THE PERFECT DAY
Mickey Blue Eyes
I've probably supported football for far too long. But I love it, always have......so that's that, there's no way back short of a major match-fixing or financial scandal. On balance it has given me a great deal more enjoyment than disappointment; you take the rough with the smooth, the bad sequences with the good, the poor eras with the successful, and great natural players with earnest professionals. People and events come and go. After a while, it assumes a broad rhythm similar to natural seasons of the year. If you have any common sense you become philosophical about your own instincts for The Beautiful Game. You keep your own counsel.
Then there are derby games. That means almost any conception of "philosophy" goes out of the window. There's nothing like them. For me, our derby games remain the games, even in the face of deteriorating attitudes and a sport that often seems on the verge of self-destruction. Up to Saturday's FA Cup semi-final these clashes never failed to have me almost burning with tension in the lead up, and during play. As we all know, "quiet" isn't the usual adjective for them. But during the previous week, no exaggeration, I felt for the first time in my life a sort of odd, quiet confidence. It had nothing to do with form, for that means nothing in any derby match. It was just one of those things. Now it's difficult to stay quiet when your adrenaline is pumping at full pressure, but I managed it.
Needless to say, everywhere in our beloved city the usual psychological games were in play by both sides: "I don't care about derbies anymore" (nonsense, but advance protection), "The game's sold out to money" (which it was the moment it turned professional over a hundred years ago...so you think your whining self pity is new? Ah grow up will yer), "We'll get battered" (raddled with fear, additional advance protection in case it came true), "You couldn't make a good team out of both of them" (an each way bet that can't lose), and so on. Some of it is quite ingenious.
However, what I didn't want was a penalties decider, not against them. I wouldn't be able to watch. I would suffer agonies. My composure, my "quiet confidence," would go completely. I would be as big a gibbering wreck as anybody else. Normal neuroses would be restored. No, that wouldn't happen, it'd be sorted before the final whistle.
So, looking forward to The Perfect Day - a Cup semi-final win over the rednecks - we set out at 4.00 am. The Bus was a two-decker containing sixty eight Evertonians full of optimism and songs from the off, smiles everywhere, a great spread of ages from the very young to the very old. As we hit the Midlands the sun came up. Plainly, joyous Perfection was on the way.
Then we were on the M5. There was a loud bang and The Bus trundled across an adjacent slip road to a narrow wedge of hard shoulder. It was a blow out of the front near side tyre. We were obliged to sit tight since there was no embankment to unload on to. An hour and a half later the tyre was replaced by an emergency response team and we were on our way again but the mood had slightly deflated. Now it was obvious we would get there late and there would be no time to find a pub that was anything less than an imitation sardine can.
Eventually we arrived with just over an hour to kick off and went straight in and stayed on the concourse with a few beers, chat, photographs and greeting of familiar faces everywhere. Prices were the usual London/Wembley scam at £4.50 for a bottle of Yank sponsor beer that tasted like rainwater strained through a sock filled with gnu turds. Still, there was a tremendous turn out of optimistic Evertonians. Some were of course a twitching, nervous wreck but most were really up for it and determined. Inside, the stadium was a tremendous sight, split right down the middle, equal number of Royal Blues and the others, plenty of colour, noise and songs.
We lined up with Tim Howard, Phil Neville, John Heitinga, Sylvain Distin, Leighton Baines, Leon Osman, Darron Gibson, Marouane Fellaini, Magaye Gueye, Tim Cahill and Nikica Jelavic, bench - Vic Anichebe, Seamus Coleman, Jimmy McFadden, Denis Stracqualursi, Phil Jagielka, Tony Hibbert and Marcus Hahnemann. Seamus came on for Maggy with twenty minutes left and Vic for Bainsey with three minutes left.
The first half was ours, no question, though the enemy had the first shot after three minutes, a clear chance hit over the bar. After that, Our Boys played it confidently and tightly for the half. The Perfect Day continued, then heightened with the first goal to us midway through the half. An attack down our right side led to a redneck making a hash of a clearance, which rebounded to Nikky in the centre of the penalty area and he buried it first time under their tyro 'keeper. Then he hit a free kick narrowly if tamely wide. For long periods we were camped in their half and threatened another breakthrough that never quite came. Confident Blues celebrated in the seats.
Half time down on the concourse you would have thought we already had it won. I still felt quiet confidence but said to everybody it was still only half time. The consensus was that all we needed to do was dig in, that the enemy had nothing, we would get a second and that would be that.
Then the second half started and it was more of the same for maybe the first quarter hour. Then Sylvain - arguably our best player this season - made a mess of a back pass and let their man in to equalise. Then Our Boys simply stopped playing: it wasn't that the tempo stepped up, or the enemy had something extra to offer...we just stopped playing for a reason only a sports psychologist might be able to explain. I certainly can't. But there's no question we turned into a shambles that couldn't get a tackle in or make a straightforward pass. We hardly crossed the half way line, beyond which Nikky often cut a solitary forlorn figure.
Ten minutes from the end unsurprisingly we let in a winner when Seamus committed a stupid foul and from the free kick the ball hit a donkey with a pony tail on the back of his head and it went in off the pony tail. And that was it.
There's no point criticising individuals because Our Boys simply funked it in the last half hour. Only Tim Howard and Nikky came out of it with any credit. The rest were a playing disgrace, not an ounce of fight in them when it was most needed, perhaps because we had no local lads to understand what these games really mean. That last half hour was every bit as bad as the capitulation in the analfield derby. There could be no excuses because it wasn't as though the enemy had anything special to offer except for maybe two or three positions. In short, Our Boys waved a white flag and gave up. They let the fans and the club down. Very badly.
On The Bus and homeward we passed Stafford service station. There was a loud bang and The Bus trundled on to the hard shoulder. This time it was a blow out of the front off side tyre. We disgorged on to the embankment and scrambled to the top in case of a disastrous shunt. We were there for two hours of freezing cold until the tyre was replaced. The Bus had hardly moved more than a hundred metres when Terry came on the PA and said the police had recommended replacement of a rear tyre too. So we went on to Keele service station and replacement of a third tyre. Half an hour later we were back on board and homeward bound again. The Bus finally unloaded at 11.20 pm. I dropped Neil off and got home at 12.45 am.
And so ended a perfect day.