Everton Season Review - Part Two
Everton kicked off 2012 and an extremely busy January with a visit to the Hawthorns on New Year's Day. The result was what we wanted: a 1-0 victory and a welcome three points, with Moyes seemingly getting his substitutions right, introducing Victor Anichebe to score a late winner - his first premier league goal for 22 months. However the level of performance and the starting line-up, which saw Neville and Heitinga deployed in midfield, provided little comfort to worried blues. The midweek visit of Bolton saw one of the most astonishing events ever seen at Goodison. Tim Howard launched up field, as he does, but this time remarkably the wind caught the ball, which bounced over the head of Adam Bogdan to put Everton in front. If Danny Baker still did football videos he'd have been all over it. Despite this fortunate advantage, within five minutes Bolton were level, and within fifteen they were in front, and Everton got what they deserved for another pathetic performance. Tamworth's visit for the FA Cup third round that weekend provided a welcome distraction from our continued failings in the league. An injury-hit and under-strength blues side eventually dispatched of their non-league opponents 2-0, but were far from convincing. Still, we avoided defeat and the possibility of a cup run was now surely all we could hope to achieve this season.
The rearranged fixture at high-flying Spurs followed, bringing a 2-0 defeat and a worsening injury crisis. Distin limped off, to add to an injury list which already contained the names of Jagielka, Hibbert, Osman, Rodwell, and Coleman. Moyes was forced to turn to Shane Duffy as a replacement, the young Irishman making his first premier league appearance. Three days later Evertonians were amazed to see the club actually sign a player - for money! Darron Gibson arrived from Manchester United for around a million pounds - our first signing in an incredible two and a half years. Gibson made his debut at Aston Villa and played his part in our first half-decent performance for what seemed liked a very long time. Landon Donovan's excellent run and pass found Victor Anichebe, who scored his second goal of the season to cancel out Bent's opener and win a deserved point for the blues. Tim Cahill's first goal in 13 months wasn't enough to win the game against Blackburn at Goodison a week later, as the brilliantly named Goodwillie earned a point for the visitors. It was a disappointing result, and not a great performance as there seemed little to choose between two average-looking teams. On the bright side Shane Duffy continued to look capable at the back, and was unlucky not to score, hitting the woodwork with a late header. An unusual and boozy Friday night fixture came next, as Fulham arrived for the FA Cup fourth round. Denis Stracqualursi had failed to deliver so far, but here, making his third start, his hard work and persistence finally paid off as he scored his first goal to help the blues through to the fifth round. We won 2-1, with two brilliant crosses from Donovan converted by Stracqualursi and Fellaini. But this was Stracqualursi's day, and when he was substituted with seven minutes he was rewarded with a spine-tingling standing ovation. We love players who wear their heart on their sleeves, are passionate, visibly emotional and put a shift in, and the Stracq seemed like he could be a hero in the making. The last day of January meant transfer deadline day, and predictably rumours were rife as league leaders Man City visited on a Tuesday night. Looking back, this was the pivotal day in our season. Steven Pienaar arrived on loan from Spurs, Nikica Jelavic signed for five and half million from Rangers, and for the first time all season the blues put in a magnificent performance, with Darron Gibson's first goal in a blue shirt giving us a deserved 1-0 victory. Even the most negative of Evertonians could fail to be moved by the return of passion and hope to Goodison Park. Consistent underperformers Saha and Bily left the club to complete what appeared to be a reasonable transfer window's activity. Jelavic was paraded on the pitch at half-time with fans split on the impact the Croatian would have. Having scored 36 times in 55 appearances at Rangers, his goal-scoring record was questionable only because of the relatively low standards north of the border.
Jelavic made his first appearance the following Saturday, coming off the bench for the last half hour as Everton could only draw 1-1 at bottom-of-the-table Wigan. A clanger from Tim Howard gave the home side a second half lead before "don't call me super sub" super-sub Victor Anichebe rescued a point for the blues. The biggest positive was the return of Pienaar. Despite never hitting it off at Spurs, the South African put in a sterling performance, combining with Baines and creating chances just like in years gone by. Four minutes into our next game, against Chelsea at Goodison, Pienaar rifled in from close range before fellow loanee Stracqualursi completed a 2-0 victory. Despite the absence of new boy Jelavic due to an abdominal problem, this was another inspired performance and further lifted spirits among Evertonians. Andre Villas-Boas' post-match comments said it all: "Everton were fantastic. The recent signings have helped them improve a lot." An unbeaten February was completed with a 2-0 victory at home to Blackpool to take the blues into the FA Cup quarter finals. Things really were looking up.
