BREAD OF HEAVEN IN THE FINAL MINUTE
Mickey Blue Eyes
Alas, I was unable to attend our FA Cup disaster in Bunger City, a place where the buildings are as bent as forex spivs, bank bureaucrats and their media. Family repasts come first, always. But actually, given the result, missing it was fortunate even if I had indigestion when I heard the unexpected score. I simply cannot watch Our Boys live on TV because if fortunes go badly I throw assorted fruit at the set. In this case it would have been buried under a large market garden. Nor have I seen any lowlights of the horror. This helped as a pre-match anaesthetic for Saturday's clash with relegation-threatened Cardiff City.
The Welsh club is an interesting opponent because it epitomises contemporary football: a new foreign owner, Malaysian Vincent Tan, able - initially at least - to raise money for new players......but at the cost of a challenge to his own peculiar superstitions. You would have thought this meant he would fit right into the deluded world of professional sport and its Ku Klux Kriticisms (incredibly, the latest hate target is Daniel Levy of Tottenham). Instead, inevitably it brought him up against native quasi-magic, which he promptly ignored by changing club colours from blue to red. If you challenge football Druids you end up with a severed sheep's head on your door step. Anyone could have told him it was the equivalent of football bunhu diri. Then to compound matters he pulled a power stroke by saying to Cardiff supporters (paraphrased), "I got you promoted. If you don't like what I am doing, go find another owner and see how you fare."
That kind of bull-neck fol-de-rol might have had some force if Cardiff was not in the bottom three. At such times people like Tan become scapegoats, an ugly but necessary function in the paranoid world of some fans; I cannot recall a time when it was otherwise; these days the lunacy is simply more condensed. Still, there will be no substantial administrative change until fans organise en masse and address the problem of majority ownership. Until then you might as well whistle into your capitalist underpants. All the rest is tuneless musak.
So they needed a win as much as us. If you want tabloidesque: In our case we had to restore battered morale, while they were fighting for their Premiership lives. A draw was of little use to either party, a loss unthinkable. There was bound to be tension.
Match day was again ideal weather for football, bright sunshine, slightly chilly, and a gusting wind to add some uncertainty. Late, and walking to Goodison Park, I found County Road as sparse as a Sunday afternoon. I thought the ground would be as quiet as other recent games, the attendance in the low 30Ks, a reaction to Cup disappointment. I was wrong: The gate was 38,000, the ground often buzzing thanks partly to a near full complement from Cardiff. The fact is people still love the game more than any other. Quite right too. Nothing has the instinctive widespread appeal of The Beautiful Game.
We were again down to our bare bones squad, Tim Howard back in place of young flapdoodle Joel Robles, Osman in for Ross Barkley, Mirallas on the left in place of Steven Pienaar's ageing but well nigh irreplaceable bones, Deulofeu on the right, still no Jags (a big blow). A patched-up team shape if ever there was one. As usual, our threat and combination play down the left was at least halved with Pienaar missing; Kevin Mirallas can be a fine individualist but he doesn't have the fine tuned radar of the little South African. It looked staccato and that's how it played for the most part. It was a scrappy, tense game with odd flashes of skill from us and a fighting display - little else - from Cardiff. The result was right but the margin would have been much wider much earlier except for their splendid goalkeeper and yet again some maddening hesitation by us in the final third. It was pretty much the way fortunes have gone since the turn of the year.
We almost scored in the first couple of minutes when a game of untidy heading ping-pong on our right ended with Mirallas in his favoured role of running at the defence with the ball glued to his feet, racing right to left. He adjusted his feet when he got to left of the D and scooped it right-footed into the 'keeper's left, but it was the ideal height for a save and it was palmed for a corner. Then Deulofeu broke through on the right, weaved his way through the right angle of the penalty area and got dropped for a stone cold penalty. Oh no it wasn't. So Cardiff got away down their left and eventually had their man partially in the clear dead centre but Tim spread himself well and luckily the ball rebounded harmlessly.
