HALF TIME WHISTLE: GOOD WILL HUNTING
Mickey Blue Eyes
Facts are dispassionate and often inconvenient. All football people seem to have a hard time explaining them.
Take Everton, 2014-2015 vintage.
Few of us expected to occupy such a modest (sic) league position almost half way through this season: eleventh in the table, played 17, won 5, drawn 6, lost 6, goals for 27, goals against 27, points 21, out of the League Cup in the first match, due for a hard third round FA Cup tie, some performances truly shameful, six points off the relegation zone, but still in the Europa League having topped the group. In other words we are distinctly average. Only an unprecedented and entirely unlikely unbeaten run can get us into contention for leading places in the league. Read that last sentence again and weep.
(For those who want their opinions Murdoch Sun tabloid-like......We are where we deserve to be. The league table never lies. We are playing like a cast of crabs in a rock pool. Enough of the Mister Nice Guy already, Roberto. Get off your arses, manager and players, and start earning those weekly multi-thousands we pay you.....Right, you Sun readers can now go back to fixing satellite dishes, forex gambling and "developing" old terrace houses.)
The best even an eternal optimist like me can say is we have endured mixed fortunes, which is a lot less than the improvement we anticipated. What I did not expect was implosion at the centre of Our Boys; I know nobody who did, though the pre-season friendlies hinted at it. Some of the stuff can only be described as a thigh-slapper comedy shtick. Except nobody is laughing. Add in a spate of injuries to key players and you have a symmetric formula for underwhelming. At the time of writing only two other teams have let in more goals than us and they are both in the bottom three. The only away win of relegation-likely Crystal Palace was at Goodison when they were donated three quite absurd scores. That speaks for itself. It is impossible to exaggerate just how awful, how torturous, some of the games have been for regular match-going Evertonians, which is why intolerance simmers just beneath the surface. Much more inept nonsense and it will erupt like a geyser.
At times this season I am reminded of a true tale from the American Civil War. It goes like this. A general was sitting on his horse peering through his binoculars at a distant skirmish of enemy riflemen. One of his aides advised him to withdraw. He just had time to say, "They'll never hit us from th..." before toppling to the ground with a bullet through his forehead. As glum result after glum result piles one on another I feel his incredulity, if not his oblivion, though at this rate even that may not be long delayed footy-wise. General Roberto best look through the right end of his field glasses.
However, it is fruitless looking for "culprits." No manager, no player, wants to play poorly. But there is precious little can be done when legs simply cannot obey brain commands. Football players are no more immune to it than any other human. As a parallel, only an addict or a fool keeps drinking alcohol when his kidneys and/or limbs cannot cope with the toxins. The cliché is: listen to your body, it knows better than you. There are few sadder sights than someone clinging to an insistent, impotent and wholly-wrong will. Moreover, at the level of the Premier League it is only necessary for a player to lose a half metre of pace or a scrap of determination or concentration before a hero becomes a zero overnight. When all such assets are lost there is no way back. The determination bit even applies to something as sedate as snooker. So, when the Footy Reaper comes knocking......finito, finis, das ende, el fin, slutten, koniec, fine. You only get one chance, so you best use it.
Nor is the "solution" - if there is one - only a question of managerial ruthlessness, though that must enter into it at some point. It is mostly a question of common sense. But, alas, that is often in as short supply in professional football as elsewhere. A wit once said we might get common but it is rarely followed by sense. Some players will not acknowledge it, some managers choose to ignore it for any number of reasons, and fans......well, too many have no wish to understand it, which actually amounts to wilful ignorance. Media of course are a complete waste of space.
Under the old retain-and-transfer system managers had two ways of dealing with this kind of situation. Quite rightly, ambitious young players with a healthy ego would come knocking on the manager door demanding a place in the team. The wiser managers would put an arm around a wannabe-star shoulder, take him to view the first team players as they trained, and say, "See him?" - indicating current hero - "Well, he's only got another season in him at most. Then it's your turn." Less sensitive (that is, usually bad) managers would either brow beat the upstart into submission or fire the current hero and take a chance on the nipper and perhaps ruin his long term playing prospects. All of us have stories of promising youngsters who sparked out. Either method required a level of cynicism best kept private, even from the most stone-brained fan. Omerta ruled. At that time "public relations" meant a nocturnal knee trembler in a shop doorway. Fortunately for national health that era is long gone, though vestiges remain. Now "public relations" means tedious clichés, usually just lies, manufactured by some vacuous Uriah Heep propaganda clerk kidding him/herself of his/her ersatz "creativity."
