Stevenage and the Derby and That

‘Don’t look down, lad. Don’t look down. I’ve got some good news for you and some bad news. The good news is that it’s not soft tissue damage…’

The tale of Everton’s trip to Stevenage should have been about how the Blues made a mockery of the banana-skin-seeking BT Sport cameras and put on one of those gulf-in-class-underlining performances that always seemed to be de rigeur for most of the Premier League apart from us. However, this professional and controlled display from Roberto Martinez’s Blues was overshadowed almost totally by a gruesome injury to Bryan Oviedo.

Playing in midfield and gamely tackling back, the versatile Costa Rican got his legs tangled up in the definitive ‘innocuous challenge’ – they’re often far worse than even the really ‘ocuous’ ones – and ended up on the deck. He tried to get up, his leg didn’t, and now he will miss the rest of the season and possibly the World Cup in Brazil.

Rotten luck and that ain’t no lie.

It’s a shame for anyone to suffer such a serious injury, but it seems particularly cruel on someone who has waited as long for their opportunity as cult hero Oviedo has. Now, footballing cult figures fit several archetypes, but they are mostly energetic yard-dogs, locally born hard cases, simple ale tanks or just good goalscorers who bite white people.  The smiling, Sapphic-haired Central American though has won over the Everton supporters for the way, when called upon after so long, he stepped up and seamlessly filled the boots of one of the club’s brightest stars, Leighton Baines.

Taking his sadly historic goal at Old Trafford smoother than a Kenco coffee bean then only cemented his place in the hearts and minds of Blues who all seem gutted for someone who appears to be a genuinely good egg too. He might not be, like, he might be a right little ratbag for all we know, but he always comes across as a fairly unassuming and pleasant sort – there are definitely plenty of players in the Premier League more deserving of having their leg kicked the fuck off. But we’ll probably get to some of them in the second bit.

Oviedo won’t feature for the rest of the season now, which is a genuine loss to Everton, but everyone hopes that he at least manages to get fit in time for the World Cup and comes back next season ready to carry on where he left off for the Toffees.

In better fullback news, the man whose metronome consistency kept the Latin livewire out of the first team for so long, the aforementioned Leighton Baines, has finally agreed a new four-year deal that should keep him at Goodison until he is 33. That’s the proverbial ‘coup’ because, as we never really tire of saying, Baines is just about the textbook definition of an Everton player.

‘Supports Liverpool and never won anything.’ Yes, very good at the back, very droll. If you have to have it explained then you will never really understand. He just is, possibly in the way that Steven Gerrard is more of less the definitive Liverpool player.

And you can take that however you please.

Everton did have far too much for Stevenage, despite the changes to the squad, with Steven Naismith leading the line well in the absence of the rested Romelu Lukaku. The Scot scored two goals, with the first teed up by the impressive full-debutant Aiden McGeady. Granted, it was only a Division One fullback the Irishman was skinning but considering he hasn’t played much first team football in the last six months he looked lively enough and full of running.

Substitutes Johnny Heitinga and Magaye Gueye – did you have him last goal as well? – rounded off the scoring and their mere inclusions underlined the sorry state the squad is in at present. And that’s a shame, because with our best team you genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if we went to Anfield and buried them like a pet, especially after watching their game against Aston Villa the other weekend.

With so many players missing though, you can’t have the same level of belief. A load are said to be borderline in terms of fitness, but even if they can patch up the likes of Ross Barkley and Steven Pienaar, will they be sharp enough to shine in what is a pretty tough ground for any side, never mind us?

Having said all that, despite the dent to our ambitions caused by all the injuries we still probably go with more belief than ever simply because of what’s gone before this season. The confidence that the players have and the style of football we employ under Martinez are what saw us completely outplay the Reds for long periods at Goodison, for instance, as well as also beating Chelsea there before winning away at Manchester United and then terrifying the life out of Arsenal at the Emirates when almost everyone still believed that they might actually win the title this season.

