WOULD, COULD, EINSTEIN HAVE HELPED?
Mickey Blue Eyes
I give up on this footy lark.
Last week we were the kind of merde that gives merde a bad name. Last week we were deservedly routed 3-0 by Wigan Athletic; this week, down to ten men, we defeated champions Manchester City 2-0. Last week we were worse than pathetic; this week Our Boys were tremendous and spirited. If anyone discovers the formula for this crazy chemistry they could solve all human problems. Buggered if I can understand any of it.
In the lead up to the game many of us were glum and resigned to a sound pasting. The situation wasn't helped by inevitable reappearance in your local pub of panic merchants and opportunist haters of David Moyes, Bill Kenwright and perm-any-one-from-eleven-players: only their psychiatrists can explain why they vent their poison instead of fucking off to die. The rest of us, pissed off with a distraught Cup exit, shaped up to the prospect of an additional mauling from Tevez, Toure and co. It seemed our once hugely promising season was about to go down the toilet with our "local" newspaper. It didn't bear thinking about. Optimists were patted on the head and pointed toward the nearest pharmacy. Pre-match, fans stared into their pint glasses undecided whether to dive in or quaff themselves to death. Maybe seppuku was preferable. We have seen it all before, or think we have.
Now, we all know the crowd at The Old Lady are moody, unpredictable bastards. Rather like Moyesy himself, actually. You can never tell how they will react to adversity. But the one thing you can safely advise the opposition and the referee at Goodison is to not annoy them; it is like waking up a snoring monster. Once aroused they are positively scary. I think we are sort of proud of this. Stupid banners and idiotic songs are eschewed in favour of the kind of vocals and foul language that would blister maritime paint. For the City match I wondered if our fans would sit on their hands and moo quietly as they often do, or be up for it. Against the odds, it was the latter.
Moyesy preferred Darron Gibson to a demoralised Phil Neville, Vic Anichebe to a frustrated Nik Jelavić. This time he got it exactly right after properly admitting he got it wrong last week. Then again, you are only wrong when you are beaten, and right when you win: that bit is simple and doesn't require punditry, diagrams and columns of figures. Mostly, football is as unforgiving as the iron laws of nature and physics. If only human beings would comply. Anyway, we won and won well and decisively, a display as opposite to the previous week as we could wish for. Team and manager were outstanding and deserve full credit for restoring their professional pride. We fans felt pretty good too.
As usual at such times the first tackle is even more important. Win that and the odds are you settle faster than your enemy. Our Boys won the first three tackles and it immediately lifted everybody as the air brightened and felt more spring-like. You would expect City to be more skilful given the money they have spent, and so they were, though strangely scatty in their team work. Even so, Jan Mucha needed to be in outstanding form to keep us in the game and made several brilliant saves to protect the lead. By comparison our combination play was as good as it has been for most of the season and that is saying something, an absolute opposite of the Wigan debacle.
City could scarcely muster a threat in the opening phase, during which time they were completely disconcerted to find the combination of Seamus Coleman and Kevin Mirallas even more threatening than Bainsey-Pienaar. This stretched the play nicely and led to an inevitable strike from Mirallas, wrongly eliminated through a bad offside decision. The chance came after a left side Bainsey free kick was headed out to Gibbo, who spread it wide right to incoming Seamus, another good low cross again headed back out to right of the D, headed back in again by Leon to right of the goal area, and superKev cracked it home left footed. It had loomed for ten minutes or so. You thought, "Uh oh. One of those days?"
Then came a turning point. Both City and the referee annoyed the crowd. The monster woke up, infuriated. Firstly, Osman was fouled from behind by Tevez but ignored by the useless whistler. Then Peanuts - once again on the end of some rough treatment - did the same to one of theirs and got booked. It was the kind of maddening refereeing inconsistency that has scarred this season so badly, easily the worst of recent years.
But after half an hour Our Boys got their just rewards. It emphasised how footy really is a simple game. John Heitinga and Gibbo combined well in midfield for the Irishman to play it wide and forward to his countryman Seamus near the right touchline. He got to the right angle of the penalty area and rolled it back into clear space in front of Leon Osman and he smacked it first-time left-footed from just outside the centre of the D. The ball described an arc with an arc-rise of maybe two metres before whistling away from Joe Hart to inside his top right corner. Wrong-footed, the best he could do was wave it goodbye.
Meanwhile, everybody pressed forward, none more so than Vic Anichebe, who seems to have learned to use his physique against the opposition instead of rolling the grass with it. Felli had a point to prove too after his stupid petulance the previous week, and thankfully he duly delivered. A few minutes after the goal he was blatantly obstructed for a clear penalty you could see even from the Street End. Naturally, it wasn't given. Either side of it Tevez had two narrow misses, one Mucha saved well from our right, the other from the opposite side that missed the post by a feather thickness. The warning was potent.
The second half was just as frenetic, just as poorly refereed. Felli was booked for an infringement no different to anything else committed by the enemy. But there can be no complaint about the sending off of Peanuts after an hour. At centre mid, he raked the shin of one of theirs and had to go. Still, there was more than an element of frustration in the foul; he takes fearful physical punishment every week and usually gets up and gets on with it. So we faced the last half hour with just ten men. Survival didn't look likely. Understandably, Steven Naismith replaced Kevin Mirallas as a right side defensive reinforcement. It was all hands to the pumps.
A few minutes later things looked even more ominous. Mucha had to make a quite brilliant double-save first from a close in Tevez deflection and then across the goal to block an acute angled blast from Milner. You had to do a double take to see it was the same Mucha. To our surprise, Our Boys didn't funnel back. They kept going forward when they could, now down the right where Seamus caused problems every time he got forward. From one such raid we got a right side corner which Sylvain Distin headed just over. Then another tremendous left side block by Mucha and a superb headed clearance by Seamus kept us in it. Then Tevez - who else - slalomed in from their left to left of the D and smacked a shot that coulda/woulda/shoulda been a penalty after it hit both Leon and Felli: I think Ozzy conned the ref by telling him "I was outside the area," which was true enough, but I don't think he handled it, whereas Felli, who did, was a metre inside the area. Given our luck this season I couldn't give a shit that this time the hapless referee screwed up to our advantage.
Nik came on for Vic for the final few minutes with the crowd in uproar and City on the attack. In the final minute in one such attack down our right Naismith got in a tackle on their man, got a fortunate rebound and then fed it infield to Felli at centre mid half way in our half and with acres of empty space for him to run forward into and City short on defenders. Nik scissored right, Felli went slightly left and drew their man with him (shades of the Sunderland replay last season) and then gave it right forward to a temporarily unmarked Croatian. But a defender managed to get back and it looked as though the chance would be lost at the right edge of the D. Instead, Nik jinked inside, made a bit more room for his left foot and then took the advice of the Street End and smacked one at goal. It flicked off a defender, sailed over Joe Hart and settled in the back of the net. The Old Lady wet itself. Nik, greatly admired for his nonstop efforts even when not scoring, sprinted to the corner flag sans blouse. You couldn't blame him.
So this season we did to Manchester City's league chances what we did to Manchester United's last season. There is some satisfaction to be had after all. Wistfully, we wonder why we didn't do it the week before. Maybe Einstein could have explained it.