Norwich and Oldham and Reading and Moyes and That

David Moyes

After the Norwich City game a massive case of ‘better fucking things to do’ kicked in, hence no update for a bit.

There’s only so many ways you can describe Everton playing nice enough football but lacking the ‘firepower’ to reduce their opponents to sulky booking-magnets for the closing stages of the match. Try we must though, because at Carrow Road they led at half time thanks to a neat Leon Osman header from a Leighton Baines cross, but we only got the customary ‘good hour’ from the Blues who crumbled worse than David Price putting on a big hat as soon as the opposition played their joker.

The week before it was Oldham throwing Robert Pershing Wadlow into the mix that set Evertonian arses quivering like a bunny rabbit’s nostril; for Norwich it was the introduction of a fella on loan from Kansas City who actually does look like a cowardly lion. The five minutes when he scored the equaliser from a corner and then the news came through that Arsenal had retaken the lead against Aston Villa felt like the critical kick in this season’s bollocks.

To top matters off, pumpkin-headed goal-getter Grant Holt stabbed home a winner so deep into injury time that there were creatures lurking in the goalmouth that have never seen the sun. That’s deep.

David Moyes came in for criticism afterwards – for bleating about the amount of added time and petulantly refusing to shake the referee’s hand – but most of all because of a late substitution that pretty much summed up what most people, not just his harshest critics, see as his biggest failing: his lack of daring at crucial moments.

With Norwich forced to push on and take risks, and Everton dropping back towards their own goal, Nikica Jelavic became isolated up front. The pacey, direct Kevin Mirallas was on the bench, but instead of coming on to run at the home defence and lend support to the striker, he simply replaced him. An isolated centre-forward swapped for an out-of-position, and still isolated, winger.

Almost everyone else would have taken off Steven Naismith instead. He’s not having a great time, although people do sometimes wonder what sort of player he is and what his best role is.

To answer those two questions briefly:

a) Imagine if you took the tenacity and aggression of Phil Neville and the touch and vision of Leon Osman. Got it? Well, with what you’ve got left over…

b) A cone.

He clearly does his best, and he’s scored more derby goals than any of us ever will, but when you consider Jermaine Beckford and even Denis Straqularsi were jibbed off after one season in royal blue, you have to think his card might be well and truly marked.

The gloom after the Norwich game was almost overwhelming – it was hard to believe that this is the same squad of players that not so long ago people saw as genuine, strong contenders for a Champions’ League spot. There is any number of theories concerning why the Blues have fallen out of contention for fourth place, and may even struggle to finish above Liverpool, and they range from tiredeness, a lack of impetus after the transfer window, Moyes’s contract shenanigans and, as discussed already, the manager’s lack of adventure, especially when in a winning position.

All those factors may play a part to a lesser or greater degree, but a phrase that keeps springing to mind is one used a while ago by worthy but really-quite-joyless football writer Jonathan Wilson, and that is ‘regression to the mean’. In short, you might have a good start, a good finish, or you might just be ‘inconsistent’ throughout the season, but over time you will average out just about where your quality dictates. When you think about it, we accept that the best side finishes top of the league and the worst ends up at the bottom, so it’s probably fair to expect the seventh best will, well…you get the gist.

Arsenal always perk up towards the end of the season and are good at smashing the granny out of sides who have given up while Tottenham without the freakishly effective Gareth Bale are at least as good as Everton. And as for Liverpool, well, we shall see.

The Oldham game was thankfully straightforward, despite a scare when Jose Baxter struck a post moments after Mirallas had put Everton in front with the sort of instinctive finish that Jelavic must remember so vividly while lying awake at night staring at the ceiling. A Baines penalty and a glancing header from Osman meant that even when Smith eventually trundled on and scored from another one of the visitors’ tremendous corners there was never any real chance of another fightback.

That lifted the mood a bit, but there seems to be a real reluctance to get too carried away – we’ve all been here too many times before and no one is under any illusions about how awkward Wigan could be in the quarter-final.

If this is the end of the Moyes era at Everton then it would be amazing if the players could rediscover their early-season form and send him off with a flourish. He has his flaws but to see his reign being described as almost 10 years wasted, as some recent articles seem to be suggesting, is hugely unfair.

If he doesn’t sign a new deal in the summer he will leave behind a club with a squad of internationals and a professionally run playing side that is a million miles from the disaster zone that he inherited from Walter Smith. It used to hurt to hear the Everton job described as a poisoned chalice, and it’s only Moyes’s efforts, in often very difficult circumstances, that have stopped the role being viewed in such a light.

It’s inevitable that every mishap between now and the end of the season will be seen through the prism of his non-committal to a new contract, and he has brought that on himself. That said though, he could argue that it would be more destabilising for him to announce a decision to quit with so much of the season remaining. You can guarantee he would be accused of it if he did.

In the unlikely event that he does extend his stay there will always be the suspicion that he is only at Goodison because of a lack of alternatives, which raises the question whether he might go even if there is no dream job available straight away in the summer. Could he ‘do a Rafa’ and have some time off and simply wait for another decent job to pop up? One thing’s for certain, one will, and sooner rather than later.

Despite a degree of revisionism and a marked willingness by some to take certain statistics out of any meaningful context, the 10 years under Moyes have, on the whole, been far more rewarding than the 10 that preceded them. Hopefully they won’t be soured by what could be the final couple of months.

The title mentions Reading but this piece has gone on long enough, quite frankly. So fuck ‘em.

Cheltenham Town 1 Everton 5

nikica-jelavic

Well then, Everton managed to come through ‘Nam unscathed. That’s right, Chelter-Nam.

Obviously that would have worked better if they had lost, but it’s a small price to pay for safe passage through to the fourth round of the FA Cup. The whole thing about ‘Nam does remind us though that it would be absolutely fantastic if a former Liverpool yard dog decided to take up another sport like Freddie Flintoff, just for the Sky One documentary about his journey into the nightmarish depths of Frimley Green called Darts of Harkness. