OUR INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MIDFIELD MEN
Mickey Blue Eyes
Appropriately, Merseyside was struck by short-lived torrential rain and a dramatic multi-coloured storm the night before the away game at Blackburn. Lose this, you thought, and Evertonian gloom would be the same colour as the lowering clouds. Lose this, you knew, and we would be dumped in the bottom three. Nevertheless, I had as good a feeling beforehand as I did for the same fixture last season. And we all know what happened then. Still, you salute the flag, board The Bus, and hope for the best.....all the while knowing you should trust footy feelings as much as you trust a Dead Head who calls everyone, "Mate."
I have always liked visiting Ewood Park. I hope it doesn't sound patronising when I say it is about the right size and style for the town it serves, and has a good Lancashire homely feel to it. Whether its new owners understand that remains to be seen; certainly they made a wretched start when they sacked Big Sam in apparently odd circumstances. Then, not surprisingly, nearly got relegated. Maybe they know something we don't. But that's their problem; we have enough of our own.
I thought our chief problem would be generating enough optimism and motivation amongst the fans and the players. You couldn't blame any of the fans if they felt thus. The performance at the opening match was so dire for a few days it had virtually every Evertonian with a face like a smacked arse. Only the Sheffield United result eased footy pain, and even then only slightly. Clutching at straws - we all do it - you hoped maybe, being an away match, we would get a bit more room as the enemy pushed forward as they must. Key to that would be us not going behind, because, if we did, where was the creativity going to come from? Rationally, a draw looked the most likely outcome, but since when has football support been rational?
The Bus, for example, was bright, bouncy and optimistic despite a short, swaying journey battered by more torrential rain and formidable side winds. But when we reached Blackburn the storm had disappeared and a warm sun was out. A good feeling washed around the pre-match pub. I brightened enough to feel justified in optimism, even a good victory in prospect. Funny what a few glasses of happy juice can do to you.
And despite the bad start of both teams' season the stadium was suitably abuzz, much more than Goodison was the previous week. The away section was as full and noisy as it usually is for this fixture, but rows of empty seats elsewhere bode badly as the "recession" (read: standard capitalist slump/rip off) begins to gnaw at everyone's pocket......soon to gouge holes out of your kecks, as usual. What team news we had seemed about right, unlike the disastrous opener. Given our squad and its performances it almost picked itself at 4-5-1......Tim; Nev, Jags, Distin, Bainsey; Ross, Felli, Johnny, Mikky, Leon; Vic. After the substitutions it went to 4-4-1-1, our only other practical option. Most notable for the enemy were three giant centre backs in Emerton, Samba and Olsson, David Dunn in midfield and Pedersen as sort-of-striker. Dunn, a player I have always liked, has never managed to shrug off weight problems and he still looked a bit thick around the waist in this one.
The first half was about even-steven; if anybody had an arguable upper hand it was Rovers. They looked more dangerous going forward and Dunn hit the inside of Tim's left post low down after. It took us ten minutes to make our first shot, a commendable effort from Ross low and to the 'keeper's left, saved, then a turn-and-shoot by Leon that sailed well wide, left. The only other opportunity we had was a close-in header from Felli at their left post that he should have buried, but didn't. Mikky and Leon looked diminutive and ineffectual against Dunn and Pedersen when he dropped back; Johnny was fine defending at the edge of the box though well nigh useless going forward. Ross probed away down the right without getting much close support, but you get the feeling with him that as he develops he won't need or bother much with it anyway. He's certainly as fearless as any other gifted seventeen years old player I have ever seen. Vic initially tried manfully against the huge Chris Samba, got booked after a quarter of an hour and then gradually got worn down as he battered himself against their three giants until he had neither strength or motivation. Still, we had our first stroke of luck with ten minutes of the half left when Rovers had to sub their two most dangerous players, Dunn and Pedersen. The best you could say about the half was "stalemate." In reality we created next to nothing. Again.
Limbering up for the second half you felt, "Well, they're at home, they'll attack, and we can take advantage of it and maybe sneak one." As it turned out only half of this was right, the first bit. They attacked for half an hour and our entire midfield virtually vaporised, disappeared, got eliminated, got tired or just couldn't give a shit - take your pick, and many did. Loudly. The Incredible Shrinking Midfield made a reprise. How we didn't concede three or four or even five is beyond me. One can only imagine how Rovers fans felt. Truth to tell we were a complete shambles during this phase of play, only the defence kept us in the game and even then only with large dollops of good fortune.
Two minutes into the half Ross blundered in an attack in their half and lost the ball. It quickly got switched through the middle and then down their left, where, commendably, Ross had doubled back to cover. Their man dribbled into the penalty area, left side, dummied inside, the youngster stretched a leg out, the enemy fell over and got a spot kick. Seen them given, seen them not. Ross was distraught until Tim saved brilliantly low down and on his left, full recompense for last season's juggling act. Nice to see both Johnny and Tim try to reassure the prodigy even though he was probably inconsolable. The save lifted our following but not the team. Rovers simply kept coming until Moyesy got the message and five minutes later subbed Tim Cahill for Ross to reflect on how the game can gut you. Ten minutes later Bily came on for Leon and made scarcely any difference except for a couple of typically brilliant close controls that went nowhere - he really is one of those players who looks as though he's about to burst into song and then starts reading The Beano instead.
Meanwhile, Rovers powered forward, had total midfield control, hit the bar, bombarded from right and left, caused a few goalmouth scrambles, Tim made a stupendous save with his feet, and it generally looked like we were about to unravel like an old jumper. Shades of Dinamo Bucaresti, away, or Rorke's Drift with Sylvain Distin in the Nigel Greene regimental sergeant major role. Then the storm began to ebb slightly until we felt we might actually hold out or even sneak a goal. Then, a raid down our left via the immaculate Leighton Baines and a link up with Vic, who rolled it straight into the path of an inrushing Felli at the edge of the box; he couldn't miss, but did. Then Bainsey broke down the left, jinked inside and hit a tremendous right footer that got beaten out. Then they got another penalty when Jags dived in with seven minutes left. This time it hit Tim's right post at the inside root and ricocheted out. Rovers must have felt like there was an ethereal pentangle around our goal. Immediately afterwards, Moyesy, obviously sensing a possible breakthrough, sent on Becks for Johnny, an attacker for a defender.
For the first time in the game, minutes left, Rovers began to look uncertain and hesitant. You couldn't make it up when we got a penalty with a minute left. By now Felli was getting up front more after one of his laconic afternoons in midfield, and when he went up for a long cross from the right he got into an aerial tangle with Chris Samba. The referee gave a penalty. The way I saw it, Samba won the ball fairly in the air but in falling down stupidly dragged Felli with him. It was needless; he'd already cleared the attack as he'd been doing most of the afternoon. He was probably just trying to make sure Felli didn't get up again. If so, he stupidly paid the ultimate price. No question in my mind it was a pen, not helped by the referee's delayed decision. Anyway, Mikky didn't piss around and stuck it home low to the 'keeper's left. Cue bedlam in the away section and three points. Me, I felt like a Great Train Robber.
On the way home The Bus was bouncing and singing as though we'd just played them off the park. New songs were tried out and faces smiled everywhere. True, we had luck on our side, but how many times have we been able to say that? Maybe it's a turning point, maybe it isn't. Make of it what you will. Meanwhile, if anyone finds the midfield that went missing for half an hour can they please phone David Moyes and tell him where to find it.