and see where it took him.
He travelled to Manchester, met Alex Ferguson and did his best during his brief stay before flying home to begin an alternative career as a junior in s surveyor’s office. He was playing for North Village again and also blossoming for the national team, and it was on one such jaunt overseas that the news he’d dreamed of and hoped for was announced.
“Several months had passed since my trial. I’d pretty much given up on the idea of being signed by United and then the national coach, during a team briefing blurts out ‘and congratulations to Shaun Goater who has been offered a two-year deal by Manchester United’ – I was like ‘say what?’”
He said his goodbyes to his family and high school sweetheart and travelled to England to begin his professional career and though the money was poor (he could earn more back home packing groceries for wealthy American tourists) he began to learn his trade.
But his suspicion of the motives behind his move to Old Trafford was always at the back of his mind and though he did well for the youth team and reserves, when injury and suspension offered the possibility of a first team chance, he was overlooked on several different occasions.
“I watched my team-mates Lee Sharpe and Mark Robins progress, but I felt that even if I saw my two years out at United, I’d never get anywhere. In truth, I was no better than lads who were already at United and had travelled from around the UK as opposed to being invited over from a country several thousand miles away, all of which further aroused my suspicions of why I was there in the first place. So when Rotherham United came in for me, initially requesting a loan deal, I thought ‘why not?’
“The fans at Rotherham didn’t suffer fools and they’d let you know if they thought you weren’t pulling your weight,” he says. "I remember this guy waiting by the tunnel for me as I came off at Millmoor and he was about 16-stone and covered in tattoos.
"You’re ripping us off Goater’ he shouted at me and I just thought ‘At £400 a week, you’re ripping me off!’ – though self-preservation ensured I kept my observations to myself.”
Financial incentives didn’t exist at Rotherham and despite his goal scoring record, they weren’t prepared to up his wages and he felt he wasn’t appreciated by the club. When Bristol City offered an escape route, he took it willingly and he and his wife Anita moved to a place they reckoned was as near to life in Bermuda as possible in England.
“The sun shone more, you could smell the sea and there were seagulls everywhere,” he says. “We walked around town and knew it was the right place to move to. I felt happy and recharged and I think it showed in play.”
Goater became a popular figure at Ashton Gate, finishing top scorer in his first season and he was flying in his second campaign and headed for Division One as Bristol steamrollered their way to promotion.
But in the league above, Manchester City were fighting to keep out of the relegation zone and with seven games to go, they still had a chance to crawl away. Manager Joe Royle had remembered Goater from his days as Oldham manager, when the young striker has scored against his reserve team and followed his career ever since.
He lodged a bid of £400,000 with Bristol, which was reluctantly accepted and with just minutes of the transfer deadline left, Shaun’s dream move hung in the balance as he explains: “I loved my time at Ashton Gate, but when I was told Manchester City were interested in signing me, I knew this was the move I’d been waiting for. I had a series of forms to sign by fax, but with time running out, my bloody temperamental fax machine at home broke.
“My wife Anita ushered me away and said she’d sort it, but the deadline passed without me knowing if the forms had reached City in time or even at all. I was a nervous wreck!”
The forms had reached Maine Road and Shaun was now a City player. He still hadn’t actually spoken to Joe Royle up to that point, but he didn’t care. It had taken nine years of hard graft to get to a club this big and this was the stage he’d been hoping for.
Nothing would stand in his way from here on in.
He made his debut at Bradford City and his new team were soon 1-0 up and though he almost scored with a clever lob, his neat flicks and touches were ultimately in vain as the hosts fought back to win 2-1.
He managed to score on his home debut against Stockport, but City were a club with numerous problems. The fans were tired of their under-achieving players and Shaun had walked into the eye of a storm. Even at the training sessions at Platt Lane, the players were subjected to hecklers and confidence was low among the squad.
