The complicated etiquette of celebrating against a former club: ‘It was personal’

Nick Miller

Callum Hudson-Odoi knew exactly what he wanted to do.

Moments after curling in a superb shot to put Nottingham Forest 2-1 up against his former club Chelsea yesterday, Hudson-Odoi — who left Stamford Bridge last summer — wheeled away to the sideline before coming to a standstill and holding his index finger to his temple, in what has become sporting shorthand for ‘blocking out external noise’.

Was it a reference to his critics at his old club? Or just a symbol of his improved state of mind at Forest? Who knows. Either way, Hudson-Odoi wanted to make a point.

On the other side, Chelsea’s Raheem Sterling could probably empathise with how Hudson-Odoi was feeling.

After putting Chelsea 1-0 up against his former team Manchester City in February, with fans booing him even as he received the ball, Sterling turned away as if to revel in the moment, before seeming to put his hands up — not necessarily in an apologetic manner, but in more of a ‘let’s be calm’ way. There followed some low-key fist pumps before he was enveloped in the embrace of his team-mates who were probably as surprised as anyone to be 1-0 up.


Sterling downplayed his celebrations after scoring at the Etihad in February (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

The etiquette of how to celebrate when a footballer scores against their former team seems a trivial consideration, but it is a dilemma that many grapple with: is it disrespectful to give it the big one, to revel in the displeasure of fans that used to be your own? Or does it not matter at all — a goal is a goal and your primary duty is to show respect to your current fans by sharing their joy, not by self-importantly showing your ‘respect’ to fans who are probably booing you anyway?

Patient zero in all of this is Denis Law, who infamously thought he had relegated Manchester United, for whom he played for 11 years, with a back-heeled goal that gave Manchester City a 1-0 win at the end of the 1973-74 season. Law’s goal wasn’t the final nail in United’s coffin, because results elsewhere meant they were down whatever happened in that game, but Law wasn’t to know that at the time.

Chin met chest, his shoulders slumped and he was immediately substituted: it would turn out to be his last kick in professional football. In 2012, Law was asked how long the regret over that goal lasted: “How long ago was the game? There is your answer.”

At the other end of the scale is another City striker scoring against a former club, Emmanuel Adebayor, whose pitch-length sprint and knee slide after finding the net versus Arsenal in 2009 remains probably the Premier League’s most famous celebration.

It was broadly in response to a racist and misogynistic chant fans sang about Adebayor and members of his family. And while there is some dispute about how widely it was actually sung by Arsenal fans, it didn’t come from nowhere and the striker was understandably stung.

“If a sniper shot me, he would not have struck me down,” Adebayor told the Daily Mail in 2019. “I was in my spiritual zone… The abuse was too much. I was ready to die. I just looked at them and thought, ‘There are things you do not do.’”

A similar thing happened to Ian Wright. Some Crystal Palace fans were, at the time, quite cross with Wright when he scored against them for Arsenal in 1992, following his move across London the previous year. “I celebrated it because the Palace fans were being really nasty,” he said, a few years later. “So I celebrated it… quite hard.”

If you want to look up the song that the Palace fans apparently sung at Wright actually was, have a quick Google. We won’t be recounting the words here, but suffice to say: Wright was using considerable understatement when he described it as “nasty”.


Emmanuel Adebayor did not hold back after scoring against Arsenal in 2009 (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Other times, players celebrate against a former club for more benign reasons. Take Rob Earnshaw, who moved from Derby County to their local rivals Nottingham Forest in 2008. A couple of seasons later, he scored a late winner for Forest at Derby, and Earnshaw not only went straight into his usual somersault goal celebration but stayed in front of the writhing mass of the travelling support for so long that he was booked.

And that was deliberate. “As soon as I scored, I thought, ‘I’m going to celebrate as long as possible,’” he told The Athletic. “Halfway through the celebration, I knew the referee was coming over and he said, ‘Hey, come on, move on’, but I was like, ‘This is not the time, I’m not listening to the referee, I’m not listening to anything, I don’t care about the kick-off, I’m staying right here and celebrating this moment with the fans.’”

For Earnshaw, this was less about rubbing his old team’s nose in the goal, more about appreciating the joy of his current team. “This is what football’s about,” he says. “This is what these games are about.”

Plenty take the opposite view, deciding that it is in some way disrespectful to celebrate against a former club. When Cristiano Ronaldo scored for Real Madrid against Manchester United in 2013, he looked as if he had pranged his father-in-law’s car, deeply apologetic and almost appearing traumatised for what he had done.


Cristiano Ronaldo looks horrified after scoring against Manchester United (Andrew Yates/AFP via Getty Images)

Ronaldo, who won three domestic titles and the Champions League in his first spell with United, can probably be filed alongside Frank Lampard scoring against Chelsea. He was at Manchester City temporarily in 2014, essentially just to keep his fitness up before moving to their sister team New York City FC and thus never really expected to even play Chelsea again, never mind score against them. So when he did, he simply did not know what to do.

“I’m a bit lost for words really,” he said afterwards, still looking shell-shocked. “I didn’t expect to come on and score.”

Also Gabriel Batistuta, who left Fiorentina after nine years and 203 goals for Roma in 2000, then scored a sensational, classic Batistuta goal against La Viola, battering in a volley from outside the area. But as it struck the net, he looked like his shot had smashed an antique Ming vase, staring expressionless into the middle-distance as his team-mates celebrated wildly around him.

“It’s pointless that I try to describe what I felt, it’s something personal,” he said afterwards. “After the goal, feeling the embrace of my team-mates, I thought about the Viola followers and their emotions, which were also mine. I spent nine years in Florence, I bore three sons there, these are things that can never be erased”.

