A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
Mickey Blue Eyes
I had a bad feeling on Saturday, pre-match. No Jack Rodwell until December, no injury-free in-form striker, Marouane Fellaini still not quite there, nobody wide right mid, and we were playing Man United, Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney and all. Pre-season feelings were evaporating at a rate of knots. To me it looked bleak despite all our brave Evertonian pub footy chat. I expected to lose. As usual the key was midfield. While we were in selection disarray there, they had Paul Scholes who started the season like a train. At 35 he is bound to fade as the weeks go on, but that's then. For the next month or so he'll be deadly.
Anyway, Wayne didn't play. But Scholesy did (boy, did he play). In the first half hour or so, so did we - really, really well, despite the rain. Ran rings around them in fact, and Mikky hit the top of the bar with one of his left-side fizzy, curling free kicks. Alas, ultimately we were as forceful as a blancmange and as sharp as a bowling ball. It was as maddening as all our other games this season, League Cup excepted. Events were also, to coin a phrase, as queer as a clockwork orange. Had early pressure and possession translated into goals we would have been three or four up ourselves. As it was, Tim Howard made three wonderful instinctive saves and they hit the outside of a post. It was all happening end-to-end stuff. You couldn't take your eyes off it for a second, English footy at its very best. Steven Pienaar in particular was back to form and got badly fouled twice in as many minutes by the Mancs other ageing figure, Gary Neville, which achieved its aim of slowing him down later. Nevertheless, during this period we had good shape, determination and played loads of good, sharp footy. It forced them to funnel back and crowd the centre immediately in front of the penalty area to strangle any embryonic threat. But if we could keep it up - always a moot point at this level - my pre-match forecast began to look happily like bird shit.
We deserved to go ahead seven minutes before half time, though ironically the Mancs owned the brief period before we scored. It was a beautifully sprung attack from deep defence. The clearance ended up with Tim Cahill, centre mid point in our own half. He delivered a beautiful thirty metres air pass to take out a defender and leave Mikky racing clear right side and closing, with only their Cheesehead keeper to beat. The shot was awful but well saved anyway, broke clear to Leon Osman in the centre and he sensibly sent it sideways left to in-the-clear Pienaar, who kept his head and side footed it home. Happy days, now just close it out until half time. Alas. Four minutes later they crossed it well from the right, but we still should have cleared it. Instead, central defence all left it to each other and it was an easy unmarked side foot home from the centre of the goal area. They all looked at each other but there were only two who should be pissed-off guilty.....Sylvain Distin first, Jags second. Oh well. It's been that kind of season so far.
Two minutes into the second half more lousy central defending - this time, no question it was Sylvain Distin (come back, Joey, please) - left Vidic with a free header again in the centre, again on the edge of the goal area. A goal ahead, now it was their turn to take command, and though we competed well enough the shape of centre midfield began to distort until we were leaving great holes in the middle. Naturally these were exploited, and naturally the chief exploiter was Paul Scholes, the brilliant little ginger gett. We pressed forward when possible but it was uneven and didn't look likely. There was no real surprise when they got a third with twenty five minutes left. It was a bit like our goal.....Scholes - who fucking else - in the centre, a superb thirty metres air pass out right where Sylvain Distin missed it and turned slower than an oil tanker in the Gulf, and Berbatov ran clear to clip it easily home from an angle at the edge of the penalty area.
Well, we thought, that's that. It was too much for some and they headed for the exits. John left to go to work where he should have been in at three o'clock anyway. I forced myself to stay, gloomy head on and chin cupped in my hand. By now it was bright sunshine but it might as well have been midnight in December. Like everybody else, I felt like shit even though my forecast looked all too accurate. With twenty minutes to go Moyesy did the only thing he could do and gambled desperately by subbing the Yak and Seamus Coleman for John Heitinga - not a forward midfield player as long as he's got a hole in his arse - and Tony Hibbert, who had had another good game. Everyone knows by now that both the Yak and Seamus have only maybe twenty good minutes in them, the first because of injury, the second through inexperience and naiveté. Still, there was no other ammunition in the locker. If it didn't come off - and I didn't think it had a prayer - the score could get really embarrassing. As it transpired, it was the right thing to do and Moyesy became a substitution hero. But it could so easily have gone the other way. Footy must be the classic example of existentialism in, er, action.
Imperceptibly, the pattern of play changed. The Yak's physical presence clearly unsettled the Manc central defence, though it still didn't look enough. Within minutes the Yak put Osman through with a spiffy little pass through a crowd, but Leon missed badly from left side and close in. Then it looked like game shot with the ninety minutes up and only three additional to play. Over in the dugout, ol' rosacea puce-faced Ferguson was in no hurry to do his usual dervish dance for even more time. Funny, that. He only seems to do it when they're in a hairy endgame. Anyway, we didn't need it. We scored two in a minute to equalise. I like the sound of that so much I'll write it again: We scored two in a minute to equalise. Fuck, it was brilliant.
Not that we thought the first was anything other than mere compensation. It came thirty seconds after full time with an excellent long cross from the left from, I think, Steven Pienaar. Three or four jumped for it but Tim got there first for one of his classic headers butted past the Cheesehead from dead centre. A minute later, another attack down the left, Bainsey got to the bye line and dinked it over, another crowd jumped for it and it came backwards off (again, I think) Tim Cahill. Naturally the Mancs were watching Marouane, the Yak and Tim. And it fell gloriously to Mikky unmarked just inside the box, left side. For a micro-moment the world stood still while you wondered if this was really happening. Then Mikky smashed it right footed and it went home off, of all people, Scholesy, but make no fucking mistake - it was going in anyway. The crowd went mad and I include myself in that......and, yes, I know I should know better. There seemed to be more people dancing in the aisles and on the ceiling than in the seats. Then - someone get me a battery for me pacemaker - incredibly we broke clear straight from the kick off, three against two and Jags put through, acute angle right side. The referee blew the final whistle just as he shaped to hit it and put him off, and it ricocheted off the tête du fromage. Christ knows what would have happened had Jags scored the winner. You'd probably be reading my obit now. As it was, Moyesy came charging out of the dug out to have a go at the ref for his time keeping. Funny enough, again, ol' wino face didn't complain.
Afterwards we repaired to the bar to try to recover some sanity. At which point Plewsy drew the wrath of the gods on his head by claiming the old Littlewoods clocks were originally replaced by, and I quote, an orange trimmed fold-over digital clock at the Park End and the Street End. Rightly, he got verbally battered and demoralised as much as the Mancs were at the end of the game. Hence the reference to a clockwork orange. Somehow it seemed appropriate to the match. I know this is a tenuous link, but after a game like that who gives a flying fuck?