In short, nobody really has a clue of what to expect from this game. Anything seems possible under Martinez – you wouldn’t be at all surprised if some youngster like John Stones was forced to play and had an absolute stormer, while Lukaku, who must be due a decent game, could have Liverpool’s centre-halves looking over their shoulders more warily than Linda Nolan on Top of the Pops. On the other hand, their front two are clearly a genuine danger for anyone, with mantrap molars in particular proving particularly troublesome for even the sturdiest Blues’ defences since he’s been there. Therefore it’s certainly no great stretch to imagine him running riot against any makeshift back-line.

It’s undoubtedly an intriguing game then, because are so many new variables after years of these games having a fairly settled pattern, but whether it is ‘the biggest derby in years’ as it is being billed seems questionable. With so many points still to play for, and plenty of matches remaining against the division’s other top teams, nothing will be settled on Tuesday night, whatever the outcome.

So then, with all that to reflect on, and in something of a break from tradition, we leave the final words to none other than smoky-eyed shite-spieler Mr Brendan Rodgers.

‘When I came in here Everton had finished above Liverpool and last season finished above us also.

‘Everton’s basis is a good defensive record, still stable from what they have been over a few years – we are a team who have upped the ante in terms of our offensiveness.’

Norwich City Preview

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Thanks for all the messages informing us that a raw, unfiltered version of this preview was released onto the market in error on Thursday night. Rumours have it that a couple of readers in Scotland actually overheated and died from reading it. The present version has been bashed and repressed, if you consume it in small quantities and drink plenty of fluids you should be just fine. Go on, just rub a bit on your gums.

So right then, yeah, Norwich City.

You know, you sit down in front of your computer and you wait for something to leap into your mind that you can work with – a touchstone, a jumping off point – but when you think of the present day Canaries all that really springs to mind is the innocent, mournful face of Chris Hughton, wishing he was still in his tight shorts and Hummel sweatshirt putting the cones out down at the Lane instead of stuck in the full glare, front and centre, dressed like one of those fellas at the services who tries to get you to sign up for the RAC.

Norwich really are the anonymous team of the Premier League this season, with even the usual drab suspects like Fulham and West Bromwich Albion having a bit of drama. Whenever the new Baggies coach played in goal was he known as ‘Pepe Mel at one’?

What? If you think that’s an anachronistic cultural reference then please, don’t read on.

Anyway, a lot of Evertonians think that we get a raw deal on Match of the Day, but it seems like by the time Norwich come on everyone has turned over to watch Arthur Negus on Antiques Roadshow.

Told you.

So as we said,  we’re struggling here. It’s hard, not to start dragging up things that have been battered to death already, like Delia being arseholed on the pitch at Carrow Road and all that. That said, every time you see Alex Ferguson sat next to Bobby Charlton – inexplicably dressed like the fella on the Sandeman Port label – watching Manchester United having their latest collective emotional breakdown, do you not envisage him at some point, when the crowd properly turn on David Moyes, taking to the pitch with a microphone to start pleading with them for patience?

‘I’m going Bobby, they’re getting the hairdryer treatment, the fucking lot of them. I’ve had enough of this. No, I won’t sit down, they respect me, they’ll listen to reason.’

Of course you do.

Anyway, Norwich. Of course they were the Blues’ opponents on the opening day of the season, when looking back at the match report, Roberto Martinez and his new team veritably ‘set their stall out’ for what’s happened since.

We reckon if you actually go back and read all that then it saves us padding this bit out much longer.

Oh, and talking of linking back to previous bits on here, the latest ‘revelation’ about Thomas Hitzlsperger pretty much backs up what we suggested back before that West Hame game when the players wore the rainbow laces. The picture that Hitzlsperger paints of life for a gay fella in professional football is not the living hell that many outsiders like to automatically assume it is. He certainly doesn’t come across as any sort of victim.

Maybe more current players would be comfortable with going public about the fact that they are gay if newspapers didn’t feel the need to make such a big song and dance about it just to underline the fact that, like, they are dead cool with it and, you know, it shouldn’t really be a story but, you know, with the poor dears having to put up with all these bigoted cunts in football and that.

In other news, Everton are reported to be close to signing someone and it’s widely believed to be Aiden McGeady. Again, we’ve been over this before – everyone seems to assume that he’s last but he must have something that Martinez admires and, well, the Toffees’ chief hasn’t got much wrong so far.

