Mickey Blue Eyes
Motoring to the midweek home game V Arsenal I suddenly realised my life span covers exactly half the existence of Everton Football Club......which proves not how old I am but how young is professional football. There have been many changes during that time, too many of them adverse. Nevertheless, most have improved the game as a spectacle; it still has the same simplistic fundamentals, the same attractive form, the same weird manic-depression and other neuroses among its supporters, the same comedy, intentional and otherwise. People come and go but for all its faults and all its traumas the game lives on, still trivial, and gives great pleasure to millions. It could not have survived otherwise. The obvious conclusion is that it must satisfy something in human nature, though it is far from clear exactly what. The Tuesday fixture was typical of our strange addiction.
In theory we should have got a hiding from Arsenal. They were out of everything except a high league place and we had a Cup replay coming up, and most of us expected Moyesy to tinker with the team, which he did. The result was a marginal 1-0 loss after a first twenty minutes every bit as weak-kneed as the disaster in the derby. Matters were only fully corrected when substitutions were made and Steven Pienaar moved to centre mid alongside Felli and thus filled a space that had been empty, and where we were swamped in the early stages. We managed to restore a little pride in the second half and might have snatched a draw in the end. Altogether it was similar to that strange but necessary each-way bet of crackpot Christianity: "Purgatory," between "Heaven" and "Hell." That's similar to what you get, Moyesy, when you can't make your mind up and elect for unhealthy compromise. Or, as Aneurin Bevan once said, "If you stand in the middle of the road all you get is run over."
And so to Saturday and a five hundred and twenty kilometres round trip to Swansea. It was gorgeous Wordsworth all day, early to late morning mist giving way to bright, warm sunshine, beautiful West Country then beautiful South Wales. You couldn't ask for more.
It is a long time since I have been to the area. Much has changed at the home football club. Now they are back in the top level and doing very well, better than us in fact. From all accounts it is well earned and well played for. For their sake you have to hope it isn't just a traditional first season rush of blood to the head before a lapse into relegation coma. They would be foolish indeed to pay much attention to TV pundits paid to hype the slightest achievement as though it was a Nobel Prize. New blood is important but not at the expense of common sense, as Blackpool discovered. I was intrigued to see what they had to offer.
Really, south Wales is rugby country, a national identity. Still, if football is an odd pastime, rugby constitutes a medieval soap opera maul run by a feudal patriciate. Typical of this is the expectation - often cited as "good" - that its players should call a referee "sir." The only thing missing is forehead-knuckling obeisance. It is rather easy to be supplicant and cathartic if you have just bitten someone or attempted to break their neck or have punched out a molar or two. In fact I would rather pay to watch compost solidify than watch a rugby scrum hatching an egg. But each to his own. Nevertheless, and funnily enough, Swansea's average attendances are almost twice those of the rugby club who share the stadium.
Long ago, in eight years they made a wondrous journey from Fourth Division to the top of the First Division and back again, during which time the club was sold for £1 and wound up by court order as it went through a dizzying period of variable shyster ownership. Take note, cheap vendors: when it comes, the true answer will be a good deal harder to implement. Witness the latest football horror at Rangers. However, in The Strange History of Human Stupidity there is an immutable law which states, "Those who need to learn most learn least."
Meanwhile in the real, badly-flawed world, Swansea's new small-scale and pretty Liberty Stadium was funded by an adjoining development, all of it in a beautiful setting between wooded hills vastly superior to that old slum, the Vetch Field. It was a pleasure to be there, excluding the remnants of a (thankfully) dying breed wearing idiotic three-quarter kecks and black socks. You can't help wondering why these people don't look in a mirror before they leave their cave.
As veterans know, each generation is the first to discover "a good time," sex, music, alcohol and idealism. This is as it should be because, of course, a sense of discovery is one of the things that separate us from other living creatures. Hence newcomers to the Premiership are always properly agog with the novelty of it. This meant our match resounded with the Welsh vespers of Land of My Fathers and a maddening bastard with a drum, late revenge for English invasion and occupation of Cymru. We certainly had a healthy-sized supporting force in the away section, where Evertonians celebrated their own version of exceptionalism with a nicely-timed ironic chorus of We Only Sing When We're Winning. Answer came there none.
