EVERYONE JUST PAWN IN GAME OF LIFE*
Mickey Blue Eyes
*Due homage to Mel Brooks
It is sometimes claimed, an obvious exaggeration, that if you live long enough you see everything. As a veteran football fan you too tend to get blasé about events on and off the field: a little twist here and there and you figure lazily you have seen it all before. But you never have. Hence my eternal delight in the sport and its attendant crankiness. For instance, I never thought I would see a human being actually sock a horse on the jaw á là Mongo in Blazing Saddles. Yet there he was on camera, a Geordie, in the wake of their recent derby 0-3 disaster with Sunderland, out in the street, trying to spark a police horse while other Mongos in Newcastle shirts trashed their own city and its polizei. Even Mel Brooks at his finest would have blanched.
Prior to that Sunderland had appointed self-confessed-then-denied Italian fascist Paolo Di Canio as manager in place of weary-looking Martin O'Neill. When a political storm blew up Di Canio offered to resign before he had attended a single match, but was refused. Seventeen kilometres down the road last September Newcastle gave their manager Alan Pardew an eight years long contract. Meanwhile both clubs plummeted steadily toward relegation. A few weeks ago both of them let in six goals within a few days of each other...in Sunderland's case following a 1-0 win over Us that virtually finished Our European hopes. Plainly the north east has entered an era surreal even by their turbulent standards. You wonder what Hieronymus Bosch would make of it, or perhaps Ronald Searle or Gerald Scarfe, maybe Andy Warhol. But wait. There is more.
Last week David Moyes cashed in his managerial chips and decided to move at season end to Manchester United after eleven years with Us. This fan was unsurprised by his exit (see previous opinion essay, to be followed post-season by an epitaph) but startled by his destination. There was something decidedly odd about the whole affair and its timing. Not necessarily anything sinister, just peculiar that it happened with only two matches left in the season. Like most I find it difficult to believe the episode blew up and was resolved in forty-eight hours. Why the hurry? Then again.....this is football and professional sport. Machiavellian weird is not unusual.
One can only imagine it diverted internet message board yoyos from portrait painting with a shaving brush and a trowel - But I wouldn't know. The forum thing long ago lost my interest. By then early mortifyingly-funny novelty had worn off as banal hatreds and psychoses replaced humour. Last time I looked, years past, it had gestated into a strange Newspeak sludge: cyber sewers were full. Gawd knows what it looks like now. Still, if you lift a manhole you should expect to see (what Billy Connolly called) "wee jobbies" floating by. Manholes are best left in place.
Now Our footy cycle turns again, soon without David Moyes. As usual the past is prologue, and We move on, as We must. Naturally it made for a curious backdrop to the home match with West Ham. You wondered how the crowd would react to events. After all, many fans, bless them, look for simple solutions, while still others, and bless them too, seek complication where none exists; put them together and you might have a Goodison human Petri dish. In fact it was a football-memorable spectacle, occasionally emotional. Yes, there are still times when cynics and miseries of professional sport are simply brushed aside. This was one of them.
The weather dawned mournful, overcast grey clouds and spattering rain. February English weather in May. It seemed appropriate, but nobody appears to have told the fans; it was a full house radiant with expectation, initially quiet, then hugely raucous, Goodison at its best. Later, the rain fell in sheets but it only seemed to galvanise everybody on and off the pitch. Overall, the team performance can only be described as quite brilliant as they almost obliterated a West Ham team hapless even by their familiar standards. In the end it could easily have been victory by six or seven goals, a fitting tribute to David Moyes final days. Only the flying Finn Jaaskelainen prevented a complete rout...a magnificent goalkeeping performance.
We were at full strength for this one, so the signs were ominous for West Ham even in the early minutes with Leon Osman outstanding with several sleight-of-feet dribbles that almost turned them over. It was only a matter of time at this rate and sure enough the first goal took only five minutes, the kind of on-the-ground perfect footy geometry that justifies The Beautiful Game: a clearance from Bainsey at left back to the centre circle, a quick tippy-tappy that left the ball at Felli's feet, advancing left - the last thing any enemy wants to see - out to Bainsey wide left in their half, a quick check back to leave a defender sliding on his arse, inside to Peanuts on the edge of the box, sideways to Kevin Mirallas centre D, sidefoot home on the 'keeper's right. Beautiful stuff, pure School of Science. The Old Lady almost purred.
Minutes later Seamus combined brilliantly down the right with Mirallas who eventually transferred it to Vic Anichebe and he swivelled on his right and hit it left footed just past their right post by a whisker. Before the enemy could settle Mirallas came dribbling in from the left, weaved through to the same right of D position and cracked one in that Vic tried to divert but only hit against Jaaskelainen at close range. Then West Ham broke away and Tim had to make a superb save of his own low down on his left; it was one of only two chances they had all afternoon.
It was one way traffic in the second half too. Attacks down both wings devastated the enemy defence time and again, particularly on the right where Seamus Coleman seemed to shred them at will. But it was a long cross by Bainsey from the left that almost undid them again after it went over everyone's head and Osman at the far post cut the grass with a close in effort/cross that somehow stayed out.
The second wasn't long delayed. It came just short of sixty minutes when Gibbo did his usual tidy up job left mid and knifed one inside their right back, Mirallas was on it in a flash, closed in from the left, got to left of the D and smacked one that took a flick off a defender, one bounce off the wet pitch, and sailed over even Jaaskelainen's dive into the top right. That really set the crowd off. A couple of minutes later another brilliant move down the left went through their defence like a knife through butter and Osman hit in a close shot superbly saved. Then Seamus dashed through on the right, a hapless defender trailing him all the way to the goal line, where a pull back left Peanuts with a chance right side penalty area. It hit a desperate defender and went out. West Ham hit a post late on but by then it didn't really matter, they were well beaten and looked it.
A lap of appreciation came after the final whistle, when it seemed everyone except the cockneys stayed in their seats to say thank you for the season. Once again it has been footy-memorable, frustrating at times, but always interesting, and often brilliant. Everyone at the club can take pride in that.
Next week, Chelsea away. If Our Boys play like this, maybe we will finally win a league match there. It would be a nice way to send off Moyesy to pastures new. Of which, more anon.