OUR CUP RUNNETH ON, STILL
Mickey Blue Eyes
Some years ago I stopped going to football matches in the north east because policing methods made it a worthless experience. But Terry, inestimable Bus organiser, persuaded me times have changed, so I tried again this season.....only to walk straight into a treble entrance check at Newcastle's ground where I was assured they were rehearsing the Olympics security system. Which meant I gave the league match at Sunderland a miss. All of which was a pity; I always enjoyed footy chat with north east locals who were at least as friendly as any other fans, loonies excluded. Then along came the Cup sixth round clash with Sunderland, then a home draw that took us away for a replay. How could I possibly miss it with a Wembley semi-final again at stake?
I went, of course, along with an Evertonian Grand Armée of seven thousand aided by free travel provided by the club. And it was a perfectly gorgeous day, temperature perfect and not a cloud in the sky. The Bus was as full and cheerful as ever and buzzing with footy anticipation: you wouldn't miss it for the world This helped an unfathomable sense of optimism I felt about the match since the draw. I couldn't tell you why, I just did. It transpired the north east bizzies weren't as bad as their previous. In our case only one police car showed up at our stop on the A1 and he couldn't have been friendlier. Maybe they have changed, maybe they're just underfunded and can't afford a caricature of a police state. Time will tell.
A journey time of four hours ended in a parking spot opposite the stadium. We had entered the city on its west side and crossed to the north bank of the River Wear and then turned east to Sunderland's new cathedral on a high point, the Stadium of Light. Both banks of the river are lined with trees and tidy if unremarkable low-rise suburbs and the usual smattering of chain stores and car salesrooms. It was pleasant enough to reinforce contempt for Policy Exchange, the notorious Tory neocon propaganda "institute" that a few years ago recommended abandonment of Sunderland......and our beloved city too. Tories are like that: horrible bastards.
It was too much messing about to find an uncrowded ale house so we lingered in the sunshine for a bit and waited for the gates to open. It was a pleasant wait, both sets of fans mixing without the slightest hint of nonsense, best highlighted by a Sunderland fan who walked past us leading two large white dogs wearing Mackem footy shirts. When someone shouted over, "They all yizv got on the bench?" He grinned and shouted back, "It's all we'll need, marra." It set the tone nicely. Once inside, a few beers, and we clustered in a footy chat bouquet, which is always one of the best parts of match day. Imagination runs riot, yarns swapped, issues thrashed out, illusions dispelled or manufactured according to mood, piss taken, expectations rise and fall, and loonies are excluded. I love it all, and so do all genuine footy fans. The day that goes will be the day the game has no worth. The computer/TV generation have no idea what they are missing.
The Stadium of Light is a fine elliptical stadium, much better than nearby St. James's Park. For one thing, it is nearly symmetrical and has room to expand its second tier. For another, the terrace rake appears to be slightly steeper and provides a better backcloth to the spectacle. The overall affect is of greater intimacy and connection between players and spectators. When you add in famous north east feelings for the game the place fairly crackles for an important match. The football writer John MacAdam once opined that mining areas had that in common - after a week down the pits what better way to release your spirits than athletic competition in free air? Plainly, miners' descendants have inherited the instinct.
Not that they had it all their own way. As match time neared, the away section concourse filled up and Royal Blue songs reached an ear-stopping crescendo. It was obvious the homesters were in for a very big surprise if they thought Evertonian quiescence in the first match would travel to Sunderland. That simply isn't the way we are, as they were about to find out. Crowd-wise we're different and old fashioned, and we like it that way. Once we flooded into the seats our lot were irrepressible and raucous throughout......no Shall We Sing a Song For You Julie Andrews-Lahndan shit for our boys. This was the real full-blooded McCoy.
Accordingly Moyesy had to pick his best team and in-form players. Given our squad it was a no brainer. So: Tim Howard, Phil Neville, John Heitinga, Sylvain Distin, Leighton Baines, Leon Osman, Darron Gibson, Marouane Fellaini, Magaye Gueye, Tim Cahill, Nikicar Jelavic, played in the usual 4-4-1-1. I thought if we were going to have weak spots it would be on the mid flanks. But I was wrong. There weren't any weaknesses.