The way his teams play, ideally they pull sides apart on the counter-attack, but because they dominate possession it can often lead to periods of walking-paced stalemate as the opposition retreat to the edge of their own box. When that happens you need players who can go past opponents and ‘force this issue’ from almost a standing start. Gerard Deulofeu is that sort of player and so is Ross Barkley – the Everton boss must think that McGeady brings a bit more of the same. Hopefully that’s the case.

Going back to Barkley, there is still occasionally talk of United making some sort of bid for him, and while we normally try to be as realistic as possible about transfers and the motivations that make them happen, you have to think that only some sort of short-sighted maniac would advise him to go there right now. In fact, any midfielder would have to think twice before being parachuted into that whole cluster-fuck. Imagine the pressure on him to bring back the glory days singlehandedly, especially on someone as young as Barkley.

‘Right then son, David’s invested £50 million in you. Pardon? £55 million? What? I thought we agreed… Seriously? Again? Can someone get David on the phone please. Anyway, that’s not your problem. As I was saying…’

At Everton Barkley is guaranteed his place, in a team built around him by a manager who has already shown he believes in him and can bring the best out of him, and he’s playing in a side with a lot more confidence than United who, as things stand, have more chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League. If not too much changes between now and the end of the season then he looks like a near certainty to be going to the World Cup, after which his profile worldwide could be off the scale, putting him in a much stronger position than he is in now to negotiate terms with whoever he plays for next season.

Why would you jeopardise that?

Finally, did you read Big Sam’s email to the West Ham fans giving it loads about ‘coming out fighting’? In other words, ‘this lot are going to have to sell more wrist pamphlets and pay up my contract, Big Sam don’t walk away from the Benjamins’. It’s almost stirring stuff, until you get to the crux of his plan of attack, which is to wait until they get their defenders back which should see their ‘clean sheet ratio’ back up.

St Crispin’s Day it ain’t.

Right then, er, Efan Ekoku, Pat ‘van den Howitzer’, Mike Walker, that’s your lot.

Everton 4 Queens Park Rangers 0

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Previously, on This Is Not Football…

Right, so after we got beat by Sunderland we had a hard game against Southampton, especially with a couple of big players suspended, but an absolute screamer from Seamus Coleman settled us down early on but then in the second half they equalised when Joel Robles looked like he was being attacked by a swarm of bees as Gaston Ramires’s shot flew through him and into the net. However, while Mark Clattenburg was upsetting and confusing flavour-of-the-month-ill-judged-move-to-Spurs-if-he’s-lucky Adam Lallana by constantly calling him ‘shit hair’, James McCarthy cleverly set up Romelu Lukaku for a winner that was taken more confidently than you would expect from someone who recently has looked dead set on a mission to prove why we wasn’t first always choice for West Brom, never mind Chelsea. Stoke City was next and it wasn’t a classic but there was a stirring climax as Leon Osman’s clever play provoked a wild challenge from Jermaine Pennant in injury time and Leighton Baines did what he does, sweeping home the penalty. Mark Hughes’s post match observation that amounted to ‘they twatted us at Goodison the other week so we’re not complaining’ summed up the high regard this Everton team are held in by the rest of the Premier League.

And then Antonin Alcaraz emerged from the showers and it was all a dream…

That pretty much brings us up to date with the story over the New Year so let’s fade in now to Goodison Park for the FA Cup third round between the Blues and QPR’s selection of well-paid water-treaders and baggage carriers.

‘Jesus, their bench looks strong….if this was 2010.’

Under Roberto Martinez we no longer suffer injuries, we uncover opportunities for other players to get first team experience, and while we all like to snicker affectionately at the eternal sunshine of the Spaniard’s mind, in the past six or weeks or so circumstance has in fact exposed Evertonians to the dervish delights of  Bryan Oviedo’s wing-back wizardry and now the quite exquisite central defensive pairing of Alacaraz and John Stones who were an absolute pleasure to watch as they cruised through this frighteningly one-sided affair.

On the rare occasion that Everton over-confidence allowed a break from the away team the danger was inevitably snuffed out by Alcaraz stepping forward like your fat uncle, holding a can of Fosters, intervening in a match at a family barbecue and chipping your service station fly-away off your toes and into the safety of the utility room. And then farting dead loud.

