OUR CUP RUNNETH ON
Mickey Blue Eyes
After each match I usually wait around for ten minutes or so to let the crowd empty out. Then I stroll away at leisure. Midweek at the derby I delayed long enough to watch the usual end-of-match players acknowledgement of our fans; only Sylvain Distin made a move toward the away section. He didn't get far. Three rows in front of me a youngster, beside himself with angry disappointment, made the same furious gesture as others. I couldn't hear what he yelled but I could make a reasonable guess. To his credit Distin held his hands up in apparent understanding before pulling up short and trudging away. The rest of the team filed off quickly, shamefaced and dejected. Alas, it was indeed that bad.
You couldn't blame the youngster, idiotic and ludicrous though he looked. There's no point to competitive sport unless you... er...compete. We didn't, not fully anyway. Paying an inexcusable £48 to get that kind of performance simply isn't on, even allowing for uncertainty of outcome. To see it in a derby match unleashes raw feelings, which, if sometimes ugly, are at least understandable, the only way for some to express themselves, though it is as stupefyingly useless as gambling on horses or watching "boxing." In some ways the aftermath was made worse by four televised stirring European matches with Chelsea/Napoli and Manchester City/Sporting Lisbon in England, Athletic Bilbao/Manchester United in Spain (well, the Basque country) and Schalke/Twente Enschede in Germany that featured magnificent individual skill, outstanding teamwork and fierce effort - everything we had hoped to see in the derby, but didn't. Naturally we wanted recovery in Saturday's Cup match with Sunderland.
I admit to some partiality here: I have liked Sunderland since a hundred years ago Len Shackleton enjoyed taking the piss out of defences, the game and himself. He always seemed to have sensible perspective despite the blessing of outrageous dribbling talent and an attitude to match. His book Clown Prince of Soccer will be long remembered for a chapter titled The Average Director's Knowledge of Football, which consisted of a blank page. Small wonder he didn't fit into the then class-riddled England administrative set up. He was one of the few players I have seen who could play with an infectious smile on his face; this created an illusion he didn't take the game seriously when necessary. But that was a different era and now there is less good will in the game despite a greatly improved spectacle. Now there is altogether too much angst, typified by Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill's inability to look directly at anybody who asks him interview questions. I don't know what on the floor interests him so much. Someone should advise him he looks distinctly shifty.
We've had some wonderful Cup battles with the Mackems over the years, including a 6-4 extra-time win in 1935 often cited by neutrals as the greatest game ever played; such is the nature of football Bill Dean didn't score in that one. Since then probably the most memorable encounter was our 3-0 win en route to Wembley in 1966. We hoped it was a good omen. We clung also to a decade of wins and no losses against the enemy. Still, I thought our latest clash would be a fairly stern struggle before we could get through to the semi finals, maybe a draw first. Virtually everyone else seemed to think we had only to turn up, always a mistake in footy.
My Evertonian concern was if Our Boys figured they could take it easy in the derby and then fire on all cylinders in the Cup. That isn't the way sport works, but sometimes it doesn't get through even to the most experienced player or manager. Everyone makes mistakes, as Roberto Mancini did in our home game with Manchester City. You can't just turn it off then turn it on. There are too many imponderables. And the fans, dotty with an awkward combination of anger and possibility, weren't in any mood for imponderables after the derby disaster. So the enemy would have to be defeated decisively and without mercy, no prisoners, the Black Flag - the classic reactionary view of the world uncompromised by mere fact. But that has always been the recurrent theme of competitive sport and always will be.
Early weather omens were good: medium temperatures, fresh grass scents, bright sunshine interrupted by random scudding clouds, a beautifully calm mid-tides river empty of traffic except for an early ferry. High up, first arrival air travellers sat on a vapour trail from North America to Europe. It was ideal, quietly intoxicating, England at its best. Bring on the footy, bring it on!
Over breakfast I close my eyes and slip into overheated reverie: I imagine Denis Stracqualursi, truculent, burly, solemn, heroic, bull-neck determined. Who could fight him off without bare knuckles? And what of our incredibly fine, handsome, virile, still-young Jack Rodwell, maddened by a no-show in the derby, realising how good he could be if only he stopped admiring himself in the mirror long enough to study forward terrain? Or Bainsey, dashing, scintillating, attacking brilliantly, crossing with deadly effect from the left? Or Sylvain Distin, our very own Bagnolet, full of French savoir-faire and a jaw fashioned from Bourgogne stone? Or Royston Drenthe, our Dutch mix of Mel Brooks and Jeremy Paxman on a bad day......or a sack of demented Doberman pups? Or Marouane Fellaini, our classy Belgian rapier, impaler of curly black candy floss? Altogether, Our Multinational Boys would be superior and trounce O'Neill's foolish Hibernian theatrics. We would triumph and move effortlessly into the semi finals at Wembley. What could possibly go wrong, right?
