PIES? WHAT PIES?
Mickey Blue Eyes
Midweek, I paid my first visit to a reserves match in many years; so long ago, home fixtures were then played at Goodison Park. How times change. (Illustration: a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Everton won the Central League title the same year of first team promotion from the then Second Division. The reserves average gate hovered at 20,000.) Quite rightly, nowadays first class clubs do not allow the hallowed turf to be endangered by weekly trampling. Thankfully the era of playing on mud heaps is long gone, hence our home reserves fixtures are played at Widnes Rugby League ground twenty five kilometres away. A tidy little place it is, too, in comparison to the previous rugby home of Naughton Park. It has an all-seated capacity of just over 13,000 and an average rugby attendance of over 2,500. On Tuesday night the gate was a little more than 1,200, where apparently it is usually about three or four hundred. The attraction was the first joint appearance of loan signings Roy Drenthe and Denis Stracqualursi.
Surprisingly, the match V Aston Villa was a feisty affair won 2-1 on a cold, windy evening featuring remnants of the US hurricane season. The team also included Ross Barkley and Magaye Gueye. Deservedly two up at half time, Ross scored the first and Roy got the second, both from first class work by Magaye. The young Frenchman had a lively and strong evening that bodes well for first team duty, as did Barkley, who again showed formidable composure and confidence for an adolescent.
Roy also ended up with a booking, a volley out of the ground and a pugnacious display on the left; looks as though he needs to lose weight though. Denis had an overhead kick, an outrageous long range attempt and a gruelling introduction to the English game. Of the two, Roy looked by far the most likely and got stuck in wherever he could until he was subbed to well-deserved applause. You felt it was timely too because he might have been tempted to lay out Villa's thoroughly nasty right back, the cause of his booking after said nasty tried to punch out young McAleny's lights after losing a touchline skirmish. Roy tried to adjust the physical odds and paid the price for being highly visible in a crowd. Needless to say the original offender got a walk over, not even a finger wagging. But overall the player who really caught my eye was nineteen years old Aristote Nsiala at centre back - if this display wasn't an exception he looks like he could be the new Des Walker. I hope fate is kind to him. And us.
It was a good evening all round, almost knob head free. You could see family and friends clustered together without having their ear drums assailed by somebody with a bladder full of ale-house wind and the mentality of a turkey. Alas, when the touchline mêlée kicked off it drew a purple tirade from a loud, middle-aged, substance-slurred voice. We might have known we wouldn't escape scot free. They're never far away.
So it set up good prospects for the home match with Wigan even as we tried not to shudder at the memory of this fixture last season. Just thinking about it was enough to give you a migraine. I must admit though to a soft spot for Wigan Athletic, Roberto Martinez and David Whelan. They have created one of football's miracles right in the centre of a town that obviously prefers egg-chasing to real footy. And they have survived in the Premier League against near insuperable odds. I thought we would win, but knew it would be harder than most seemed to think. And so it transpired.
Given last week's first class display and the size of our squad Moyesy's team virtually picked itself, so same again. For the first ten minutes it looked as though we would get a repeat performance too: good, sharp passing and positive attitude everywhere - Bily managed a couple of twisting tricks just inside the left side of the penalty area before the ball came wide to Bainsey and one of his specials zoomed beyond the far post, where Seamus butted in an excellent downward header which the Omani 'keeper Al Habsi saved well. As the half wore on you felt it was just a matter of time before we got one. Leon and Tim both went close, then Felli hit a close in shot against Tim before Hibbo saved the day at the other end with a quite brilliant last second tackle on their man near the left corner of the goal area. Unfortunately we couldn't keep it up; we still dominated, but the Pie Eaters weren't going to lie down and die.
After half an hour we let in a strike that was both lucky and annoying. Wigan got a left side corner played into the near post. The ball bounced back off Leon as their man chased it back toward the corner with Leon right behind him. Then he turned, shrugged the little man off as though he wasn't there, went two paces further out to widen the angle, got badly neglected by both Leon and Seamus, swung a boot at the loose ball as Hibbo tried to make up for the AWOLs, it deflected, hit the ground and carried up and over Tim Howard into the top left of the goal. It was what my long-ago physics teacher used to call, "A fortuitous concurrence of atoms." Evertonians around me described it in other terms. So did I.
But the lead only lasted for a minute. We went straight at them from the restart and got into the left angle of their penalty area. Bily did his twist routine and smashed in a shot that ricocheted off a defender for a corner, taken by Leon and hit to the far side of the goal area into the usual tugging, shuffling, pushing crowd. Tim, all spring heeled jack out of the mob, made a tremendous header that smacked against the underside of the bar and bounced down fortunately for Jags to head it home from the centre of the goal area. It was the least we deserved.
Wigan plainly hadn't read the script for the second half and asserted themselves on the game. Some of their football was quite outstanding in short bursts of neat passing and interchange play. They could have taken the lead on at least two occasions with attacks down their left wing, one when their man cut in beautifully and hit a brilliant shot that would have gone home on a better day; instead, it flew narrowly over. In fact most of Wigan's play came down their left as Seamus tired and Leon did one of his inexplicable invisible man cameos. If anyone looked likely it was the Pie Eaters as our midfield began to lose it. Subs were necessary, and were duly made: Vellios came on for Seamus, Roy for Bily and El Traca for Tim. The team formation shuffled - to what shape I am unsure, but it paid off in big money. At times like this managers are either heroes or mugs. In this case the enemy suddenly found themselves confronted with two very large strikers and a speed merchant, just when they figured they had mastered the tempo of the game.
With about five minutes left we got a leading goal, and very nice it was too, really good teamwork. Sylvain Distin won the ball at wide left half way and then hit a long ball forward right on to the head of El Traca, who headed it backwards into the chest of Vellios outside the D. Wigan had clustered around them and left our right wing clear. So Velli knocked it wide and then went forward into the penalty area while Hibbo had time to compose himself, look up, and deliver a perfect cross to just forward of the penalty spot. Whence came the young Greek Hero between two central defenders and an equally perfect, classic downward header for his first Everton goal.
Wigan had every right to feel hard done to. And just to prove a point they immediately went down the other end and hit the bar. Had it gone in it would have been no more than they deserved. Then again, sports are cruel to everyone and we know it better than most. Hence, understanding but little sympathy.
Then Roy rubbed even more salt into the wounds with his first goal for Everton in the final minute of normal time. This too was a classic goal, this time Route One. Tim Howard took a left side goal kick that travelled to mid left in Wigan's half, El Traca won another backward header through the middle and Roy ran through and clipped it left footed past the keeper from just inside the penalty area. Game shot.
It was a good, spirited win despite a slight second half fall from grace. Everyone played their part and none more so than Tim Cahill who took a fearful battering up front as he tried for the first hour to bear the full striker burden, not his normal role. Defence was solid enough and midfield became iffy until the subs changed emphasis of the game and stretched play. There were moments in the second half when Felli and Jack struggled to compensate for AWOL Bily and Leon, a near hopeless task and one that won't be possible against better teams. The question now is what to do with the strikers and when to play them.
We'll find out soon enough. The next league match is at Manchester City.