Other examples feel slightly sillier, Robin van Persie being a case in point. The Dutchman very ostentatiously apologised after scoring within minutes of his first game against Arsenal, after moving to Manchester United in 2012, but when he scored against his old club the following season went wild, apparently deciding that one dose of pure respect was enough.

Ostensibly among the silliest examples of this phenomenon was Daniel Sturridge’s reticence to celebrate scoring for Chelsea against Bolton in 2011, the reason being he had spent a few months on loan there earlier that year. The idea that he should be paying the deepest of respect to a team he only played 12 games for invited some mockery, but consider the circumstances.

Sturridge’s career was stalling slightly after moving from City to Chelsea the previous year: over two seasons he had made 26 league appearances (most of them off the bench) which had yielded just one goal.

Upon moving to Bolton on loan in January 2011, however, he was a key player straight away and finished the season with eight goals from 12 games. Despite being contracted to Chelsea, those few months at Bolton arguably launched his career so, from that perspective, you can understand why he didn’t want to rub it in.


Daniel Sturridge reacts to his goal for Chelsea at Bolton in 2011 (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

It’s trickier to see the point of view of players who deploy the muted celebration against teams they haven’t even played for, though. Take Erling Haaland, who reacted in a subdued manner to scoring against Leeds, on the basis that his father, Alfie, used to play for them.

“It was planned. I didn’t feel like cheering,” he said afterwards. “I have respect for Leeds, where I was born. My whole family in the stands. When I was little, I had a Leeds kit with Eirik Bakke on the back and a City kit with my father on it.”

That looks like the height of logic compared to Wes Hoolahan, whose response to scoring for Norwich City against Aston Villa was notably subdued, something that appeared to be linked to a failed transfer to Villa earlier that season. Hoolahan hadn’t been in the Norwich team much and put in a transfer request, trying unsuccessfully to force through a transfer to Villa, so when he reacted in deadpan fashion to scoring against them, questions were asked.

“I certainly didn’t mean to disrespect anybody with the celebration,” he told the Norwich website at the time. “And I’m sorry if anyone’s taken it the wrong way because I was over the moon with my goal.”

The concept of the muted celebration isn’t confined to the club game, either. You wonder how Declan Rice or Jack Grealish might react to scoring against Ireland, both having switched their allegiance to England as youngsters. But they could take a cue from Breel Embolo, the Swiss forward who was born in Cameroon and was thus faced with a conflicting situation when the two nations faced each other at the 2022 World Cup.

“I’ve been saying for a while now that the Cameroon match was important for me on an emotional level,” he said after scoring, inevitably. “I’ve also said how happy and proud I am to represent Switzerland. I knew that if I scored I wouldn’t celebrate the goal, out of respect. That didn’t mean to say I wasn’t happy about it, though.”


Breel Embolo scores for Switzerland against the country of his birth, Cameroon, at the 2022 World Cup (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

Where things tend to get quite sticky is in those odd situations where a player scores against their current team. In most competitions, including the Premier League, there are rules that prevent loanees from facing their parent clubs, but the Bundesliga isn’t one of them. So when Croatian wing-back Josip Stanisic on loan at Bayer Leverkusen from Bayern Munich, found the net against for his temporary team against his contracted club recently, he was conflicted. “Even though you’re happy, you also feel sorry,” said Stanisic. “I didn’t celebrate out of respect.”

Fernando Morientes didn’t appear quite so bothered when he scored for Monaco against his parent club Real Madrid in the 2003-04 Champions League. Morientes found the net in both legs of the quarter-final against Real, goals that effectively knocked them out of the competition, and in the second leg in particular, he did not hold back in his celebration.

Finally, perhaps the funniest example of this situation came when Chris Maguire, who made over 100 appearances for Sunderland but at the end of the 2020-21 season wasn’t offered a contract at the club and subsequently signed for Lincoln City, came up against his former team the following season.

Maguire not only scored against his old club, but got a hat-trick. After netting the first, he held his hands up in apology to the fans for a few seconds and then bolted towards the dugouts, where he celebrated in enthusiastic fashion right in front of his old manager, Lee Johnson.

“I loved my time at Sunderland, but as you could see by celebration, it was more about getting one over on the manager,” he tells The Athletic. “It was always something I said I was going to do. I still had mates at Sunderland; I told them that, if I scored, I was going to do something.

“The first goal, I was showing my respect to the fans — it was nothing against them or the club, but it was personal for myself to do that to the manager. I feel I didn’t get the chances I deserved (under him).”

Maguire went on to score another two: after the second, he put his hands up in apology again. After the third, he looked like he didn’t know what to do.

“It’s out of respect. If the time I had at Sunderland had gone differently and the fans had booed me, I’m sure it would have gone differently. People know I’m a wind-up merchant; it’s something I enjoy because I feel that brings out the best in my game, when I’m on the edge. I like to have the last laugh with people.

“The first two, I put my hands up. But after the third… I’ve come back and got a hat-trick, so I thought I’d have a bit of a celebration.”

Which brings us full circle, back to Hudson-Odoi and Sterling. The etiquette of what to do after scoring against a former club is a tricky thing to judge: is the muted celebration a classy touch and a mark of great respect, or pointless posturing of a game that takes itself far too seriously?

It can appear desperately silly, but we shouldn’t completely dismiss the mixed emotions that can be sparked in the heat of the moment.

(Top photos: Raheem Sterling, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Emmanuel Adebayor; Getty Images and Sky Sports)





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