Mickey Blue Eyes
Appropriately, the temperature dropped after our predictable midweek loss at Tottenham; frosted streets and ice-crusted windshields reappeared. Winter and footy defeats do not go well together, especially for manic-depressives, the ill-willed, incurably miserable and post-holiday impecunious. I didn't go to Lahndan or watch the match on TV so on Saturday I had to top up my footy addiction by travelling to our match with Villa's Brummy Bashers. We were buoyed a little by the signing of Darron Gibson from Manchester United after somebody found a few pounds down the back of the sofa, though I freely confess I know nothing at all about Darron's abilities. We hope he turns out to be one of Moyesy's bargain discoveries. Not that it will be an earthquake change, anyway, since - as I forecast before last season - the ginger one faces a major rebuild with little money to help......and now an injuries pile-up too. Who'd be a footy manager in this age of government-by-Standard-and-Poor's?
Despite the cold it was bright sunshine and an impressive turn out from Evertonians who occupied upper and lower tiers opposite the main stand. At this time of the year you find out who the real loyalists are, especially in our playing and financial circumstances. Villa are finding this too if their almost quarter-empty ground is anything to go by. Anybody who ever thought Randy Lerner was their "answer" will have to revise their opinion after the necessary departure of Brad Friedel, James Milner, Gareth Barry and Ashley Young, amongst others. Then again, money never has grown on trees and never will. No amount of masochistic whining will ever change that commonsense fact. Reality is as cold as January temperatures.
This time around we had a full Bus for the shorter journey to the Midlands and pre-match libations and opinionating, all of which were as lively as if we were threatening the top four again. Main interests now centre unavoidably on Moyesy's efforts at rebuilding while he juggles with financial spaghetti, and whether we can squirm through the FA Cup and fend off the bottom of the league: Europe is of course out of the equation barring a run of remarkable results - and has been since day one.
Once again team selection looked like what it was, a patchwork quilt with few options. 4-4-1-1 again in an attempt to steady the ship. Back four of Phil-Johnny-debutant Shane Duffy-Bainsey, a middle four of Landon-debutant Gibson-Felli-Royston, then Tim in his usual place, and Louis up front. Vic Anichebe subbed Royston on the hour mark, Bily for Gibson with just under ten minutes left, and Strac for Louis with three minutes left. Overall, it was apparently a much better performance than at Tottenham, which I didn't see, and certainly a slight grade up on the West Brom game, which I did see. Gibson-Felli looked like it had some promise, especially when the new boy made more than a few forward passes and by-passed most of the sideways possession stuff (however necessary) that has maddened us this season. And, true to his word, Landon's game has matured nicely if modestly whether wide right or wide left. The sum total was a mildly interesting, mostly scrappy game with a tense edge in which we made the most scoring chances. It demonstrated both sides are in their right place in the league.
Early on we had a free kick centre left mid in their half after their baldy, thuggish centre back flattened Louis. Bainsey swerved one of his left foot specials to wide left of the penalty spot and Louis almost got immediate payback with a brilliant downwards glancing header that their 'keeper saved equally brilliantly low down on his left. You never get the breaks when you're on a run like Louis'. It didn't even bounce out to one of ours. Ten minutes later Felli broke up an attack on the half way line wide right, prodded it through to Tim on the touchline, who took it forward a few metres then slid a beauty down the line to Landon on a run that split two defenders. He got to the ball first and closed in to the right edge of the penalty box and chipped a perfect cross over to the inrushing Louis in the centre. All he had to do was butt it in. Instead, he got pulled back by the same baldy for a blatant penalty that everyone in the ground saw except the referee. Same old story, same old Clattenburg. Then a quick raid down the left and a wicked cross from Royston bemused their left back into a panicky headed clearance that had oggy written all over it until the 'keeper made another memorable save. Against this, Villa had only one chance thanks to a miskick from Tim Howard that spun up in the air to our centre mid right, straight to one of theirs. Almost unopposed he got through to twenty metres out with a clear shot. Fortunately Tim redeemed himself with an excellent save on the ground on his left.
That was all Villa had to show for the first half, which for us was noticeable for tighter centre mid control thanks to the way Darron Gibson settled in with Felli. At this rate it won't be Gibson Jack replaces when he's fit. We might even get a centre mid three of Gibson-Rodwell-Felli, with Jack in the Lee Carsley role, which might suit him better - otherwise, surely he's destined for centre back?
Naturally the second half assumed a different shape and the enemy gradually got back into the game without looking anything special. Royston had been mostly quiet and ineffectual wide left so he obviously got pissed off enough to set off on a run that inevitably saw him tripped for a free kick centre mid left. Again Bainsey took it. Again it skewered the Villa defence. Felli got a full forehead on it at the right goal area angle and it rebounded off a keeper who knew nothing about it. So you knew what was coming next. That's right, a stupid, scrappy goal for the enemy. An unthreatening attack down the right, a hit and hope long cross from that rebounded off young Duffy as he stooped to head it instead of booting it clear, and their baldy centre back knocked it back into the middle. Duffy had stumbled helplessly out of it so it was an easy side foot in from the edge of the goal area despite a desperate attempt by Phil to get a tackle in. A smidgeon of that luck our way and we would have been a street ahead. A few minutes after their goal Tim saved well low down from a glancing header similar to Louis' in the first half.
A few minutes later Vic subbed for Royston, who had, as usual, received more than his share of kicks, including one that should have seen a red card, but of course didn't. Plainly, word has got around that you boot Royston into a limp or pay the price. He'll get more of the same treatment until he times his runs better. Landon went wide left, Vic sort-of-right. The goal encouraged the enemy to their best spell of the game, but they were even more toothless than we have been this season. It was typified when they got a break down the left and one of their baldies jinked into a good position at the right angle of the penalty box, but hit a harmless shot into Tim's welcoming arms. The result was a brilliant counter attack end-to-end equalising goal with about twenty minutes left.
Tim threw it out to his fellow Yankee tight on our mid left touchline. At which Landon took off on a determined run that saw him cut inside to centre mid left in their half. It drew their mids and defenders toward him like a magnet, he waited until they were almost on him before taking them all out with an exquisitely timed through pass to just right of the penalty spot and Vic closed quickly and slid it home, no sweat. The best move of the game by some distance and a perfect illustration of how Landon Donovan's game has indeed deepened and paced better. Also, maybe why Vic's physical strength is better coming off the bench than on for ninety minutes.
In truth, both teams seemed to settle for a draw. In the end it was about the right result, though we are entitled to feel a measure of irritation at the desertion of Lady Luck.
On the optimistic side, this was my first sight of Shane Duffy and I have to say he looked impressive. He was big, strong and undaunted by the experienced Darren Bent. Doubtless too he learned the hard way not to get clever when you're clearing a ball at the edge of the goal area. Just row Z it, lad, let others mither about it. Then again, experienced Scharner did the same for us at West Brom a couple of weeks ago. Just shows how Lady Luck is indeed capricious. Darron Gibson did well too, nothing spectacular, quite solid, and constructive where possible, maybe an ideal foil for Felli. If this game is anything to go by, they'll both be a substantial help as Moyesy rebuilds from the wreckage of injuries and ageing players.
Veteran fans will know the second half of this rebuilding season is going to be fraught. Next season may be even more tense if the transition doesn't go well. For now, our best hopes lie in the vets getting us through the maelstrom and lottery of the FA Cup while keeping us away from the bog at the bottom. Likely it will be a close run thing. You are going to need strong nerves, not hysteria. But that has always been the essence of loyalty.