Going into March we had won our last four home games, but had failed to win our last three aways, and this trend continued with a 1-1 draw at QPR. The highlight was Drenthe's third goal of the season, a thirty yard screamer, but overall this was an unwelcome reminder of Everton pre-January, as the blues lacked the cutting edge to see off their battling opponents, despite the second half introduction of Jelavic. A week later saw a return to Goodison and a return to winning ways with yet another top side leaving defeated, this time in the shape of third place Tottenham. Nikica Jelavic got off the mark with the only goal - a clinical finish and a sign of things to come. Much talk in the papers was of David Moyes who was celebrating 10 years at Everton, with all bar a section of Evertonians in agreement that overall he had done a great job with limited funds. Next up was the Anfield derby and controversy. With an FA Cup quarter final against Sunderland looming, Moyes chose to make six changes, leaving out Heitinga, Neville, Osman, Drenthe, Cahill and Jelavic. There was an air of inevitability as an unfamiliar looking line up capitulated, a Gerrard hatrick giving the home side a 3-0 victory. Many fans now turned on Moyes, unable to forgive such a humiliation, despite the nine game unbeaten run which had preceded it. Predictably, the tactic of resting so many players appeared to be for nothing as we could only draw at home against Sunderland in the cup, despite a return to the line up which had beaten Spurs. The mood wasn't helped by a 1-0 home defeat to Arsenal that Wednesday night. A minute's applause was observed for the brave Fabrice Muamba, before Thomas Vermaelen was allowed a free header from a corner to score the deciding goal. Aside from the opening twenty minutes, we matched Arsenal in every department and were only denied a point due to a perfectly good Royston Drenthe goal being incorrectly ruled offside. With the FA Cup quarter final replay at Sunderland three days away, many expected Moyes to again make wholesale changes for our first ever visit to the Liberty Stadium to face Swansea. However Moyes, having possibly learnt his lesson, left only Fellaini and Heitinga out of a team which produced an outstanding performance to beat the hosts 2-0, thanks to goals from Baines and Jelavic. The cup replay proved to be one of the highlights of the season, as six and half thousand noisy blues travelled to see our players produce another magnificent performance, with Jelavic again on the scoresheet in another 2-0 victory. Many Evertonians had been craving a trip to Wembley, having fond memories of our 2009 excursions, and we got what we wanted. It didn't matter that we would have to face Liverpool. An eventful March ended with a comfortable victory over West Brom at Goodison, but everyone's minds were now on Wembley.
A two all draw at Norwich, featuring a Jelavic brace, and an emphatic 4-0 home victory against Sunderland followed, meaning we would go into the semi final with four wins and a draw from our last five games. In the end though, all that mattered was that ninety minutes, and for whatever reason the Everton players didn't show up. For those of us too young to remember the Wembley defeats of the eighties and earlier, this was the most we had ever been hurt by the blues. What made it worse of course, was that this was an unusually poor Liverpool side, much weaker than other teams we had beaten this season, and probably weaker than our own side. To add to our confusion, Everton went to Old Trafford the following weekend and played brilliantly to win a point in a remarkable 4-4 draw, before scoring four again against Fulham at Goodison a week later. That made 12 goals in three league games. What a shame we couldn't produce any kind of performance when we wanted it most. Jelavic was by now grabbing the headlines, having scored ten goals in just 910 minutes - this was the quickest an Everton player had reached double figures in 100 years. The Premier League player of the month award for April deservedly followed, the Croatian having scored six goals in three games.
As the end of the season approached, and with Europe out of the question, the best we could now hope for was seventh place. This would mean the small consolation of finishing above Liverpool, and also some much needed cash, with prize money of around two and half million separating seventh and ninth place. Two away draws against Stoke and Wolves meant we went into our final game of the season against Newcastle in seventh place, a point ahead of Liverpool with an identical goal difference. As it turned out of course, Liverpool lost at Swansea so we were guaranteed 7th place, however it was great to finish the season in style with a comfortable 3-1 victory, and fitting that our three goalscorers - Jelavic, Pienaar and Heitinga - were arguably our three players of the season. Heitinga had been voted player of the season by Evertonians earlier in the week, and Pienaar and Jelavic were the two men who really turned our season around. The atmosphere during the lap of honour was tremendous, with players and fans showing mutual respect for each other's efforts.
So now it's over, what's the verdict on this eventful season? In terms of hard numbers, we ended on 56 points. That's two more than last season, but five less than the season before that. We finished above Liverpool, which is nice, but most if not all blues would have swapped that for a victory at Wembley in a heartbeat. In terms of our squad, we've lost players including Arteta, Yakubu, Beckford and Bily, and signed Jelavic and Gibson - two players who have undoubtedly strengthened our squad, but once the loanees return to their clubs our squad will have a decidedly thinner look about it. Which brings us to the brilliant Steven Pienaar - he clearly wants to stay, and everyone at the club wants him to stay, the only question is whether or not we can afford him. Overall, this season has had its ups and its downs, just like every other season. There's plenty to be grateful for, and who knows, maybe we'll be surprised by a signing or two just like we were in January. We have every reason to enjoy our summer, remember the brilliant days fondly, and get ready for the ups and downs which next season surely has in store for us. Lets hope there's more ups than downs, and more than a few of them feature dreadlocks swinging their way down the wing.