These days management methods are much more sophisticated because freedom of player contract and movement makes it necessary. For a start, players are looked after at least as well as a stable of well-bred racehorses. Young players are nurtured carefully, though occasionally one is so obviously an instinctive football genius there is no power on Earth to keep him off the pitch. Such a one was Wayne Rooney, which is why as an adolescent he hated David Moyes' discipline with a purple passion; all he wanted to do was play footy, and on his own terms. At his unruly, sullen and acned age, who didn't? He was good enough too, as he proved. Judging other lesser talents can be an uncertain task even for a manager of insight. Given raw playing ability, timing of development is almost everything. Chance takes up the remainder.
Making the transition with one player is difficult enough, while doing it with a group is, shall we say, exponentially more difficult. Hence this season the Roberto Martinez intense frown, brutal attack on chewing gum, and post-match wide-eyed puzzlement at our latest pathetic rout. If ever a man needed a Pauline moment it is he. This mires most Evertonians in a quandary. They hesitate, caught between a consoling cuddle and a bad urge to beat the hell out of his obdurate decency.
But now he has to rebuild the team on his terms. The buck stops with him, as it did with David Moyes. The wheel has turned yet again, as it always does. He has no choice but to make the transition or fail. The situation is that stark. Virtually everybody I know holds the same opinion: as with last season, he has tried to maintain team balance by playing a safe short-passing game, particularly in defence, and then springing raids down the wings. Presumably the logic is it helps preserve energy levels in ageing legs. The downside is that it is slow in build-up, infuriatingly moribund as a spectacle, lacks initiative and variety and is almost certain to fail badly if any one of the veterans makes an error. For spectators it is a maddening shift of the centre of gravity away from the opposition goal. Nobody sensible can get excited about five passes strung across the half way line before the ball is sent back to the goalkeeper, particularly if the game is up for grabs and time is running out.
An alert opposition (and the glaring evidence this season is the enemy has inevitably done its homework) will press high up and try to stop threats at source and perhaps induce a mistake. In fact an unlucky break or two and it can become a quick-reverse menace. This season, both Bainsey and Seamus Coleman have not been as imposing as they were last season; this time they are often caught or enticed too far forward, though that too has been exacerbated by injuries to Kevin Mirallas and Steven Pienaar. Compared to last season, central defence has been mostly fraught and deathly slow, centre midfield uncertain, and service to a lonely Romelu Lukaku sparse at best. By now the world and his wife know all our vulnerabilities. It is in toto an almost perfect illustration of the dictum that any system of any kind is only as strong as its weakest point.
The crowd reaction to all this has been mixed. Pre-season sale of season tickets, the highest ever, was a reflection of great optimism earned by the previous season performance. Despite everything, so too is the sale of half season tickets. Our gates have held up well despite the league position and early exit from the League Cup. But this season quite early on herd optimism diminished, then almost evaporated. Now the Goodison crowd can barely raise a cheer even when a lead is established, which means they cannot relish a match. In my view that was triggered by conceding two debilitating late goals and a stupid draw to a well-beaten Arsenal. Since then homesters have been unable to regain the same feeling. Everything else followed on from that.
In fact, and there is little point in denial, a sizeable minority have become wildly annoyed with the current version of possession football, though most have stayed remarkably loyal to it. Nevertheless there have been audible boos even when the team is winning but still passing sideways and backwards. It looks and is tedious - there is little point denying that either - not at all like aggressive English push-and-run style at its best, which is what most of us world-weary wistfuls think of as real School of Science football. Nor is it fair or sensible to ask the fans to be "patient." For chrissakes, for the most part they have been wonderfully patient for twenty years. They are entitled to at least an occasional expression of frustration, which is, loonies apart, all most of it amounts to anyway.
Example: Against a less-than-mediocre Queens Park Rangers there was trepidation even at three up when inevitably we yet again let in a scrappy goal. On another occasion a free kick of ours in their half ended up with Tim Howard less than twenty seconds later. For a short while the herd feeling was we were about to let in a second, Arsenal all over again, And Then What? Understandably, part of the crowd was as furious as it was apprehensive. Sadly, like it or not, there is a feeling Our Boys cannot finish a game emphatically or they lack the will to face forward. Hence the phases of unreal silence at home games. As for Southampton away......
