If Everton were to think about modernising their famous motto, and let’s face it, less than the best has had to suffice for quite some time now, they might consider something about necessity being the mother of invention.
Limits and boundaries are often said to be boons to creativity in all fields, and David Moyes has consistently found inventive ways to overcome the constant challenges facing the Toffees and produced teams that stand toe-to-toe with clubs who have very few financial constraints in comparison.
The most obvious example came on Monday night when champions-but-for-a-whisker Manchester United turned up at Goodison for what is becoming the most exciting fixture in British football. Wayne Rooney, who should have become an Everton legend but for the realities of the modern game, led the attack for the visitors who also had Robin van Persie, the Premier League’s best player last season, sat on the bench, poised for his debut. And yet, for all the ludicrously-priced attacking talent that United boasted, it was a panic-buy defensive midfielder converted into a forward who gave the devastating, decisive display of centre-forward play.
Marouane Fellaini, a £15 million deadline day purchase in 2008, struggled for a long time with the pace of English football and his manager’s inability to decide on a settled position for him. What seemed at times like overly harsh treatment at the hands of referees frustrated him even further, and there came a point where it would have been easy for him to give up on the Premier League and look for a move to a country whose football was more akin to that of Belgium, where he shone for Standard Liege. It’s to his enormous credit then, and that of the coaching staff at Everton, that they turned a slightly predictable and one-paced midfielder into the all-action force of nature that smashed the granny out of United here.
Makeshift centre-half Michael Carrick was particularly traumatised, especially in the 57th minute when Fellaini easily out-jumped him to head home Darron Gibson’s corner for the game’s only goal. United’s lack of recognised central defenders shouldn’t be allowed to detract from Fellaini’s performance though, or indeed that of the whole side. After all, the Belgian was almost as good against Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans in the 4-4 at Old Trafford at the tail end of last season.
On that afternoon it was United’s inability to finish off the hatfuls of chances they created over and above the four they scored, and then failing to hang on to a two goal lead, that cost them a freak match and ultimately the title. Their opening match of the 2012/13 season was a different proposition altogether though.
In the first half Everton fucking battered them and it was only the performance of David De Gea – wonderfully described in United We Stand as looking like the symbol for fire on the back of an aerosol – that allowed United to go in goalless at half-time. A Steven Pienaar header was tipped over, Fellaini finished a strong run with a shot against the post, Pienaar’s low shot was superbly tipped around the other upright and then De Gea stretched brilliantly to keep Leighton Baines’ slightly deflected free kick out of the top corner of the net.
United had some spells of tidy possession, but a Danny Welbeck shot scuffed narrowly wide was their most dangerous effort of the first period.
After the break, Everton continued to press, although doubts began to creep in when Osman positioned himself perfectly to meet a Fellaini knockdown, only for his venomous volley to crash out to safety off the underside of the bar. Indeed, the visitors broke immediately and only a brilliant recovery tackle by the rejuvenated Phil Jagielka prevented Welbeck from ‘pulling the trigger’ (having a shot) when clean through on Tim Howard.
With the Blues a goal up, Jagielka saved them again, clearing Tom Cleverley’s shot off the line with Howard beaten.
The last half hour was interminable as Everton tired, van Persie and Ashley Young were thrown on and United pushed forward. However, for all their possession and neat switches of play across the pitch, when the ball came into the box it was almost always an Everton head or boot that made contact first.
Referee Andre Marriner, already in the bad books with the home crowd for allowing Paul Scholes to get away with a handful of snidely, spiteful tackles that are his speciality, prolonged the agony for what felt like an extra half hour of injury time, but once the comically rotund substitute Anderson smashed a shot into the Park End it was all but over.
Everton were praised effusively afterwards – even Ferguson’s vinegary comments were not quite as bad as they first seemed when shown in context – but the emphasis on effort, spirit and commitment perhaps misses the point slightly. After all, every side that faces United try to ‘set their stall out’, ‘get up in their faces’ and all that sort of stuff, for all the good it does them. Hard work isn’t enough though, unless it’s being done by good players, and that’s what Everton have. Not as many as United or the other top clubs, but enough that they can and regularly do give the very best a good game.
And fucking hell they got one here.