Picture the scene. It’s the final home game of the season at 5.30pm on a Bank Holiday weekend, European football is guaranteed and so there is nothing really to play for when Everton face one of division’s top sides.
How would you imagine the atmosphere? Carefree and celebratory, surely? Especially at the end of a pretty remarkable season when, with a change of manager, the Blues also altered their style of play, amassed their highest points total for years and, for long periods, looked in with a serious shout of finishing in the top four.
For Manchester City, the Toffees represented one of those ‘teams with no pressure on them’ who we all know, when you are crying it in, can be argued to be even more dangerous than a ‘team fighting for their lives’.
And that’s pretty much how it played out. Everton played some great stuff against their expensively assembled opponents, took the lead with a wonder goal and pushed them all the way. In the end they were undone by some sloppy defending and some good goalkeeping by Joe Hart, but City’s arses were going until the final whistle.
The Blues will undoubtedly approach the final game against Hull City with the same attitude, but you won’t get all sorts of sorry cunts moaning about that, will you?
Short of bricking the City coaches for them and sobbing for the cameras at the final whistle, what did the other lot really want?
The highlight of the match was Ross Barkley’s opening goal. There seemed to be no hint of danger to Hart’s goal when Steven Naismith touched Leighton Baines’s pass into the young midfielder’s path, way outside the City area. As a result, the keeper never even saw the arcing first-time shot until it came screaming out of the sun like a Stukka divebomber.
Grasp at the air.
Roy Hodgson was in attendance and Barkley responded with not just that majestic strike but also his best all-round performance for a good while. His chances of going to the World Cup certainly improved – he can probably look forward to coming on as part of a double substitution with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when the national side are a goal down against Portugal in the late stages of first knockout game. And in all honesty the slightly disjointed, chaotic nature of international tournament football might suit him.
It’s the patient, controlled grind of Roberto Martinez’s system that Barkley seems to struggle with at the present stage of his career: constantly making correct, unspectacular decisions and sacrificing yourself for the team as opposed to the riskier, dramatic option that comes more naturally to someone with such instinctive, individualistic gifts.
Being patted on the arse by Gary Neville and told to ‘just go and run at them son’ could suit him down to the ground.
Everton’s lead never lasted long. Martinez accommodated Phil Jagielka’s return to the team by playing with three central defenders and, as ever, it looked a bit wonky. Sergio Aguero certainly appeared to have more space than you expect at the top level when receiving Yaya Toure’s simple pass and then beating Tim Howard at the near post.
Then, either side of half time, City found more amateurish gaps in the Everton backline, allowing Edin Dzeko to score a good header and then a simple tap-in.
Romelu Lukaku netted a fine diving header from a Baines cross to set up a nervy finish for the Mancunians, not least when a brilliant, mazy run from substitute Gerard Deulofeu ended with a good stop from Hart at his near-post to add to the crucial save he made at 2-1, denying Naismith after a Gazza-esque 50-yard surge from Barkley left the Scot clean through on goal.
The celebratory atmosphere at the finish had nothing to do with Liverpool; it was all about acknowledging the incredible job that Martinez performed during his first season in charge at Everton.
Just take a step back and look what he has managed to do in such a short space of time. Imagine what it is like to come into a club like the one he inherited and make such an impact on players and staff who had been operating reasonably successfully under a completely different regime for so long.
When people talk about force of personality they are normally referring to slightly tyrannical figures, especially in sport, but Martinez’s sheer charisma, determination and sincerity have won over everyone at Everton, where you can imagine there are plenty of seen-it-all arl arses who would have been rather sceptical of the smiling Tony Robbins figure who just took Wigan Athletic down.
To affect that type of total mood change then, and to get everyone to buy into a style of football that leaves no place for the less talented to hide, and to do it without being just a massive, horrible twat, well, that takes some bollocks quite frankly.
Now come on, to the KC Stadium. We go again!