So......another inconvenient fact: Roberto really had no option at first, given the inherited squad and how he wants to play. Like David Moyes before him he has to work the human clay he has, plus a few incoming transfers. Last season it worked dazzlingly; so far this season it has spluttered at best. Last season the players of all ages were able to respond to the new manager; so far this season the older players have looked...well...tired and unable to increase tempo even if they want to. Then the small world of English football adjusted to the "new" Everton, as it was bound to. So the game is up. The clock ticks louder. It now depends on how the manager and players respond in the second half of the season. For the older players this is positively their last chance to leave a glorious memory or two. Roberto has to somehow regenerate enthusiasm, as did Moyesy after his second season, and he cannot do that with the present brand of slow possession football. You might as well try to run through knee high treacle. Thus our Catch-22. If all the faltering oldies are replaced simultaneously......then the youngsters fail too.....what then? Who would be responsible?
However, talk of "Plan Bs" is fanciful nonsense: if that fails, what of Plans C through X? And if all those fail too, what then? Plans A1 then B1? Ultimately, football is a spontaneous, fluid and athletic team game, not a sedentary pastime of fixed moves like chess or a fatuous computer game with programmer-rigged frozen memory; it cannot be reduced to the emptiness of textspeak or forumdump, at the present rate both soon to replace words with a series of electronic grunts. You have to think on your feet, not sitting on your arse with your nose stuck in a pint or something even worse.
In real-world football there may be an initial strategy but even that is dependent on what happens minute-to-minute during play. Who, for instance, on either side could have expected Everton to be routed by Martinez-managed Wigan Athletic in a home FA Cup tie in which we were obliterated by three goals in four minutes, an eerie pre-vision of our current hapless defence? "Plan B," if it existed, which it didn't, was as useless to us then as it was to Manchester City when against all the odds Wigan went on to beat them in the Final. You can plan and prepare as meticulously as you like, plan until your ears go pop, but any competent professional in any field knows there will always - tautology alert - be the unexpected. At such times you find out the true mettle of men.
Our next six matches are against Stoke City, Newcastle, Hull City, West Ham (FA Cup), Manchester City and West Brom. Failure to win at least three of them will probably leave us in dire straits in the league and possibly out of the FA Cup too. By any stretch of analysis that is a catastrophic scenario. In our present shape we cannot hope to survive a series of Europa League contests with prime European teams. We are no longer experiencing a blip in form. What was a threat is now a reality. Sadly, those of us who warned of it early on have now proved right. I can only speak for myself when I say I have never more wanted to be wrong. But there is still time, though precious little.
Despite our present footy trauma paradoxically there are some causes for optimism. Steven Naismith, Kevin Mirallas, Ross Barkley, John Stones, Leighton Baines, Muhamad Besic, Seamus Coleman, Romelu Lukaku and Luke Garbutt are all talented and young enough to see us through this mess. Most of the youngsters on view at the Krasnodar home match looked like they might have the makings too. Roberto Martinez has obvious commitment and ability and showed last season he could skilfully handle tactics and substitutions; where needed he also did the vital job of blowing away psychological cobwebs. Now he needs to demonstrate he can motivate in adverse circumstances. Like all good generals, he has to restore order and spirit. For the time being everything else is superfluous, next season another planet, a new wholly-Roberto Martinez era yet another.
The fact is there is no quick fix. Lavish use of upbeat adverbs and adjectives certainly will not be enough, nor will quasi-ignorance of lousy play. Quite rightly, Evertonians, perhaps notoriously, always prefer on-field action to off-field words, a flag-waving mentality, and, gawd help us, "brand consciousness." Unless of course there is a perfect match. By and large they consider press conferences to be little more than organised cliché-ridden bullshit to keep unemployable hacks in a job. Roberto, a good and decent man, would do well to adapt accordingly and stop bleating what amounts to platitudes. Unfortunately, sometimes he looks and sounds as though he lives in a world of surreal denial; the only thing missing is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir murmuring The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The fans may be raw, some occasionally stupid, but they are not blind and deaf, and after a lifetime many really do know their football and naturally resent attempts to patronise them.
Therefore, our best hopes for the remainder of the season lie in the manager and older players recovering sufficient pride to give it one last heroic heave and for the younger players to steer clear of injuries while growing up quickly. There is enough ability in the squad to fuse everything into quicker movement, rescue the season as a spectacle and maybe even have a reasonable shot at the FA Cup and the Europa League. Put them together and that should be enough to steady, then improve the situation......Eventually......We hope......If that cannot be achieved the second half of the season will be as trying as the first half, perhaps worse, maybe even footy catastrophic. A lot of good will and optimism would leak away, probably decisively. And that would be a pity for old and young alike, on and off the pitch; it might be a trauma too far after twenty years of waiting patiently.
Meanwhile, did you know the great seventeenth century French philosopher François-Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire, once said, "I have never made haha"? Well, this season we Evertonians know exactly what he meant. I thought that sort of appropriate given our season thus far and the time of year.......Well, any port in a storm.
Copy that, Facts HQ.