THE FIRE NEXT TIME*
Mickey Blue Eyes
So......eighth it was, then, much as the realists among us anticipated: Could have been better, could have been much, much worse. Truth is, last season would have tried the patience of a saint. And gawd knows Evertonians are no saints, anymore than any other fans. But by season end there were many more smiles than moans. By then, most of us could scarce wait until next season, Europe or no Europe.
Few of us expected great things from season 2009-2010, not with our hangover injury list from the previous campaign, though oddly the losing FA Cup Final appearance had imbued a sense of optimism. Nevertheless, all our best players were out of it before a ball was kicked in earnest. Then, before anybody could do a serious work-out, we were hit by the Joleon Lescott outgoing transfer saga..........which ended with us twenty-odd Big Ones better off, but with Lescott gone and his snout in the Manchester City camel trough. Most of the money immediately disappeared out the door on new players, as it had to; what was left was used to stop the financial wolf howling too loudly. Few of us blamed Lescott for wanting to earn more money, but the way he and their then manager Mark Hughes manipulated the situation was little short of sickening even by contemporary football standards. It was about as ominous as you could get. The disruption was complete.
Then just when you thought things couldn't get much worse, they did. We lost the opener ludicrously, 1-6 at home to Arsenal. It was a real punch in the solar plexus. Quickly, it went even worse. In short order we found ourselves in the ignominious bog that is the bottom three during a winless league run from September 20th to November 8th, but we lost the other four matches in November, including a dreaded three-in-a-row. In October an unbeaten run of four Europa League matches against mediocre opposition came to an abrupt end with a 0-5 massacre of our young reserves at Benfica. Five days later we went out of the League Cup at Tottenham. Reeling, all we were left with were (very) faint hopes in the Europa League, a possible later run in the FA Cup and maybe a rise up the league table once injuries began to ease. Even those mirages depended on us steering clear of more injuries. Problem was, nobody knew for sure when the missing players would be back, if at all, or how long it would take them to get to full match fitness. We had a collective migraine.
Our fans could have been downhearted or depressed. They weren't. They remained relatively upbeat despite all the setbacks, kept going by memories of the latter half of the previous season. There also seemed to be a general understanding there was nothing anybody could do about such a horrible turn of fortune except buckle down and make the best of things. Everybody at the club gave the lead by refusing to emphasise injuries. David Moyes in particular made a stand on the issue. He was a picture of straightforward decent dignity in the face of apparent playing disaster. It seemed to this fan at least he finally realised that strength of character need not be tied to mere obduracy, that it actually comes from determined honest talent regularly proved - the sort of thing infuriating for misery arses and petty snipers. The result was a gradual rousing recovery in the second half of the season. Even an eternal optimist like me didn't see it coming in the way it did. By the end of the season we had turned in some genuinely classy performances.
But I don't think many of us saw the scale of the turnaround during the dark days of October and November when our only wins were away to Bate Borisov and West Ham. They were bad, cold, cold months. Nevertheless we still had a few warm spots. Marouane Fellaini at last was adjusting to English pace and was gradually asserting himself as Moyesy always said he would. John Heitinga had made the adjustment much quicker after early positional experiments that ended with him in his best place, just in front of the centre backs á la Lee Carsley, or, better still, actually at centre back. Leighton Baines looked every bit an England international. Every now and then Diniyar Bilyaletdinov would fire a classy spark or two, enough to hold crowd grumbles at bay, though he often looked totally weary after more than a year of continuous play to add to a couple of months in which he too struggled with the English game.
Come November, and entirely in keeping with the way fortunes deteriorated, we got news of government rejection of the Kirkby stadium planning application. This was a blow even worse than the injury list because it probably put the club back ten years, possibly much longer. This means (short of a complete about-face in the way the game is structured financially or the sudden manifestation of a mad billionaire) there won't be long-term progress much beyond that achieved already. If anything the struggle is likely to be even more relentless and intense on and off the pitch. Which also means there's no point whining about money because there won't be any, nor will there be any way of accumulating it without increasing the debt load......apart from selling players at a large profit. And of course we wouldn't have achieved any measurable advances at all without access to credit, David Moyes or no David Moyes. Without that, there is a real likelihood we would have been relegated, perhaps even entered administration. However, credit is now restricted for everybody, everywhere. That's life. There are no simple, risk-free solutions. The Kirkby project was a last chance for a relatively short term fix since we can't raise all the money for a stand-alone new stadium. Anything else is sheer fantasy. That's the way conditions will stay unless we get a new ground, and that takes about four/five years from inception until it could be open for action. But there isn't one on the horizon. Extrapolate accordingly. Only a major improvement in national and local economic prospects will give us a chance to get our feet out of the bog. It would help too if local politicians and senior officers would show willing but all of them are full, as usual, of piss and wind, and as useless as a marshmallow bar stool. The local change from Liberal Democrat to New Labour won't have the least affect. All the ale-house/internet blow-hards in the world won't change it. Get used to it or take up knitting.
