BLUE SKIES, SHINING ON US*
Mickey Blue Eyes
*Due acknowledgement to Irving Berlin
This season, manager and (arguably) best player gone, you didn't for a moment think we would be in the top four with just one league loss by Christmas and a better than odds-on chance of European qualification again. Your correspondent certainly didn't, especially after our first three league games were drawn in wildly irritating fashion against Norwich, West Brom and Cardiff, and we had an unconvincing League Cup win over Stevenage. And we then went out of said Cup to Fulham (Christ, you thought, Fulham, a Yank-owned corner shop club in Corruption City, Mistake-on-Thames). Knee jerking, to me it looked as though we were set for a season of safe keep-ball - if we could get away with it. Furthermore, I thought it likely we wouldn't get away with it, that we might get a sound rogering or two. I was not optimistic.
But I was wrong......so far at least. Fortune has favoured the brave. Before the fourth game V Chelsea Roberto Martinez said, "Our season starts with this match." I wondered if it was just necessary managerial bravado. I was wrong again. We haven't looked back since that well-deserved 1-0 win. (You could tell it was well-deserved because a bleary-eyed Special One said after the match, "Goal vas not gree-ey-tid. Vass misstake." This was after Our Boys made nine close passes to carve them open on the right.) Since then, only Manchester City have beaten us in the league. At the time of writing we have won nine and drawn seven league matches. Another three wins instead of draws would have seen us at second, more than that and we would be, gasp, top of the league.
At times the standard of football has been superb, an encouraging Roberto Martinez construction on the backs of David Moyes' great achievements and club stability over the last thirteen years. Up to now El Bob has managed to fuse Moyesy's necessary defensive solidity with a more expansive and patient attacking style that at times seems to verge on suicidal naiveté. The way of playing isn't abandoned even when we leak a goal or go behind. The team simply keep passing the ball and get back into the game. Full credit to Roberto, but I hope this doesn't mean people forget what David Moyes did for us: There are enough stupid people in the game without adding to the count. The question for the second half of the season is whether we can keep up this level of performance.
Whatever the reason, there is no question our improvement has been a much-needed draft of fresh air for all Evertonians and for the English game too. In particular the win at Manchester United and the outplaying of Arsenal on their own ground were Martinez-inspired brilliance based on his midfield of Ross Barkley-Gareth Barry-Jimmy McCarthy-Steven Pienaar, virtually a complete rebuild. Nobody foresaw this, not even our biggest optimists, me included. It also produced arguably the best end-to-end derby league game I have ever seen, the 3-3 draw at Goodison......a wonderful match we should have won.
Another apprehension, many of us thought the £13 million fee for Jimmy McCarthy was far too much. Once again we were wrong. He has improved with each game, as has the playing chemistry of the midfielders. Up front, Romelu Lukaku's scoring speaks for itself whatever the defects in his passing, and the individual abilities of Kevin Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu can be dazzling when they are in form. All of it is built on the veteran abilities of Tim Howard, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin, the improvement in Seamus Coleman, plus the stunning introduction of Brian Oviedo as (injured, probably on his way in January) Leighton Baines's replacement. The Oviedo-Peanuts combination is, so far, at least as effective as Bainesy-Peanuts, and you cannot give it more praise than that. Oviedo has been a credit to himself, while Steven Pienaar is the real non-stop creative engine in midfield.
The emergence and development of Ross Barkley has been one of the keys. It is easy now to forget he lost a year through a broken leg and how that could have finished him. David Moyes eased him through that and protected him at crucial moments. Wrong management then and he could easily have become merely another might-have-been. El Bob has brought him to the next level while making sure he knows he still has much to learn before he fulfils his marvellous promise.
We can talk team formations and tactics until the cows come home. But what Martinez has introduced is an apparent sense of confidence even when things aren't going well; anybody who has managed any group of humans will tell you how difficult that can be, that there is no training module for it, that it is mostly instinctive, mostly a matter of innate character and personality. That is the true nature of successful leadership. Roberto Martinez seems to have it in spades.
So, here we are, lucky us. Long may it continue. All Evertonians hope it is just the beginning of a new era. And nobody has earned it more. An added bonus is the looming comedy of the January Transfer Window and the mad witterings of footy's Klutz of Gunsels.
Meantime, compliments of the season to you and yours. May the New Year bring you contentment, and more playing glory for Our Boys.
Come on you Blues.
In memory of Tommy Hughes. Friend, Evertonian.
Finally, this opinion would not be complete without remembering great Evertonian Scot, Tommy Hughes, who died in November this year at the age of eighty-one. I knew Tommy as a good friend during the time I was a member of ESCWARA and travelled with them to away games, and when the Blue Kipper boys ran a pre- and post-match pub venue. I disliked the venue - as I do almost all the ale houses around Goodison Park, most of them deteriorated beyond recall - but went whenever I could because of fans like Tommy. He was forever getting "red cards" from the MC for his shouted suggestions to guests - some of them none too polite. He had the determined combination of humour, loyalty and unquenchable spirit now almost replaced by frigid cynicism in what is left of British society.
You always knew where you stood with Tommy; he was never slow in explaining it to you, especially his love for Everton and antipathy for our loveable neighbours or anyone he thought disloyal to the club. As an example, we were once at a function attended by fellow Scot and Everton legend Andy Gray. It seems Andy once made a TV broadcast comment favourable to our old enemy. Tommy never forgot it. So, slightly unsteady from his beloved malt intake, he approached said legend and asked in broad Jock you could have heard in Falkirk, "Are ye a fuckn redshite or wha'?" Andy gave as good as he got before we dragged the offender back to his table. On another occasion he was at a local talent show when one of the competitors started singing an infamous dirge from Carousel. Tommy got up from his front row seat, strode up the centre aisle, stopped after a few steps, turned, and asked, "Can ye play the spoons better than ye can sing?" before walking out.
Actually, of course, it was mostly a "hard man" charade. It was his way of asserting himself as he grew older. One on one he was the epitome of kindliness and rock solid friendship. Travelling to away matches he always went around The Bus giving out sweets. Once he knew you he never forgot you. I always sought his company to joust verbals sprinkled with disgraceful language, a lively hobby we both shared and enjoyed. Woe betides you if you weren't at your sharpest. He took no prisoners. But he was as quick to grin as he was to give you a hard time for the unforgivable sin of being English. You could pardon him anything because to him laughter was just as important as making his point. He had no time for anyone who tried to sour the air. The photo the Blue Kipper boys put up with his obituary catches him perfectly.
Because he was ill, there were three occasions when we thought we had lost him. The two most serious were at Wigan and West Ham. In the latter he ended up at a hospital in London after we had to take him to the first aid room at the ground; even then, deep under the stands, crowd noises rumbling through, he kept asking, "Have we equalised yet?" Which we duly did. He brightened up immediately even with paramedics clustered around him, poised with all kinds of gleaming medical equipment. He was incorrigible. But that incident scared us so much ESCWARA tried to get him to miss away matches. Needless to say it was a waste of time: he just would not have it. I once said to him, "Tommy, what happens if you peg out while you're with us at an away match?" And he said - seriously - "If I'm gonna die I want to do it watching Everton." Fortunately he didn't go that way.
We will all miss Tommy terribly. He was the very best of Evertonians and football fans. But much more than that he was a warm, funny, loveable human being. It was my privilege and good fortune to know him and count him as a friend.