Mickey Blue Eyes
Here's one for you statistics nerds: Apart from this season, when was the last time in three successive matches we played three different teams who wear red and white stripes? This morsel of completely irrelevant trivia occurred to me after I surfaced from the holiday haze of three games in five days against Sunderland, Southampton and Stoke, the first two of which awakened long dormant memories. Well, it is that time of year.
I have had a soft spot for Sunderland ever since I first saw Len Shackleton in opposition flesh over fifty years ago. I can still see that famous grin, tousled hair and baggy shorts, dazzling footwork, a player loving every minute of it. To this awestruck schoolboy he was everything a footballer should be; their old Roker Park ground even had an old-fashioned Archibald Leitch stand. A lot of Mersey and Wear footy water has flowed under the bridge since. There have been some stirring encounters: amongst many others a victorious 3-1 Cup replay at Goodison in 1958 in pouring rain, and a truly memorable 4-1 league win by our glorious 1980s team. There have been some reverses too, but somehow I never felt as disappointed as I did against other teams. Len's grin always got in the way. And I have always liked chatting to Sunderland locals at away games. The north east is every bit a hotbed of footy as Merseyside. (True, they have their nutters...but who are we to have a go at them with "our" north Liverpool subspecies BNP guttersnipes and cannabis-chewing Happy Al's lowlife, plus a hate mentality even Gandhi couldn't have helped?)
And prior to our Boxing Day game the Mackems were in dire straits, managers out and in, players suspended or injured, bottom of the league, and staring at relegation. Their season has been a disaster. Shudder, over a decade ago we were in the same position so we know how they feel. It looked a shoo-in result, and if all other results went our way we could even be top for a microsecond. I don't know about you but the mere prospect caused my nose to bleed. If it actually transpired, I would need an oxygen tent. Surely we couldn't lose this one, could we?
Alas, yes, we lost 1-0 to a first half penalty and were reduced to ten men when Tim got sent off - and still battered them for long stretches of the match. At times you had to check we had only ten men as Our Boys stormed the Street End to try and rescue the match. But rock bottom Sunderland prevailed. Football ey.
So along came Southampton. The funny thing is I have a measure of sympathy for them too. It dates back, long story, to a darts team in Kuwait where "me best mate in Kuwait" was a big Southampton fan who loved Matt Le Tissier. I could understand this because Matt at his best was some player. And me mate, no joke, suffered from dartitis, which meant he had real trouble letting go of the darts at the end of his throw. This led to mayhem since he always overstepped the oche and the opposition went doolallytap over it. But of course I found it irresistibly funny and stood with him when arguments got tricky...which was every match. There is nothing like darts - a mere junk "sport" - when it all goes off. How can anybody get upset about throwing three bits of metal into a circular bristle or cork board? Unlike when we lost to Sunderland and you felt like kicking the nearest urinal.
All of which made me distinctly wary of the Southampton game. If you were superstitious enough to wear Royal Blue boxer shorts to every game doubtless you would also notice the similarity of traditional Mackems and Soton strips. The omens were ominous. Furthermore, we were without Tim Howard, Phil Jagielka, Gareth Barry and Steven Pienaar; in came Joel Robles, Antolin Alcaraz and Steven Naismith and Leighton Baines returned from injury to partner Bryan Oviedo on the left. Meanwhile, Southampton had a good season behind them, though recently apparently losing their way. If there was going to be a reaction to the Sunderland loss this was the match for it.
That background made the 2-1 win even more satisfying as, true to form, the enemy gave as good as they got. In the end Our Depleted Boys came through the trial well despite a distinctly lopsided look to team balance. Occasionally play got scrappy, only to be expected in the circumstances, but we never looked as though the Sunderland reverse was the start of a collapse in form. Together with the post Christmas miasma this made for a subdued feel to the game in spite of a full Goodison Park. Fourth place was a good way to finish 2013.
The opening phase was just about even until Seamus made a tremendous breakthrough in the ninth minute. He is now every bit the seasoned pro we hoped he would become; his attacking runs are much better timed and his defensive play has improved immensely. The goal was typical of his play thus far: A high-speed raid down the right, a jink inside, a squirm past two defenders, and a blistering cross shot that nearly uprooted the net, a shot that reminded me of Marcus Bent's famous last minute equaliser at Southampton years ago.
After that it was fairly even until Soton equalised in the second half, a long range effort that somehow went through Robles and which doubtless ruined his holiday as much as it disturbed my stomach acid. But it didn't last long. The game changed immediately Peanuts came on for Oviedo; I don't think this was a comment on Oviedo's performance as much as Bainsey simply isn't a left midfielder. When the winner came it was a quite brilliant move down the left, a typically incisive Pienaar forward pass to the left of the penalty area, a beautifully cushioned right-footed onward flick into the centre by Jimmy Mac, and Lukaku bladdered it home left-footed at the left edge of the D. It was enough despite some defensive tension at the end.
Then on to Stoke. Away. Mark Hughes. Adam. Shawcross. Walters. All perfectly suited for each other. The opponent has all the attraction of steaming carthorse shit. We knew what Stoke would be like, a plethora of bookings for their no-necks and narrow foreheads. Our only likely nosebleed was from an elbow to the face. They lived down to expectations. Tim Howard, Bainsey and Gareth Barry back and John Stones - a superb prospect - in for injured Sylvain Distin. Thus our untried centre backs pairing was a cause for apprehension; but actually they were excellent. Despite the opposition and the setting we played reasonably well in pouring rain, had most of the possession as usual, while Kevin Mirallas hit the goal frame twice with tremendous shots. Stoke had maybe five or ten minutes of dominance at the start of the second half when they took the lead, apart from that not much else. Afterwards, it was normal service resumed as we kept passing and pressing. Still, it looked like we were doomed to get nothing until in the closing minutes sub Leon Osman made a run into the left edge of their penalty area, got downed, got up, and got downed again for a well earned spot kick. Which Bainsey duly stuck away for the draw.
So the accumulation of four points from nine partly explains why we will have to fight to stay near the top. Too many draws. It's as basic as that, unless we can go on a determined run of wins and scare the bejaysus out of the rest. It isn't beyond us, but in the end I fear squad strength will probably do us out of the top four. Invariably, cold weather introduces hamstring problems and we really can't afford more injuries or suspensions. Losing Phil Jagielka is bad enough, Sylvain Distin too is throwing a lot of responsibility on untried Alcaraz-Stones, while the inexperienced youth of Barkley-McCarthy might find it hard to hold form on the run-in. But we live in hope. You can bet Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City are looking apprehensively over their shoulders at us, just as Manchester United and Tottenham trail in our wake. The big question is whether we can keep up our outstanding form into the New Year.
Meanwhile, stand by for Klutz of Gunsels Month and the January "transfer-window." It is always worth a belly laugh at the expense of that rumour-mongering idiot at the end of the bar. Enjoy the New Year. We live in interesting footy times.