Moyesy was stuck in a team selection bind. He had to pick a side bearing in mind the Cup match at Sunderland. Which meant more changes. Which meant reduced time for a settled team balance. This is the price we pay for modern football......the squad game. Naturally it means uneven team performances. There are times when you feel it is a sophisticated version of kick-the-can, where, if it doesn't work, you just want to kick the fucking cat. Anyway, Jags and Phil back, and surprise surprise Gibbo, all at the expense of John Heitinga, Felli and Royston. Dark rumours swirled about Royston's absence. You felt the cat was in grave danger.
Swansea had most play up to half time and had they been sharper might have been a couple of goals in front. One chance came with a long clearance from centre mid in their own half that left their man racing through centre right one on one with Sylvain. It ended with a low, weak shot into Tim's right hand. Another, a break through in the same position and a dangerous ground cross shot booted clear by Jags in the centre. Still another, a shot narrowly wide of Tim's left post from outside centre D after a headed clearance from a corner. Swansea played neat possession footy but as at Goodison they never looked convincing; in some respects they reminded me of West Brom's naiveté under Tony Mowbray. It has served them well in their first season impetus though it could easily backfire next season when other teams have learned how to usher them to safe passing triangles and not much more. For the time being, though, they are a breath of fresh air.
We stuttered by comparison and were glad to get to half time, by which time a draw looked the likeliest outcome. None of ours looked better than listless. Once again we had a partly invisible midfield as Gibbo settled back in after injury. However, there were a couple of signs just before the break when we looked fitful - could even have fluked an undeserved goal or two.
Fortunately there was a dramatic change in attitude after half time when Felli came on for Tim after fifty seven minutes. In the last ten minutes Denis subbed for Jelly and John Heitinga for Gibbo. Not long after the restart Leon did his best chore of the day and charged down a clearance on the edge of the penalty area that rebounded to Jelavic in the clear, right side, but he scooped it over. As the pressure built gradually Gibbo came in from the right and hit a tremendous left foot angled shot brilliantly saved at the last minute. Jelavic tried an overhead return kick which Tim Cahill dived at and missed heading home by a whisker. Swansea began to totter but came back quickly when one of theirs got to a cross from the right before Jags and Tim and headed just over a yawning goal. And that was the nearest the enemy came.
A few minutes after Felli came on we got the first: Bainsey exchanged passes with Peanuts on the left and went on an angled run through the middle that took him centre right of the D, where he was obstructed. Free kick. He took it himself and did what Bainsey does, swerved it left footed up and over the wall and down into the 'keeper's left side, just under the goal frame angle. Unstoppable, brilliant, and quite the work of a master professional footballer. The home team tottered again.
Soon after Gibbo delivered a magnificent cross field pass forty metres right-to-left from our half into theirs, right on to the feet of Pienaar closing from the left. A few strides on, a shuffle onto his right foot, and a swerving shot bent low around the 'keeper's left side dive and whistled past the post by half a metre. The angle of totter increased until it was almost at failure. Felli broke up an attack midway centre in our half, knifed the ball through the middle to Jelly, from whence it promptly went left to Pienaar again clear and closing. Defenders raced back and covered his advance so he crossed it to right edge of the penalty area, Jelavic dummied a centre back out of existence, got himself clear and should have buried it. But missed.
No matter, despite furious breast-beating in the away section. Immediately afterwards, another attack down the right. From tight on the touchline and opposite their penalty area Tony Hibbert delivered a cute short pass to Felli inside the right side area. Even cuter, Felli took it to the goal line, mugged two defenders, turned inside and slid a ground pass to the right angle of the goal area and Jelavic side footed home. It was all over, though there were two more opportunities for Denis and Leon, which should have been slotted, but weren't. Unlikely as it had seemed at half time, Swansea were simply overwhelmed. It could have been four or five.
All told it was really a win for experience over enthusiasm, something which may count a lot in the replay at Sunderland. Pienaar was man of the match by a long way; I hope we manage to scrape the pennies together to re-sign him......if he wants to come. His absence in the Cup match might count a lot too. Certainly it will be no time for anyone to go invisible. If anyone does he will never be forgiven. There'll be seven thousand Royal Blues trying to ensure we get through. Fingers crossed.