STANDOFF AT ANALFIELD
Mickey Blue Eyes
Last midweek, to the surprise of nobody we went out of the League Cup in our now-customary pathetic manner in that competition, routed 3-0 in fact, whether we used second tier players or not. In the end our only genuine interests in the match were the return of Bryan Oviedo and playing chances for Muhamed Bešić and Luke Garbutt. And that was it. Everything else was a shambles all over the pitch, pretty much a summary of our defensive play so far this season. It was a performance of, yet again, sideways-backwards-sideways-again stuff that failed this time to shape up even as safety-first. The format might have some use as a sort of narcissistic deluded "professional" keep-ball, but otherwise......forget it, draw a veil. When it fails so badly there is nothing good to say about any of it. My heart went out to the 1,500 Evertonians who wasted their time and money making the trip, an experience we have all suffered at one time or another. I suspect many of them plus many others will not repeat the error next season. Genuine love of footy cannot stretch to outright masochism.
Regulars will know I am the last person in the world to knee jerk at results, especially when they go against us in series. But this collapse in defensive form is different. It is structural and entirely predictable: hell, I even flagged it up in passing in my last three pre-season reviews and other opinions. Put starkly, it can only be resolved by suitable measures at centre back, where plainly legs can no longer function at this level. A pity, but there it is.
And talking of masochism, what price derby matches at analfield? £52 worth? The debacle in South Wales was no preparation for our Saturday game. In my book all derby match bets were off. In fact they always are for this fixture whether home or away. Merseyside derbies generally sort the men from the boys, the sort of game you desperately want to be at even though it burns a hole right through your duodenum whether you win, lose or draw. The faint-hearted of course run off, lie they do not care, and pretend the churning in their stomachs is down to a previous "great night" pumping beer into their bladders. The rest of us check our medical record, run a routine circuit test on our pacemakers, take our medication, don our lucky Royal Blue underpants, and attend the tribal ritual. We can do no other.
True Scousers understand this, outsiders never. Our derbies have never suffered the religious hatred of Rangers-Celtic (despite the efforts of ignorant or ill-willed visitors or self-styled "pundits"), the anodyne rumbling of Man. City-Man United, the artificial cold hysteria of Arsenal-Spurs or the ugly nationalism of Real Madrid-Barcelona. Ours are unique in their combination of intense competition and feeling, the ability to take the piss out of each other without mercy, and the common sense to "put the ball away" when necessary. To the credit of nobody these spontaneous attributes have eroded badly over the years but they are still there, just, and well worth preserving in the face of marketeers, branders, paranoids and temporary good-time charlies. I would not swap what is left of our proletarian derbies for all the merchandise and cheap, lower middle class plastic gloating in Corruption-on-Thames. (For the uninformed, inside the M25 ghetto this is known as "Ban'ahhhh," in which place "humour" is as "funny" as a fart in a lift).
Naturally, based on what we have seen to date I expected us to be massacred by three or four goals, perhaps more. If ever there was a derby we seemed destined to lose badly it was this one because we were still without our main attacking threats of Steven Pienaar, Ross Barkley and Seamus Coleman; add in our scatty form thus far and prospects looked as frigid as Esther McVey's mammaries. But even what was left of my usual optimism almost expired when I saw El Bob's team selection: Howard, Hibbert, Stones, Jagielka, Baines, McCarthy, Barry, Bešić, Barry, Naismith, and Lukaku. Sammy Eto'o replaced Bešić with ten minutes left, young Tyias Browning for Hibbert on seventy minutes, and Aiden McGeady for an ominously hamstrung Kevin Mirallas after half an hour. Pre-match, losing by two looked like it would be a moral victory.
Overall, we were lucky to get a 1-1 draw but deserve some credit for not being weak kneed after going behind. The expected collapse never happened, though there were too many moments when it looked imminent. The relief of Evertonian survivors prevailed in the tiny, overpriced away section and afterwards in the pubs of County Road. Maybe it was a turning point. Maybe.