Late November also saw the playing nadir of the season with an appalling midweek loss at Hull when we were three down before half time, then a painfully insipid home derby defeat to a mediocre Liverpool outfit. But Moyesy must have read the players the riot act, or they woke up themselves, because we then went on a ten match unbeaten run in the league that lasted until the first week of February, when we lost to You-Know-Who again in a game that demonstrated just how far our local enemy has fallen......which made defeat all the more galling. Meanwhile we went out of the FA Cup limply, outplayed by Birmingham at home, mistakenly fielded a reserve side for a home Europa League group game against Bate and, crucially as it turned out, lost that too. Then came two unexpected but thoroughly deserved inspirational home wins over Chelsea and Manchester United, which sandwiched a 2-1 home win over Sporting Lisbon that felt strangely like a defeat. We were edging back. Then we deservedly went out of the Europa League with an awful display at Sporting in Lisbon and lost narrowly at Tottenham in the league in the space of three days. To use a local colloquialism, our heads were cabbaged.
But by this time some players had come off the injury list and were making tentative attempts to get to match fitness. Gradually over the weeks, Mikel Arteta, Phil Jagielka, Ayegbeni Yakubu, James Vaughan and Vic Anichebe all stepped back carefully into the limelight, though all were obviously short of necessary playing condition. Naturally it showed individually and in match tempo. Countering that, we lost others to injury for varying spells - Marouane Fellaini, Tim Cahill, Joey Yobo, Tony Hibbert and Phil Neville. Not surprisingly, occasionally our play was crisp and sparkling, but mostly full of holes frayed through weariness or emergency team formation. Me, I was just relieved to have anybody back with a show of reasonable form.
December was the important turning point because we lost only one of seven matches and that was when we fielded a team of kids at home to Bate. After Christmas the early season cataclysm began to fade slowly into a bad memory. There was even wildly optimistic pub talk of finishing fourth, but it was never a real possibility for anybody with their head screwed on and facing the right direction. Any hopes we had of improving on eighth place disappeared in the closing months with irritating draws at Wolverhampton, at home to West Ham and at Aston Villa, all matches we should have won easily, and - you couldn't help feeling - would have won with a fully fit squad. At that stage, when the team enjoyed its best playing phases it could control possession and tempo as well as anybody in the league except for Chelsea. Late in the season we actually looked brilliant in spasms. We often had an energy drain midway through the second half but usually managed a late surge too. Despite events, team spirit or determination was never in doubt apart from the disgraceful mess at Hull and the no-show at Sporting Lisbon. In the circumstances the recovery was a huge tribute to the talent and determinism of David Moyes and his players.
Out of the new players signed with the Lescott money - Sylvain Distin, John Heitinga and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov - the only unqualified success was the Dutchman, who was tremendous once he settled in and before he was put out for the season by standard Aston Villa "tackling." Unsurprisingly, Distin's veteran legs couldn't always do what his head told them and it sometimes caused us acute defensive problems. For many, but not me, the jury's still out on Bily; whether the obvious class player in him emerges or not is up to fate and his own determinism. Australian Lucas Neill's short and unlamented tenure ended in January, when he was replaced by a Philippe Senderos loan from Arsenal but the Swiss only made a couple of uncertain appearances before he too got injured. Landon Donovan joined on loan at the same time as Senderos, though his impact wide right was exactly what we needed at the time and helped boost an unbeaten run with two goals and a few decisive displays in admirable can-do Yank style, but sadly his loan finished when the Ides of March arrived. He was badly missed in team balance. All of this tooing and froing naturally had an added staccato effect on consistency of team play. The miracle was Moyesy was able to keep an undefeated run going by juggling our limited resources, and then develop it into some very promising displays when injuries began to clear.
Established players did themselves and the club proud in tricky circumstances. Tim Howard was mostly good but occasionally suffered from uncertain defence formations in front of him. And such were circumstances there was even space to see what tyro Seamus Coleman could do at right back; but those who think he's an answer to one of our defensive problems would do well to look at the history of Peter Scott, a full back from the 70s to whom his play bears an uncanny resemblance. Despite this Tony Hibbert's form improved dramatically when he had Landon Donovan in front of him. Phil Neville did his usual dependable mister-everywhere-finger-in-the-dike emergency role. There was no surprise when Leighton Baines finally played for England because his form and confidence became classier with every game. Steven Pienaar did exceptionally well in his attempts to fill the gap left by Mikky Arteta, though the effort eventually took its toll in conjunction with looming contract negotiations. Marouane Fellaini finally put to bed remaining grumbles amongst ingénues and whiners and even managed an iconic pirouette moment during the destruction of Man. City at Goodison. Jack Rodwell continued to build elegantly and well on his obvious promise and added to his own memorabilia with a tremendous goal against Man. United. At times he looked remarkably similar to the great Franz Beckenbauer at the same age.