And right from the start the players were focused and determined. So were Sunderland, but it wasn't their fault they couldn't get a grip. They were just outplayed all over the park. The opening quarter hour set the pattern for the match. We could and should have had two goals during that time. First, Felli won a tackle on the right half way touch line and fed Leon ten metres forward. A quick swivel and through ball split two Mackem defenders and got Tim clear into the penalty area right side at a sharp angle, but he only hit a tame low shot into their 'keeper's bootlaces. Then a left side short corner by Gibbo to Maggy, who stopped it dead. Gibbo followed up with a classic right-footed near-post cross met by a typical Tim spring heeled Jack header just outside the goal area. Their 'keeper made a brilliant instinctive save similar to that which denied Johnny in the closing minutes of the first match. Normally this would happen and you would go, "Uh oh. Is this going to be one of those nights?" Strangely, nobody did.
We were particularly strong in centre midfield, where Felli was completely dominant. He was first to everything, while Sunderland players kept bouncing off him. If he and Gibbo can keep this up there won't be many centre mid combinations to match them; they are completely different in their playing styles and abilities yet complement each other instinctively. It isn't the kind of playing chemistry you see very often. I hope it isn't a temporary accident. The enemy couldn't get near them and, wonderfully, it began to irritate the home crowd. Which only made our lot more gleeful.
After twenty minutes we scored a goal that looked likely from the beginning. Felli, who else, started it with an interception in the middle of the centre circle, took it twenty odd metres forward to the left edge of the penalty area, then released Maggy out wide. No second invitation required, he headed for the goal line and made a ground cross met perfectly at the left goal area angle by Jelly with another side foot buried past the 'keeper's right hand. It all looks so simple when everything is done without hesitation.
Of course Sunderland weren't going to take it all quietly and they made valiant efforts to battle their way back into the game. Their problem, though, was they had nobody to organise and direct their frantic efforts. Time after time they outpaced themselves or misplaced a pass at a vital moment. A few corners led to nothing except to an increase in decibels from their fans. The nearest they got was a quick raid down their left and a Bainsey type excellent cross that momentarily nonplussed our defence into a couple of rebounds that could have gone anywhere until their man lifted it over the bar. Apart from that, no threat worth the name.
The second half was even more one sided and at one stage the Mackems looked as though they were about to completely unravel in the face of nonstop pressure. Our Boys were in no mood for mercy. Still, it was a Cup tie. Part of the glory game is being edgy almost all the time. You never know if disaster is waiting just a few seconds away. For instance, we had a left side corner taken by Maggy. Two Mackems attempted to head clear, both failed, and it ricocheted backwards from one head to the other before dropping perfectly for Leon two metres to the right of the D. Without hesitation he lashed it back on the volley, dipping and swerving toward the top right of the goal. But it carried over.
After just over ten minutes of further torture the enemy decided to do something about their midfield. A former pinkies Greek grock was having a stinker so he was replaced. Five minutes later the lad who came on was dispossessed by Felli - yes, him again - at centre left mid. A few more long legged strides got him to the left edge of the penalty area where he drew two defenders to him, waited perfectly, then stuck a pass between the two of them to unmarked Jelly. The 'keeper did exactly the right thing and drove Nikky wide right, couldn't stop him getting in a quick shot but managed to deflect it away from goal into the middle. By then the sub who had just come on and lost the ball had raced back to cover, somehow lost his footing, tried to clear, and his trailing foot knocked it home. What was I saying about disaster?
The pot kept boiling. Sunderland hit a post after a corner. Then at the other end a defender completely lost his bearings and made a back pass that went straight to Tim on our right. He did a Felli, went into the penalty area, drew the defenders to him and then played it inside to Nikky, again completely unmarked. Well, it's game shot, isn't it? But it wasn't. Left footed, he missed. A few minutes later there was a bout of aerial ping pong that ended with Bainesy on the goal line and a clear crossing opportunity. Which he took, straight to Nikky, again unmarked. Again, it's game shot isn't it? Er, no. Their 'keeper made yet another brilliant close-in instinctive save. The Mackems looked on the verge of a nervous breakdown on and off the pitch.
There was still time for the enemy to make a last dash for goal, clear through on the right and into the penalty area. It should have been buried. It wasn't, because Tim smothered it. By then the home fans had almost emptied out in despair. That was game shot. After the final whistle the team came over to the away section arm-in-arm. It was difficult to see who relished it more, team or fans. It was that kind of night. You felt sorry for those Evertonians who weren't there.
So now we anticipate a semi final against the pinkies. Of which, more anon.