For the first ten minutes or so our low expectations looked justified. Inside sixty seconds Gareth Barry needlessly chopped down one of theirs just outside and to our left of the D, ideal free kick territory. It was a stupid thing for a seasoned pro to do. Fortunately the incoming hit the wall and bounced away. It hardly bears thinking what might have followed had it gone in. Then a series of corners followed, from one of which Tim Howard made a tremendous save down on his right from a clear central header. By this time I was groaning inwardly, and from the apprehensive looks on kids around me I was not alone. Attacks were concentrated down our right where the enemy obviously thought Tony's ageing legs would fail: they were wrong, while he was on he was first class even when it seemed as though he was about to fold. When Tim made a couple more magnificent saves I almost sank beneath my collar line. It seemed only a matter of time.
Still, gradually we made our way back into the game and occasionally even looked threatening. Lukaku was fouled for a clear penalty but we know we will never get one at analfield so everyone got on with the task. Another raid down our right eventually switched left and got Bainsey clear and closing at the goal line, edge of the goal area, and a hard ground cross almost went through to Lukaku for a tap in, only to be cleared at the last moment by a desperate defender. By half time we had just about restored parity of play without looking convincing. The away section breathed easier. I emerged from beneath my collar.
The second half failed to amount to much. Probably it served only to show that if both teams continue in this vein they can both forget Europe qualification for next season. For us, there was satisfaction in the Jags-Stonesy partnership, which, still embryonic, nevertheless at times looked indomitable; I hope that is not premature. Also, Tylas Browning managed to look both unfazed and promising in such an important game.
So there were good things to take out of it, though when we let one in twenty minutes after restart it looked as though our worst dreary thoughts were about to be fulfilled. Gareth Barry's experience did him no good when he lost the ball near the half way line and two passes later Bainsey dropped their man in virtually the same location as the first minute free kick. This time it went home despite being at the ideal height and distance for a save and Tim got a hand on it, and it zoomed in with the sun glaring behind it. A minute later Tim made another tremendous save and deflected a point blank shot onto the bar and over. Our goose was in the oven and beginning to brown.
Then to my surprise two things happened: we fought back and the enemy began an uncertain retreat to keep what they had. It was never convincing or likely but at least rescue looked possible. We even had a couple of corners which inevitably and utterly maddeningly failed to get beyond the first man whichever colour shirt he was wearing. Time drained away. Another dispiriting loss loomed, another weekend spoiled. Around me, kids eyes begin to fill up at the prospect. The game does that to you at that age. Play meandered into added time.
When it came, our equaliser in added time was one of the great derby goals, made more memorable by its timing. It was even more dramatic because this season we have all been pleading for a strike that negates tippy-tappy. This one was devastating, made possible by a Tyias Browning raid down our right where he made an impressive nuisance of himself for the time he was on. This time he chased a long ball to the corner flag, the enemy was late arriving, and he turned inward and hit over a left foot high cross that sailed over everyone to the left side. Whence came McGeady, tight on the goal line. Somehow he got a high cross back into the centre, where their centre back butted it back out beyond the penalty area to our centre left mid. Whence came Phil Jagielka. Twenty five metres out, he struck it right footed on the half-volley. It might have swerved on the horizontal but on the vertical it kept rising until it almost uprooted the net and the goal frame. Without that restraint it would have wrecked shop windows on Oakfield Road. It went home like a low level howitzer round. Absolutely magnificent.
After I emerged from under a cascade of human bodies I looked at the same kids who earlier had seemed on the verge of tears. Now they looked as though they were illuminated from the inside and floating on air. Anything that can do that for human beings has to have some merit. Me, I floated out of Dracula's Castle as though we had won. In reality it was a courageous and worthy escape. We can but hope it gives the necessary impetus for a recovery.
While I am on the subject of our local rivalry, even our defensive disasters pale into insignificance with the possibility of the club finally disappearing into the shadow of our loveable neighbours if no progress is made in building a new stadium. Our local enemies now plan to start construction of their new main stand at the end of this season, new capacity near to 55,000; once that happens, we will be truly overshadowed (this time beyond argument) for at least a generation - if we are stuck in our present ground. Nobody with any rational common sense believes Goodison Park is fit for modern purposes or can be sufficiently developed or adapted within the existing site boundaries. I will write that again for those with limited English: within the existing site boundaries. So.....no new stadium, no re-establishment at the level we all want.
In the evening I turned on Match of the Day. The first match was commentated by Alan Green. I immediately turned off the set and crossed Match of the Day off my preferences until he gets the boot. Anybody who employs that idiot deserves similar treatment. The point is, these days there are plenty of alternatives. And anything is better than the kind of empty headed muck served up by an ignorant fool.