Goals were our main problem all season because three of our four strikers were out until the closing weeks, an impossible problem. The result was a near complete dependence on Louis Saha and Tim Cahill, both of whom had injury woes too. In Louis' case the problems won't go away, which only emphasises just how praiseworthy were his achievements in notching thirteen league goals and two Europa League goals. If only he could stay fit for an extended period............Meanwhile, Tim ended with ten in all competitions. These figures tell their own story. It cost us a lot of points and at least two positions in the final league table.
So, in theory all we have to do is keep the current squad together and out of harm's way during the summer and preseason friendlies, and then next season should be an absolute stormer. Jack Rodwell will be signed up a mature year older, Marouane Fellaini will be back hungry and straining at the leash, Phil Jagielka will be fully recovered, Mikky Arteta will be strolling the greensward like the little genius he is, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov will be fully rested and determined, Ayegbeni Yakubu will be blowing gas bottles to re-prove himself, and Steven Pienaar will be signed up too and back to his devastating best. We might even have signed a new player or two. Just thinking about the midfield possibilities is enough to get you salivating. Couldn't be easier, right?
It's never that easy. Football fortunes do not run in straight lines and, thank goodness, footballers are not production line machines. Very often what should happen in footy simply doesn't, especially once money begins to talk or suddenly disappears, or contract signatures are required as opposed to press statements. You have only to look at the disaster across the park for that. Veteran fans too will remember what happened to the wonderful 1970 Championship team. There are many other examples for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Best get ready for next season with that firmly in mind.
For a start, David Moyes has to consider the squad issues. We have a 29 man first team squad, average age 25, which at first glance is excellent. At the time of writing the squad is: Carlo Nash, 35. Tim Howard, 31. Iain Turner, 26. Tony Hibbert, 29. Leighton Baines, 26. Joseph Yobo, 29. John Heitinga, 26. Phil Jagielka, 27. Sylvain Distin, 32. Philippe Senderos, 23 (On six-month loan from Arsenal). Seamus Coleman, 21 (On loan to Blackpool). Shane Duffy, 18. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, 25. Mikel Arteta, 28. Tim Cahill, 30. Philip Neville, 33. Dan Gosling, 20. Steven Pienaar, 28. Leon Osman, 28. Marouane Fellaini, 22. Jack Rodwell, 19. James Wallace, 18. Lukas Jutkiewicz, 21. Louis Saha, 30. James Vaughan, 21. Ayegbeni Yakubu, 27. Victor Anichebe, 22. Kieran Agard, 20. Jose Baxter, 18.
But five regular first teamers are thirty or older. Conceivably next season could be their final season in top form and a last chance to win something. Those who make it to the World Cup likely will not be as fresh for the new season and they might suffer at the feet of eager young tyros out to make a mark for themselves. It's a safe bet that Moyesy is thinking, as he has to, of long term replacement. In short he is faced with the perennial management problem of renewal and replacement whilst maintaining playing form and consistency. Likely we will have to sell a player or two to keep the money lenders at bay. Suddenly nothing at all looks easy when you have to deal with the reality of human nature and the iron laws of capitalism, as opposed to cranky self-delusion. Anything could happen. Swayed by chance, events could go either way. As our injury list proved, professional sports can be as cruel an arena as any bargain driven by Shylock.
Against that is the undeniable collective ability and team spirit of the squad, easily the best it has been in many years. Five first team regulars have been at the club for five or more years and that has to count for something. New signings and loans haven't disrupted progress - that was already caused by injuries and the Lescott pantomime. Moyesy has supplemented his squad with young players brought through at exactly the right pace to help prevent early burn-out or later injury weaknesses, though occasionally events have forced him to take desperate steps - remember the selection of callow adolescents Jack Rodwell and Jose Baxter in the same side at West Brom a few seasons ago? Both of them looked like they were still waiting for school exam results. A bad experience then could have destroyed both youngsters, but we won 3-2 and won well. And finally last season, despite all the injuries, despite all the setbacks, toward the end he had his team playing the way he wanted. It has taken him eight long years to get there and the irony is it finally arrived when least expected. All he needs now is a trophy or two to realise his achievements in silver-plated form.
So here we are, all fired up and ready to take on the Premier League good style. And it is only May. The new season will be with us soon enough, complete with the usual caravan of cynicism, cheap gossip, selfishness, phoney "passion," self-promotion, media vacuity and plain insanity. But against that is the fact that we know the game itself is still well worth the candle, that when played and administered instinctively and honestly it is still the greatest sports spectacle of all, that you don't need to be a fanatic or hate-filled, drunken lunatic to love the game and the promise it holds for our youngsters. Let's hope next season sees the kind of breakthrough everybody at the club has worked so hard to achieve. Just remember nothing is written in stone and nothing is guaranteed. That's life.
*Due acknowledgment to the late great American author and polemicist, James Baldwin. The title comes from a Negro spiritual Mary Don't You Weep. Baldwin's essay subject was of course much, much more important than the mere trivia of football, and is even more applicable today than when he wrote it in the fraught days of 1962. Please read it if you haven't already. If you want, this link is a good start: http://aalbc.com/authors/james.htm