Sir Alex Ferguson once famously said, “Football eh? What a cunt.”
Well, something like that anyway, and the strawberry-nosed Scot words reflected the emotions of Evertonians following a veritable ‘ding dong’ battle at Goodison Park on Monday night.
It was an odd encounter to sum up afterwards in many ways, because it felt as if the Blues, who threw away two leads – one of them in the final minute of normal time – were the architects of their own downfall given the dominance they displayed in the first half. However, for all the perfectly valid accusations levelled at them regarding a failure to make the most of countless chances, they still scored two goals and had two perfectly good ones disallowed.
Perhaps the best way to look at it is that they were the victims of some dreadful refereeing but they have themselves to blame for not already being in a position where that couldnt affect the result.
The evening started with a tribute to the Hillsborough victims that has received universal praise. In the age of ludicrous self-congratulatory Fabrice Muamba tributes from the ‘football family’ and, more widely, grief-junky coach trips to Soham, it’s easy to get the tone of these things mawkishly wrong. It was clear in this instance though that the club put a lot of thought into this and displayed a commendable level of sensitivity. The choice of music – ‘He Ain’t Heavy by The Hollies – and the photographs and names of the victims on the big screen were a reminder that we were remembering, first and foremost, a terrible human tragedy, not a football one. They got the tone just about perfect.
As for the football, Everton’s night was encapsulated in the very first minute. A slick move saw Steve Harper parry Marouane Fellaini’s low shot into the path of Nikica Jelavic who slid it home from a tight angle. Jubilation! Only to be cut short by the sight of a raised linesman’s flag and our star striker lying in a heap at the foot of the post.
Thankfully the Croatian recovered but was replaced by Victor Anichebe before the break.
Despite Jelavic struggling throughout the first 45 minutes Everton were superb, and the one goal they scored in that time was a perfect illustration of what this team is about at its best. Leighton Baines pushed a neat ball infield to Steven Pienaar, charged onto the back-heeled return and drove a low shot into the far corner of the Park End goal.
Kevin Mirallas, making his first Premier League start, tortured the visitors’ defence and forced a number of saves from Harper. Phil Jagielka then had the keeper beaten with a scorching low drive that skimmed the outside of his left-hand post.
However, the precarious nature of Everton’s lead was underlined by a couple of rare Newcastle sorties out of their own half. Baines cleared Vernon Anita’s effort off the line and Pappis Cissé snatched his shot wide following a weak header from the dreadful Phil Neville.
The consensus at half-time was that Everton might regret the missed chances, and as seems to be a worryingly regular occurrence, opponents who we had under the cosh made a tactical change and got back into game. Alan Pardew introduced Demba Ba and turned the night around completely.
Four minutes after taking to the pitch, Ba latched onto Yohan Cabaye’s angled pass from the right wing, let the ball run across his body and shot early, wrong-footing Tim Howard and finding the bottom corner of the net.
The goal clearly lifted the visitors, but from a tactical point of view Cissé and Ba never gave the Everton backline a moment’s rest. Jagielka and Sylvain could no longer bring the ball out and build attacks, forcing Howard to kick long and reducing the effectiveness of an Everton attack that lost much of the fluidity they had shown in the first half.
The Blues continued to graft though, even if their football lacked some of their earlier finesse, and on the hour they saw a goal by Fellaini denied because a linesman decided incorrectly that the Belgian was offside when receiving Pienaar’s through-ball.
The same official was to make an even worse decision a little under 20 minutes later when Anichebe’s close-range header was judged to have been kept out by Harper when just about everyone else believed it had crossed the line. Cameras showed afterwards that it was well over.
It was a rough call for Anichebe who still doesn’t seem to have won over much of the home crowd, despite his best efforts. He probably felt even further frustrated when, put clean through from the halfway line, his efforts to control the ball resembled the scene where Apollo Creed sets a startled chicken loose in the gym and tells Rocky Balboa to catch it with his bare hands.
Ba missed a chance to the Geordies ahead while Hatem Ben Arfa drew a stop from Howard when it looked like he would burst the net.
On 88 minutes though, it seemed for all the world as if Anichebe had his moment of redemption. If the big striker does one thing well, when he feels a defender get too close behind him he spins around and has a vicious dig – much like an irate lapdancer – and his turn and excellent low shot left both Harper and Steven Taylor floundering.
The Everton centre-halves were terrified by the rampaging Ba though, and on 90 minutes, with the ground still buzzing from Everton’s ‘winner’, he barged on to a flick by substitute Shola Ameobi and prodded an effort past Howard who, instead of standing firm and claiming the ball, did a Norman Wisdom convulsion and pulled a face that Viz would describe as like an adult actress’s ‘spunk gurn’.