As the game settled into its opening phase we kept pressing without looking convincing, a couple of long range hit-in-hope shots from Bainsey and Osman. If we could not carve a chance we had to depend on a lucky moment to get past a massed defence. Sure enough one came when a scatty left mid attack looked like it was breaking down when the ball went loose on our right. Typically, Gareth Barry got in a tremendous tackle and the ball went straight to Deulofeu in more or less the same position of the denied penalty. He side stepped a couple of tackles, turned inside and dinked in a nifty little left-footed ground shot that scoured the outside of their right hand post. To this fan it looks as though he is at last slowly on the mend from his hamstring injury.
Minutes later, Cardiff's next attack was quickly snuffed by a combination of John Stones and Seamus Coleman, who got the ball wide right to Romalu Lukaku just inside their half. When he set off on an inward angled run we expected the usual sidewards pass to an accompanying Seamus. Not a bit of it. He went straight for goal in a manner that stopped the usual snores, brushed beyond two hapless defenders - just think how you would cope with him in full pelt - before he loosed a wonderful left-foot curling stunner that had Goalazo! written all over it until their 'keeper pulled off a one-handed save just as stunning. It was a splendid direct attack of the kind English fans love to see, easily the highlight of the first half. The rest of it was non-descript.
At half time I had the usual chat with Dan and asked, "What do you reckon of Deulofeu? His first touch is sublime isn't it?" Unconvinced, he said. "That's his first touch. His second touch is a tackle." Which is usually fair enough when he is tightly marked. But let him run at you and you could be in big trouble . Little did I know it would be proved out so quickly. Sometimes even I get things right.
Still, Cardiff nearly opened the scoring within minutes of the restart, when they got a breakaway down their right and Tim Howard had to make an excellent low down save at his left post. Ten minutes later Bainsey broke up an attack near the half way line and slid one down the left to McCarthy, who promptly sent it onward to Deulofeu. As the ball came into him a defender did the orthodox close-up-the-arse thing. Bad mistake this time. All he saw was Deulofeu's back as he touched it past him with the outside of his left foot, spun and raced clear into left side of the penalty area, collected it with his right foot and then almost casually clipped a right-foot shot that flicked off a defender and went home at the near post. Christ, he made it look easy. When he does things like that you can see why Barcelona prize him.
Ten minutes later, entirely in keeping with the general scrappiness, Seamus fouled one of theirs on their wide left. The ball curled in and went in off someone's chest centre of the goal area as our central defenders studied the circling seagulls. I do not know how many times this season we have let in a daft goal but it seems far too many. I contemplated the consequences of a draw and decided the only antidote would be a post-match glass of something or other. I knew we would step up the tempo - we usually do - but for once my mood was hardly optimistic. There was no improvement when Cardiff was denied a stone cold penalty after Sylvain Distin dropped an attacker on the left of our penalty area. I comforted myself with the thought that it only evened matters up.
Despite that, as the game entered the closing phase their 'keeper made yet more magnificent instinctive saves. It looked like the chance of victory was gone. Naismith and Barkley had come on for Deulofeu and Osman with half an hour left, McGeady for Mirallas with ten minutes left. It was McGeady who looked most likely with a ten minutes cameo of twisting and turning on both wings, and it was he who laid on the winner with less than a minute of added time left.
By that time we were reduced to desperate hoof ball in the hope it would break the deadlock, though there was nothing remotely hoof about the goal. Ross Barkley gathered the ball centre mid, then spread it wide left to McGeady. And McGeady's freshness was the deciding factor as he sprinted down the left and took a defender with him all the way to the goal line before looping a high cross to just beyond the far post, an almost impossible ball for a 'keeper to defend. Whence came Distin and Barry, who both jumped for it but it was Barry who nodded it back into the middle. Where stood Seamus unmarked. All he had to do was smash it and the game was ours. He swung his right foot at it, it hit the top outside of his boot and looped into the air in the kind of slow motion you see in an accident. It was going over. Oh no it wasn't. It dropped in. Poor Cardiff sank to their knees while the Street End did a disco dance.
Afterwards, virtually everyone said, "That was bloody hard work." And so it was. Bloody hard to watch too.
Next week, more Druids.