CAR CRASH ON SUNSET BOULEVARD
Mickey Blue Eyes
It is officially British Summer Time as of 12.00 am Sunday, 31st March. Try not to laugh in the face of evidence to the contrary. But once again we have been relatively weather-lucky; while large tracts of the country have disappeared under snow and freezing sleet blowing in from alien-occupied sarf east, our harbour haven has escaped the worst of it. Saturday match-day dawned brilliant, invigorating, clear and sunny, if quite cold.
The home match V Stoke City kicked off at the stupid time of 5.30 pm, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch. Hence it started at dusk and finished after sunset. Temperatures dropped in proportion to the Sun's arc, quite appropriate when you consider the opposition, of whom the best we can say is, "It takes all sorts." Any team who elects to look and play like a chain-gang of tattooed Summer Twats deserves all the criticism it gets, which meant it was always going to be a hard match and a hard spectacle. There was never a prospect of el Classico.
No, delight is not a notion when Stoke are the opposition. Well, not unless you relish rounding Cape Horn in a rowing dingy in winter, or quaffing in any of the seedy ale-houses filled with sweaty bodies near Goodison Park. Apparently it all adds to "de atmosphere," or something.....Well, yes, in a certain way I suppose it does.
Naturally you cannot avoid a twinge for warmer climes, sunny, smiling faces, the aroma of blossoms, and the beauty of turquoise tides: sadly, County Road has none of those. Steel shutters, chip shop litter and "To Let" signs aren't a real option. Playing Stoke does that to you.
Moreover we were without this season's two most effective players, Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar. In their place, Jags back earlier than anticipated and Nik Jelavić to partner Vic Anichebe up front, Tim Howard in place of Jan Mucha, and what looked like a 3-5-2 formation. Presumably the latter was to add physical strength through numbers in midfield to counter Stoke's notorious bully boys in an area where we are equally notoriously short of staying power. It worked, but at the expense of footy spectacle. It was a scatty, irritating match, Stoke as vile as expected, Us unable to impose. Our Boys refused to be intimidated, which was gratifying....but often retaliated, which wasn't. You can't have everything.
Actually, the enemy was the most effective team in the first quarter hour as our new formation tried to settle in. After two minutes Tim had to make a superb instinctive close-in save that justified his return; the ball rebounded to one of their shaved head hulks for an easy chance he hit against the bar and back out. During this phase it looked like we might not survive the loss of Felli and Peanuts. It was all hustle and long balls while our crowded centre midfield barged into each other or misplaced passes. At this rate, you thought, we're going to get done. Still, there were occasional flashes of right side attacks via Seamus Coleman; Bainsey missed Peanuts badly and made no impression until later, and only in spasms.
Then we settled suddenly and got some team shape. Nik and Vic looked promising, the rapier and the cutlass. Our first shot came after fifteen minutes when Vic tried a long punt that expired long before it covered its twenty five metres. Nik got in an instinctive close range header straight at their 'keeper. We gained a few corners that came to nothing. Kevin Mirallas began to range freely across midfield, now on the left, now on the right, but - good as he was - unable to make the same understanding with Bainsey as Peanuts, but better with Seamus. Nevertheless we finally had traction of sorts. Stoke began to wilt.
Breakthrough finally came just under the half hour. Richly ironic, it sprung from a Stoke attack down our right and a high cross deep into the goal area, where Tim punched it clear under challenge. It soared out to Kevin Mirallas at slightly left centre mid in the middle of a cluster of four Stoke players, and all ours back in defence. At first it looked innocuous as he battled for the ball with one of their convict heads. Then he won the physicals and broke away, dribbling right-footed. Suddenly it looked on even though sixty metres out and still in our half. He accelerated and angled right, taking yet another shaved head with him; then he cut back sharp left, turned the hapless one inside out and broke clear through to left centre of the enemy penalty area, convicts closing from all sides. It made no difference: he changed feet and slotted with his left despite their 'keeper getting a hand to it. A brilliant individual goal quite out of keeping with the match.
Our Boys mostly controlled the rest of the half without really dominating. But still there could be no settling into a full rhythm. Later, to emphasise the point, the same shaved head that hit the bar tried an angled shot from their left of our penalty area and Tim had to make another fine save, and they missed a clear headed chance dead centre after a cross from their right split Sylvain and Johnny. As always, one-nil looked as uncertain as the temperament of a Springer Spaniel.
Unsurprisingly the second half turned into trench warfare of niggle, push and shove and trips with the occasional high "tackle." Try as you may, you can never have sympathy for Stoke. They won't let you. Like the ale-house or internet buffoon they insist on shooting themselves in the head, reloading, and shooting again. Like the Wimbledon or Leeds of yore, they know no better. They are the current football meisters of sado-masochism. There is no accounting for how this happens to teams; it just seems to evolve out of circumstances, then they live out the worst aspects until they morph into a monster and live down to the publicity. Then the shaved heads, no-necks and narrow foreheads manifest. It becomes corporeal in the shape of a Huth or a Walters or any of the others. You watch them as you would a car crash, fascinated and horrified. There is an inevitability about it.
Still, we kept plugging away, which was encouraging. If we couldn't finish them off, they couldn't force an equaliser. It was tense, not pretty, but there were compensations. The chief one was the continuing return to form of Kevin Mirallas after recovering from a bad injury. Once again Vic Anichebe fought for everything, this time in parallel with Nik Jelavić. It helped take some of the weight off midfield and by stretching play helped prevent Stoke from building up their little groups of bullies. In other words Moyesy's tactics were spot on, and this time without our best two players.
With such a narrow lead the closing phase was always going to be nervous. We had two good chances from identical free kicks at the left edge of the D, one of which was brilliantly saved left-handed. Stoke made their subs and promptly had a couple of headed chances and an angled shot, all of which were close enough to make you gulp.
But we kept discipline and shape for a change. It was a good win, hard earned. In this fixture it was probably the best we could hope for. Still, we are in the mix for fourth, just. How we regret those points dropped to the likes of Reading, Norwich and Fulham; in spite of that Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal are looking over their shoulders....and we are due to play them all away.........