Mickey Blue Eyes
Our Sunday match at nearby championship-chasing Manchester United was a mere hop, skip and jump for travelling Evertonians - the genuine core of the club - after recent football odysseys to distant places. You won't find many of them languishing in tenth-rate internet chautauquas. They don't need them. The real thing will do. But the game was a stern test of whatever pride Our Boys had left after an abject second half performance in the FA Cup semi final. By the time the Mancs loomed on the horizon our worst raw feelings had ebbed to a morose memory, though few fans, quite rightly, were ready to forget completely. One way or another the collision at Old Trafford would be fraught. It would tell us a lot about our players, and, maybe, David Moyes.
At the start of our short journey the weather was a suitable reflection of our frame of mind......low grey clouds, occasional spattering rain and a frigid cold apparently streaming in from the Arctic. Our brief glimpse of Spring died quickly weeks ago. Within ten kilometres of Manchester we were suddenly sluiced by frantic if short-lived rainstorms and, I shit you not, hailstones. Global warming in action. (You remember "global warming," it preceded the term invented by oil corporations thieves: "climate change." Nice and benign the latter, and helps divert attention from the real causes.) Not that anybody was in the mood for anything other than the game. Naturally the responsible footy and TV parties did their best to spoil the occasion for paying spectators by fixing a noon kick-off. The semi final mess was bad enough, this merely compounded it. Sooner or later this will all rebound on the dead brains that make these decisions. We're stuck with their nonsense until then.
Inside the ground, feelings around the away section concourse were flat, no buzz, the area about a quarter empty. Nevertheless, I can report an encouraging number of families, young and old. The future is safe with our young as long as we avoid utter playing or financial collapse. There is no cause for dismay. Not that it prevented us thinking we were about to be subject to a sound mullering a la Sweet Pants in the local penitentiary shower. After all, we hadn't won at Old Trafford since John Major was Prime Minister. The most frequent phrase you heard around the bars was, "Shit or bust, might as well." That was more or less how I felt. I would have been happy holding it to a two goal reverse despite the return of Steven Pienaar. Unfortunately we were now without Leighton Baines, poor demoralised Sylvain in his place. Hibbo in at right back. Our most potent threat, on our left, was halved. Prospects looked bleak.
Where have I said this before: the first half was ours. We were solid. We carved more opportunities than they did. Our teamwork was sound even without Bainsey. It looked promising. Something had to go wrong. Within a few minutes Osman had shot and header attempts. A couple of minutes later he put Nikky clear through right of the D and he should have scored, but hit a tame shot easily saved low down on their 'keeper's left. Almost immediately Osman had another go but that too missed. It was stark: we were running rings around the Mancs. It couldn't last of course and they came back without looking remotely threatening - two shots sailed harmlessly wide, all they had to offer, their first shot after ten minutes. In midfield, Felli was again immense, often killing the ball on his chest before laying it off as opponents were trying to head it. Meanwhile, Gibbo, one-paced or not, picked up the loose stuff. It was all very promising. Our dominance was so obvious the homesters were as quiet as mice and the game sometimes had the feel of a practice match.
Then we scored midway through the half and you became even more suspicious fate was about to try to knee you in the scrotum. A quite magnificent, patient move it was too, involving seven players. It began with Sylvain winning a heading contest near the halfway touchline in their half, sending it forward, where Nikky won another header and sent it inside to Pienaar, who laid it lateral inside to Felli, who did the same onward to Osman, a slight touch backwards to Gibbo, then out wide, perfectly weighted, to Tony Hibbert on the right touchline. A few paces on and Hibbo sent over an equally perfect cross to the far edge of their goal area, Nikky got up to it and headed it back, over and across and inside the far upright. The Mancs had been opened up like an old can of sardines. Really, brilliant is the only word. It was perfect geometry.
The enemy came back and pressed without looking potent. Our biggest danger came from a Scholes hit-and-hope hard shot into a crowded goalmouth; it took a deflection or two before Tim clawed it back with his left hand while diving in the other direction. Mostly, though, they were kept out of the penalty area and reduced to mere probing in occasional rain drizzles. Ironically, when they equalised five minutes before half time it came from loose defending in the centre where we had been strong. A hopeful cross from their left got to the centre of the goal area where it should have been headed clear by Phil Neville or John Heitinga. But it wasn't, and Rooney got between them and headed home. It actually hit him on the side of his head and could have gone anywhere. Galling, and uh-oh. Nevertheless there was still time for Nikky and Osman to each have a snap shot within a minute of each other before half time.
