ANYONE STILL AWAKE?
Mickey Blue Eyes
Well, I mean, just try to roll that alveolar fricative through your voice box. You might as well gargle with grit. I intend no disrespect when I say the fixture has all the attraction of Ann Widdecombe singing I Will Survive with a live 50Kva cable wedged in her ear. The prospect of playing the Potters doesn't exactly ignite your weekend the way Ann's weird Dolby warble would. In fact, I can't remember a time when I ever relished a game against Stoke. You're more likely to consult our fixture list for the one-after-next.
None of this is to underestimate Stoke's hard-won and commendable return to the first level of English footy or how they try to steady their ship. After all, before the match they stood only a few places and one point behind us in the table. No, we don't have much to crow about. But like all faded aristocrats we have pretensions and we cling to them. Some might even say we have delusions. Anyway, we knew we were in for a hard time, probably of our own manufacture.
Despite all that, generally I love games at this time of year. Usually the cold is biting enough to get the players up for it and in turn that gets the fans going. Of course not every game is good, any more than when the weather is more comfortable. It's just somehow they can seem to have an extra edge. And if you win it can feel more satisfying, as though somehow you've proved your loyalty by turning up in the kind of conditions some other nutters meet on the way up Everest. It's the time of year for weatherproofs and insulated layers.
But this time there was no psychological insulation to the lead-up. During the week a friend texted me to say "Gary Speed RIP." At first I thought it some kind of sick joke. Then it was confirmed. To me it was all terrible and incomprehensible; a young man at the peak of his life was dead, apparently by his own hand. The loss to his family and friends will be dreadful and incalculable, unimaginable to everybody else. Football was the least of it. I never saw Gary in Everton colours because I was living and working abroad while he was here. I only saw him in very short weekly TV highlights. It was obvious, though, he left a deep impression on those who did see him and knew him, and that he was a big Evertonian. The fact is we cannot know what was in Gary's mind at the end. Nor should we. We don't have that right. It should be enough for Evertonians to say, "For all too short a time he was One of Us." How tragic it should come to this. Then on the morning of the match came news of the death of Socrates, the great Brazilian player. Really, there aren't enough words.
According to the weatherman, snow was in the air, which would be a natural follow-on to the blustery cold, grey and rainy day. So it was muffle up and get off to the pre-match meet for footy chat and piss-taking. As it turned out, that was the highlight thanks to brothers John and Dan and their inability with foreign names, words and accents.
In fact the match was a pile of excreta, at least as bad as the first day opener at home to QPR. There is virtually nothing to say about it apart from the first ten minutes when Bily made a few feints wide left and looked vaguely threatening. After that the game disappeared into the most awful mediocrity where we could create nothing and Stoke weren't interested in anything other than trench warfare. It got even worse when Stoke scored - inevitably through a ricochet - with their only "effort" of the game. All in all it was a reminder for veteran fans of long-ago Stoke manager Tony Waddington's infamous "Waddington Wall," a game plan so tedious it made knitting seem exalted. Nor was it helped by yet another hapless refereeing display that wouldn't have been out of place in a wrestling match.
Afterwards, I couldn't wait for home and hearth and some TLC. Later in the evening we were hit by lashing rain, a freezing wind and flashes of lightning. It was entirely appropriate.