“There was this guy was having go at everyone, including me, saying that we were rubbish and a waste of money,” smiles Shaun. “All the self-belief and verve I’d arrived with from Bristol with sapped away within a few weeks and I was soon as edgy as the other lads were.
“I felt the crowd were waiting for us to make mistakes, especially at home, and it was an awkward situation to be in.”
The inevitable final day drama City have often found themselves over the years meant that even if City won at Stoke, if the three teams above them all won, the Blues would be relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time in the club’s proud history.
The fans were also suspicious of Goater’s talents and whether this journeyman striker was worthy of leading their team’s fight against the drop.
His record to that point of one goal in six games was, in their eyes, not good enough and his name synonymous with lower league successes – not the grandeur of a club like Manchester City who had seen the likes of Francis Lee, Mike Summerbee, Dennis Tueart, Trevor Francis and Niall Quinn lead the front line – who was Shaun Goater anyway?
City battled away at Stoke and, frustratingly, looked a class apart at times. Shaun scored twice in a 5-2 win – but it wasn’t enough. The dreaded scenario of winning being merely academic had actually happened and the Blues were relegated to what was then Division Two. Ironically, one of the teams replacing them in Division One was Bristol City!
“Some of my former team-mates called me and invited me to their promotion party in Bristol” says Shaun. “I went along and despite them ribbing me, saying I should have stayed where I was I still thought City had great potential and I wanted to make my mark and show a few thousand people what I was capable of.”
The next season began with a 3-0 win over Blackpool and Shaun opened his account that day, too. But though he was finding the net regularly, he didn’t feel the fans appreciated his efforts and as the team faltered in the autumn, he found himself the target of the disgruntled support.
“The goals were still going in, but if I missed one I could feel that the fans just weren’t with me,” he remembers. “I knew our situation wasn’t good and that the fans expected us to be running away with the league, but we were finding it hard.
“We were everybody’s cup final and by Christmas there was a very real danger that we’d be spending another season at this level, which was totally unacceptable to everyone.”
But things were about to get at least a little better. Shaun had been on the bench as Stoke took a 1-0 lead into half-time at Maine Road. The large Boxing Day crowd had watched their team outplayed and outfought for much of the game and were baying for blood.
“I can’t say I was relishing the prospect of being part of a side that was potentially about to blow their promotion chances,” he smiles, “but I never shirked from my responsibilities so when Joe said I was going on, I knew that here was a chance to play a part in something positive.
“We wanted to get in amongst it and turn this game around – and that’s exactly what happened.”
Shaun played a part in the equalising goal and the entire City team were flying around the pitch like men possessed – Paul Dickov and Tony Vaughan in particular just managed to stay within the laws of the game with several ferocious challenges.
City won 2-1 and the game sparked a run to the play-off final, with Shaun’s winner against Wigan in the semi-final raising his stock a little, and he played a part in Paul Dickov’s last-gasp leveller against Gillingham that eventually led to promotion via a penalty shoot-out. The man who had volunteered to take the fifth penalty? Shaun Goater. What might have happened had he actually been required to take that spot-kick would have either hastened his rise in popularity or potentially been his death knell at Maine Road – as it was, City’s fourth spot-kick put them in an unassailable position.
City took Division One by storm and Goater was scoring for fun, yet he still felt the fans weren’t totally convinced. Dickov, however, scored less than half the amount of goals, yet the fans adored him and it was when Shaun suddenly clicked as to why that was, that his path towards Cult Hero was finally cleared.
“I began to study Dicky’s game,” he says. “I wanted to know why he couldn’t put a foot wrong with the supporters and it soon became clear that I needed to take the aspects of his game that were missing from mine and see if that did the trick.
“Dicky was all about aggression, all out effort and never giving up on a seemingly lost cause. I began to chase down defenders, put myself about a bit giving my all for the shirt. I had been doing what I felt was best for the team and what benefited my game prior to that, but with the added ‘Dickov factor’, things began to turn around.”