As we climbed into the car grey clouds closed in overhead and the tide started to ebb. Rain spattered lightly. Uh oh. Imponderables loomed.
Inside the ground the old place warmed with Cup fever encouraged by a large away following. It felt as comfortable as an old slipper with worn soles, the way it should be in the greatest knock out competition in the world. At times like this you have even less sympathy for computer stream/TV "fans" moaning somewhere in cyberspace. Nothing equals a live match or indeed any experience involving human beings face-to-face, but there's a burgeoning generation who sadly have great difficulty with this obvious truth. At their rate, language and conversation will be reduced to a series of monosyllabic grunts and farts or textspeak. Vocabulary will necessarily reduce. Normal courtesy and manners will become extinct. Subtlety will be replaced by howling impotency; indeed it largely is in football, where savant mantras are now a staple. This match was no exception.
The teams were announced. Ours, same as V Spurs. No Denis, no Jack: see what I mean about imponderables? So much, too, for reverie. John Heitinga returned at centre back, which was good since he's in form. Theirs, nobody I knew, and apparently missing their best two players through suspension.
Key motif of the game was frantic effort from both sides, plus the kind of out-of-his-depth refereeing you wouldn't want to see in a blow football match. Heightened feelings everywhere, bodies thudding to the ground...particularly Royston's, as usual forced and otherwise. It makes you wonder how high is his centre of gravity, the opposite of Wayne Rooney's?
The first attempt on goal came from them, a header that skidded out harmlessly on our right. We quickly countered after Felli dispossessed them at centre mid and angled it outward to Seamus on the right. From the goal line edge of the penalty area he crossed one to the near post and an incoming Leon got under it by a fraction and headed over. And so the game proceeded from first to last. It was typical physical Cup football, no quarter asked or given, what the tournament is about, though not exactly full of exquisite passing geometry. Some of the tackling would have demolished a house. It was no place for shrinking violets.
Just over the ten minutes mark the enemy scored. A centre right free kick to them was touched short, nobody closed their marauder down and he had an angled free shot duly made through a crowd of players. Howard couldn't have seen it until it was almost on him, low down on his right. This wasn't part of the planned triumphal march.
However, we were level ten minutes later after Sunderland had seen most of the ball and committed most fouls, but we had Phil and John booked. It was that kind of match. We made a hesitant attack down our left, made scatty by their funnelling back in numbers. Just as it looked as though the promise was snuffed, Royston didn't fall over and laid a pass left to Bainsey as usual tight on the touchline. Equally as usual he hooked over a brilliant cross that swerved on to Jelavic's head and thence goalward. It went scarcely three metres before Tim Cahill butted it into the opposite corner in typical fashion. Immediately the game pattern changed and Sunderland wilted slightly. Before the half was out Jelly hit the side net from a left side attack and Sylvain scooped a rebound over. Then Royston switched wings, won a free kick twenty five metres out wide right, took it himself, and swerved it on to the top of the 'keeper's left top goal angle; it might have been a superb goal, but the feeling grows that that might be the epitaph of Royston's first class career.
At times the second half was on the verge of a running battle. It never quite reached that stage, no thanks to a referee with the judgment and thick headedness of the last Russian czar. What superiority we achieved was built on the sound experience of Sylvain Distin, John Heitinga and Phil Neville, and the class of Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines. Everyone else was patchy, one or two invisible. At one point Royston lost the ball during a right wing attack deep in their half. He failed to track back and help snuff the counter, which had to be dealt with by a combination of Phil and John. When the ball was eventually cleared Phil went ballistic on Royston and John had to walk his top heavy countryman away, arm around his shoulder, offering gawd knows what advice. All very fractious and likely to be one of the causes for non-renewal of the loan......pity, he still gets the crowd going when he runs at enemy defences. Before he falls over, that is. If only......
Uneven pressure built up on the enemy goal as the game closed out, but it rarely looked likely until the final minutes. A Bainsey corner gave John Heitinga a chance to head the winner, but their 'keeper made a windmill with his arms and miraculously beat it away to his right. Nikky promptly smacked it back close in from a narrow angle, but the 'keeper blocked it again. Which was fair enough. Sunderland earned the draw.
Plainly, we now feel the loss of loanees Donovan and Pienaar in Cup games. This extends to team balance as well as loss of individual effectiveness. It might prove decisive, one way or the other. It might motivate. It might demoralise. Hence yet more imponderables, and why I love The Cup. If you can't get up for these games there's no blood in your veins or feelings in your heart.
If we win the replay we play the pinkies in the semi final. Fascinating, no?