One feature of the game was the unerring ability of the referee - someone named Mike Jones - to show less courage than a drink of water every time there was a 50-50 clash for the ball. You just knew he wasn't going to award us much of anything. And he didn't. Which is why Sylvain got booked for a quite innocuous foul two minutes before half time. The nation-wide cliché that you never get a fair deal at The Theatre of Dweebs is only a cliché because it's true. Jones was merely the latest officiating coward, as bad in that way as mainstream media are craven in their gutless always-on-the-winning-side coverage of The Brand, though even he couldn't avoid booking their left back a minute into the second half. The culprit had been niggling all afternoon without a word said.
So ten minutes into the second half the enemy got a second, and then a third three minutes later. Both were bad, scatty goals to let in. The first came after an attack down our left in which Peanuts, doubling back, was on the ground, plainly injured but deliberately ignored by the referee. The resulting diagonal cross into the D led to heading ping pong and a lousy, lazy clearance from Osman that, again, could have gone anywhere. Eventually the ball fell to their man at centre D with a clear shot and he couldn't miss into Tim's top left corner. A few minutes later our entire left side defence stood still, didn't get a tackle in, and again their man couldn't miss from close in. Poor Sylvain looked like a fish out of water for this one; I said immediately he should come off, a left back he isn't. Naturally, Phil Neville got booked between the goals. By now it was sunny but felt as though it was raining. Déjà-vu loomed.
Leon had reached his usual tired-and-vanishing level with just under half an hour left and so got subbed by Jimmy Mac. I missed the PA announcement and didn't recognise him at first, thicker round the waist and balding. But you have to say he made an improvement, however slight. Four minutes after the sub we scored the best goal of the match. Another superb move from our half, left side: Pienaar wide left, on to Gibbo inside on the half way line and moving forward, straight through to Felli, turn and across to Jimmy Mac at mid right, a beautifully weighted diagonal pass down the right to Hibbo. No touch needed, a first time cross where the parabola ended on Felli's right boot and he volleyed it home first time low down on their 'keeper's left. Sublime. You thought....could we?
Answer, no we couldn't, though a minute later another piece of pure geometry sliced them open down our right where Felli and Jimmy Mac combined to lay on a chance for Pienaar right of the D. Their 'keeper had to make a good save. So of course the enemy go and score a minute later, again from our left where we were as uncertain as a virgin on her wedding night. Hopelessly unbalanced, we left enough space to drive a bus through, which duly happened, and Rooney had an easy task to side foot home. It looked even worse when they hit Tim's right post shortly after. So, the coup de grace, no?
To our amazement, no.
Heads didn't go down and Our Boys kept fighting. Another goal looked possible. It was that kind of game. A third duly arrived with under ten minutes left, this one prime opportunism by Nikky. Jimmy Mac again played an important role in the build up, switching passes and positions across centre mid before it went left to Peanuts, then inside to Phil Neville in the middle. He paused and dug up an air ball for Felli right side of the penalty spot where two Mancs tried to take him on in unequal aerial combat. Unequal for them, that is. He towered over the two of them until it ping-ponged back to the penalty spot. Whence came Nikky to bladder it right footed on the half volley for his second and our third. Immediately, Moyesy subbed Tim Cahill for an obviously exhausted Sylvain. But you could see the Mancs wilt too. Surely.....not.....?
Two minutes later, incredibly, we got an equaliser. Another utterly brilliant move the Mancs could do nothing about. This one from the left, where Tim, Phil and Peanuts made a mesmerising triangle - including a cheeky back heel from Pienaar - before Phil slid it through to Felli at the left angle of the goal area. A quick turn left a defender dead as per the Swansea away game and it went inside to the tiny South African and he stuck it home. 4-4. A complete stranger landed on my head, which was some feat because I was lying on the shoulder of some other stranger. Bodies everywhere.
Still it wasn't over. Somehow the referee had found five minutes added time, which was absurd but par for the course. It meant Ferdinand had a chance to swing a hopeful left boot at the edge of the penalty area and bring a stunning instinctive save out of Tim Howard high on his right. Then the final whistle went. And with it, maybe, Man United's chance of retaining the title.
It was a wonderful game, everything football is about, ebb and flow, great individual skill and teamwork. The kind of game, had it been played at the Nou Camp or the Bernabeu, that would have had Brit media engaged in mass onanism. And since we all made heavy criticism of our performance in the FA Cup semi final, let us be equally unstinting in praising this one. It was a great tribute to David Moyes and his team after the awful disappointment of Wembley. This fan had feared the worst. Instead, they provided the best. How long can Nikky Jelavic and Felli keep up this standard?
I get the feeling this is a watershed for everybody involved. I have no idea which way fortunes will flow from here. Fingers crossed it will be upstream..........