He looks ace, and with his hunched shoulders and smouldering South American looks he has earned the nickname (right here, now) of ‘the Straq at the back’. Or the ‘back Straq’ for short.

That’s right, and when he pairs up with our ginger midfield dynamo for a game of head tennis they call themselves ‘the back Straq and Mac’.

To be honest, none of that happened.

He is dead cool though. Considering he and Gareth Barry retired two years ago it is an unalloyed joy to watch them make much younger, fitter men look so out of their depth with such regularity.

As for Alcaraz’s rooky sidekick, Stones, well, despite all the goals and long stretches of immaculate Everton football the highlight of the match was his telescopic-legged tackle on Matt Phillips that left the one-time Everton target flat on his face while the whip-thin young defender strode forward like Paolo Maldini with a look on his face that said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what the Stones is all about, bitches, you better get used to it’.

Bear in mind as well that these two are replacing Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka, arguably the best central defensive duo in Britain this season.

It’s just a bit mad at the moment, as we seem to be rhapsodising, eulogising and something else that ends in ‘ising’ about a different player every fortnight. First it was Lukaku, then Gerard Deulofeu, then Ross Barkley, James McCarthy, and now, even better than the two centre-halves, we have Coleman absolutely murdering teams week in, week out. From right-back.

As for the goals and what have you, the first came on 35 minutes. Speedo-sporting poolside muscle oiler Julio Cesar had a decent game but a change of pace from Oviedo and Barkley opened the visitors’ defence up, the England midfielder shifted the ball just inside the box and then beat the Brazilian keeper with a low curler into the bottom corner of the Park End net.

On 44 minutes, and more or less sealing the result, pressure from Barry allowed Nikica Jelavic to nick the ball from Karl Henry, steady himself and absolutely ram a shot home from 20 yards or so. Cesar barely even saw it.

The Croatian is linked with a move from Goodison, with Loftus Road a possible destination, and the goal certainly gave him a lift. On 68 minutes he scored again, this time from close range, converting a brilliant near-post cross from Oviedo.

Jelavic should have kept the match ball but after Oviedo was fouled and the Gwladys Street lit up with camera phones looking to mark what might be the popular striker’s last appearance in royal blue, the absolute plum chipped the penalty onto the crossbar.

It was about the only highlight of the afternoon for the bedraggled QPR support but before they could sit down from their ‘calm down’ gestures, and while the apparently insulted Cesar was still unbunching his drawers, Barkley powered through the centre, fed the ball into the path of Coleman on the edge of the area and he effortlessly unleashed what one observer labelled a ‘power side-foot’ across the keeper and high into the far corner.

Jelavic then had an effort cleared off the line, so never got to redeem himself for the wank penalty. Which was hilarious, quite frankly.

The FA Cup then, as it should be, a joyous break from the po-faced ‘pressure’ of the Premier League.

We like it.

We like it a lot.

Sunderland and Southampton and That

Before-it-got-all-punchy

The games are officially coming all Darren Huckerby now – that’s right, ‘thick and fast’ – so once again we adopt the lazy-arse scattergun approach of talking about what’s going on, Toffee-wise, at the moment.

Systems are no substitute for intelligence

The horrendous snafuckup that blew the Sunderland game was more down to poor decision-making than the Roberto Martinez ‘method’. Granted, if you watched a lot of Wigan Athletic over the last few seasons you would be forgiven that horrific blunders at the back were an integral feature of the Spaniard’s philosophy, but the responsibility for ‘doing a Caldwell’ has to lie with the players.

After all, it’s not as if our goalies have never rolled the ball out before during the past century or so of football at Goodison.

That said, if you do it every time without fail it does become a bit predictable and maybe encourages the opposition to make that bit more effort to pressurise the outfield player receiving the ball. Again though, it’s down to the players to make the right decisions – it’s not enough to take unnecessary risks at the back and then simply shrug and say ‘the manager told me to do it’ when it all goes cigar shaped.

