TWO HOLES IN BLACKBURN, LANCASHIRE
Mickey Blue Eyes
How prophetic that first match of the season now seems. How can we forget? A soporific, sun-soaked afternoon, the highest level of anticipation of the last fifteen years - and a deserved if hard gained win for Blackburn Rovers courtesy of a Tim Howard failed juggling act accompanied by our toothless, pretty performance ending with a final quarter toothless assault. That was largely how our injury-plagued season panned out up to February. By the time we picked up it was too late for other than a probably fruitless pursuit of a European place. Small wonder Goodison this season has often felt like a muted rehearsal room for the Philharmonic Orchestra on a bad day. Come the return match with Rovers, I didn't know what to expect. After all, we still had half the team missing and a small gang of young players who looked like they'd drifted onto the bench instead of hanging around squeezing pimples and talking incoherent jive outside a liquor store.
By the time this one rolled around the weather was the only identical thing about it, a glorious if late Spring day. Rovers have recently gone into free fall after changing owners and managers. Rovers Trust, hang your heads in shame. That isn't why Jack Walker established you. For them, this was crucial for survival in the Premiership. For us, a chance to see if the recent spurt wasn't just a late ejaculation. A chance too to reflect where we might be if Our Boys hadn't awakened; it could so easily be us in Rovers' position. Such are the roles of chance and determinism in footy.
I was delighted to see Maggie get another opportunity after his recent bright-eyed youthful efforts, pleased too to see Jack Rodwell back on the bench so quickly. I was also interested to see Rovers promising young prospect Phil Jones restored after injury. And I have always liked David Dunn, who was once linked with us years ago, didn't come, and since has never reached the level virtually everybody thought he would. How cruel footy can be. Sometimes its talents flare and die as quickly as a firefly, sometimes they self extinguish; occasionally they flower beautifully, which is why you have to admire them while it exists. It's a good deal better than listening to the growing number of sour, humourless whiners and wasters who leech onto the game.
The first half had little goalmouth excitement but plenty of vigorous movement in midfield. Still, neither side could afford to relax, so the game had an odd kind of tension to it. Early on it looked as though both were happy to go through fast-moving motions without any real threat. Nevertheless there were a few good things from our point of view: Leon Osman continued to sparkle in midfield in a way Mikky has hardly touched this season, Beckford's timing of runs has improved without a similar gain in his ball control (which is why he smacks it the minute he sees the whites of the goal frame), Maggie's adjustment to English football gets better every time I see him, and the midfield didn't shrink from the kind of physicality we knew Rovers would necessarily adopt. Becks had his usual wild miss when given a half chance at a right side wide angle and he ballooned it into the Street End to almost decapitate rows M through R. Apart from that it was edgy stuff from both sides and not much more. For them, you couldn't help noticing the giant forms of Chris Samba and Phil Jones at centre back, particularly when they clashed with the busy tiny form of Leon Osman.
After a quarter hour John Heitinga pulled up short with a hamstring and came off right away. Jack Rodwell came on and gave us a little more attacking impetus but for the remainder of the half eased himself in gingerly, either because he was (understandably) apprehensive or he was acting on orders. Apart from Becks' shot we only had two others, one from Leon and one from Jack. Niggling fouls seemed to happen every minute, though there was nothing dirty in any of it, just the usual refusal to be intimidated. Inevitably it ended up with two bookings, one for Bainsey and one for David Dunn. There could have been others.
The second half opened a bit brighter with more shots from Leon and Jack, and David Dunn got a good swerving one in too. Even Phil Neville had a go, probably still suffering from a nose bleed after last week's sterling effort. Both sides had increased the tempo a little and we got three corners in rapid succession before Leon took advantage of the last one and scored. Maggie took it right side, short, as Leon closed into the penalty area, Rovers left him alone too long and he cracked in an acute angle cross shot that flicked off Samba before going home inside the far post. It was on its way in anyway. Robinson didn't even move. Two minutes later Rovers defence was slow again at the left angle of the penalty area and an incoming Maggie hit a left footed screamer that cleared the bar by a couple of millimetres. If the youngster can keep this sort of form up he has a chance to become a firm crowd favourite.....when he came off for Seamus Coleman with just under a half hour left he got a tremendous round of applause. Plainly, Moyesy followed his usual philosophy of bringing them on at the right pace, talented or not. Gently does it. Seamus none too gently immediately tore the back out of their left back and almost squirmed through.
Blackburn made two experienced subs in Santa Cruz and Pedersen but they couldn't prevent an inevitable second with just over a quarter hour left. Bainsey got central near the penalty area and played a short one to Leon by the penalty spot, who was clattered, and the ball went loose right. Seamus steamed in and promptly keeled over when Phil Jones went in desperately with studs up at ground level - much higher and he would have had to take a red bullet - and, lawks a mercy, a second penalty to us in as many home games. Paul Robinson did the usual windmill act before Bainsey waited for him to be midair then blasted it past his waving left hand. I think Robbo was still coming down while the ball hung in the net. Rovers couldn't raise much after that and we had a few opportunities to increase the lead, but couldn't, and Becks came off to give a very statuesque upright Velios five minutes of encouraging play time. No silly demonstration this time.
It was impossible to fault the team for this display. Yet again the kind of routine performance we had assumed but didn't get from the start of the season. Defence and midfield were again solid and mostly untroubled, with excellent experienced games from Phil Neville, Sylvain Distin, Tony Hibbert, Bainsey and Jags. Even Bily worked hard, though he still frustrates us with some of his inaccurate, sloppy passing - why this should be is probably something only Dostoevsky could answer. I'm buggered if I can. All round, a good professional display. But don't get carried away. Some upcoming games are going to really test our youngsters. We'll see how they shape then.
This week has been a difficult time for many families on Merseyside as we all remember the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. Lest we forget, those families still await justice for loved ones lost because they went to a football match. I cannot begin to imagine what they have been through. It could have been any of us. This, after twenty two years of contemptible lies and propaganda from the British Establishment. Every football fan I know in the city was affected. A good friend of mine was second through the opened gate in Leppings Lane and escaped death by seconds. Another saved his brother's life. My best friend, Evertonian and hardest man in the world, fell into a puddle of tears, the only time I ever saw him like that. I carried my youngest daughter to Stanley Park to witness the solidarity of Everton and Liverpool scarves tied together between Goodison and Anfield. When she saw it she became like a little sad sack of spuds and said, "Dad, when grandad died did we tie scarves together then too?" We all have stories like that. It illustrates too why our beloved city has survived all the sick poison thrown at it during the last thirty years. There is no longer any mystery about what happened that day. We all know. All the families want is for the Establishment to hold their hands up and say they tried to cover it up and to trace the cause to its root. All they need do is demonstrate a particle of the courage shown for the last twenty two years by the families. And if they did, the world would be a better place. It is the very least they owe to the families and victims.