For all his limitations as a player, Shaun Goater possessed bucket loads of courage and his subtle change in style would see one of the most dramatic turnabouts in popularity ever seen at City. By the end of his second full season at Maine Road, he was a popular member of the Blues’ first team and though injury ruined his first ever campaign in the Premiership, he still finished top scorer and had proved that he could score at any level of the game.
City were relegated back to Division One in 2001 and that cost Goater’s biggest fan, manager Joe Royle who had stuck by his signing through thin and thinner, his job. His replacement, Kevin Keegan decided one of his first tasks would be to off-load Goater to Wolves and the deal very nearly came off. That it didn’t meant that both player and manager would never be entirely at ease with each other with Shaun distrustful of a man he’d admired as a player and there were even suggestions that the City board had refused to sanction the deal, such was the regard for the man every knew simply as ‘The Goat’.
Keegan brought in players with creative flair who helped Goat’s goal tally rocket to almost 20 before Christmas. Players such as Eyal Berkovic and Ali Benarbia and that season the song ‘Feed the Goat’ was born, becoming perhaps one of the most popular modern-day terrace chants in Britain and making Shaun Goater a household name.
“I didn’t know what they were singing at first,” he smiles. “Then the lads said ‘did you hear that Goat? They were singing about you.’ I thought, yeah, I’m having that!”
It would be the first of many songs as his popularity soared and the goals continued to fly in. He became the first City player in 30 years to top 30 goals in a season as the Blues stormed to the Division One championship but the best was still yet to come.
Goater, occasionally partnered by £13million new signing Nicolas Anelka, found his place under threat but the final Manchester derby at Maine Road was to be the day he reached the status of deity. On 99 goals for the Blues, the fairy-tale scenario and final chapter in his City career was waiting to be written and Goat didn’t disappoint.
His hundredth goal for the club, with the scores at 1-1, arrived when his endeavour and belief that every ball was worth chasing was rewarded ten-fold. He followed a wayward Marc Vivien Foe pass towards the bye-line where Gary Neville was attempting to shepherd it out.
When Neville realised it wasn’t going to happen, he dithered, Goat stole the ball away and headed in towards Fabien Barthez. From an acute angle, he expertly slotted home the ball into the back of the net to put City 2-1 up.
One hundred goals in the bag in the last ever derby at Maine Road. His celebration was muted and he looked focused: “I’d seen other teams go ahead against United, over-celebrate and then end up losing. I didn’t want any of that. I wanted to win and make sure I didn’t lose sight of the bigger picture.”
Shortly after the break he made it 101 with a deft chip over Barthez and City won this most historic game 3-1. There was more to come, but it never really got any better than that. He scored an equaliser at Old Trafford in the return match just eight seconds after coming on a sub and had a second disallowed in injury time but Keegan gradually phased him out of the team, just as he’d planned to do all along.
He wanted multi-million pound signings leading the line in his team and Shaun Goater just didn’t fit the bill. He brought in the ineffective, half-fit Robbie Fowler and made it clear that Goat’s future lay elsewhere. At least he had the decency to make him captain for the last game at Maine Road, but in truth, there would have been riots if he hadn’t.
On the last day he ever played a competitive game for City, a clue to why the Bermudian striker became so popular could be seen in the 400 or so City fans who waited patiently out in the pouring rain after the game for their hero to emerge.
Goat signed each and every item he was asked to and didn’t leave until everyone was happy. It seems, years later, that everyone has a story about Shaun Goater the man, a popular, generous and warm fella who made time for everybody.
The City supporters love nothing more than a trier and they recognised the effort this man had put in to win them over and ultimately help the club restore itself as an established Premiership side. He scored goals off his shin, hip, chest and knee and his short-comings eventually endeared him even more to the fans.
He refused to give up on his dream and that he had to win over the fans to get to where he was headed and he reaped the rewards in the form of love and adulation. He is quite possibly a one-off on the modern game.