Incidentally, a lot of people have said that Tim Howard made a further error by bringing down the Sunderland player and getting sent off. In that split second though, his instinct will have been to stop a goal. He tried to make a save but Ki Sung-Yeung was a bit too quick for him. It’s easy with hindsight to suggest he should have allowed the Korean to walk the ball in, but could you imagine the scenes at Goodison if he had stood there and ushered him forward like a footman doing the ‘your carriage awaits’ sweep of the arm towards an open net?

We need to talk about Romelu

With 10 men you need a heroic performance from your centre-forward, unfortunately though ours is having a horrible time at the moment.

Romelu Lukaku looked like an utter phenomenon when he first arrived at Everton but in the last month he seems to have fallen apart. A key feature of Everton’s play has become brilliant moves culminating with Lukaku and Ross Barkley shaking their heads at each other and pointing at completely different areas of the pitch as the ball dribbles out for a goal kick,  even during the majestic team performances at Manchester United and Arsenal, .

We’ve said it before but the burly Belgian needs to get back to basics. He has to accept that he can’t always have 30 yards of pitch to run into with defenders bouncing off him like Jonah Lomu, and that 90% of being a centre-forward involves getting the better of the jiu-jitsu skirmishes with the centre-half and taking your lumps for the team. Drifting out to the wings and making applause-prompting loping jogs to hurry the keeper up are all well and good, if you want to be Marcus Bent, but Lukaku apparently wants to be the best striker in the world.

When Nikica Jelavic is coming on and showing you up by winning a simple free-kick you know you need to have a look at what you are doing.

When we played Arsenal and they started getting a bit of joy towards the end of the first half, it was because Olivier Giroud was standing strong on the edge of the box and the attacking midfielders were confident that they could fire a pass into his feet, make a run past him and he would hold the defender off and try and ‘turn the ball around the corner’ for them. Everton are crying out for a bit of that simple stuff at the moment, especially given how much possession they have just outside the opponents’ box.

There’s no lack of effort by Lukaku – if anything he’s trying too hard.

How will Martinez cope with his first hint of adversity?

Two games away from going the whole year unbeaten at home, facing a team bottom of the league who traditionally get prison-petted all over the place at Goodison – ka-blammo, 1-0 reverse.

Everton that.

As they say.

Apparently.

It’s not a crisis, or even a mini crisis. Hell, it doesn’t even merit the term ‘crisette’, but things have been running so smoothly this season that even one rather unlucky defeat at home feels like a bit of a blow.

Anyway, as a result of that game the new Blues’ boss now has some selection problems ahead of facing a more than decent Southampton team.

Joel Robles obviously comes straight in for Howard while presumably Leon Osman, after having a good long think about just what he did on Boxing Day, gets to try and redeem himself in midfield alongside Ross Barkley and James McCarthy.

Gareth Barry’s experience will certainly be missed against a wily sort of Saints team – the wide-waisted former England man was magnificent again organising the 10 man assault on Sunderland in the second half on Sunday. Given that he is almost certainly the slowest player in the Premier League he should be getting mugged off constantly, but his first touch, anywhere from the neck down, is so immaculate, and he shields the ball so effortlessly, that it is almost never a problem.

12 months ago you would never have imagined that we would all have a massive man crush on a player famous only for trailing in the wake of Mezut Ozil – can’t do the Umlaut – and that the form of Bryan Oviedo would have people weighing up whether a decent bid for Leighton Baines might be worth considering.

Something about Southampton

Their jowly young-Homer-Simpson-haired manager Mauricio Pochettino has essentially become the poster boy for sacking popular managers who appear to be doing ok. And for people who like to pass off as their own deep insights into the game the shite they read in the paper and hear on Match of the Day – for instance that clueless Portsmouth supporter on The Football Ramble when he does his ‘but seriously now, it’s just not good enough’ voice – it’s de rigeur that you mention Saints’ ‘high pressing game’ whenever discussing them this season.

So we just have.

They have some decent players and are ‘coming off the back of’ a good win at Cardiff City. Incidentally, can you wait to see who takes over there? Or even better, listen to their first press conference when they are asked about working for Vincent Tan?

‘I know what you’re saying like, but, you know, we’ve all got to put a loaf on the table, lad’.

And that’s where this thing just sort of peters out, almost apologetically.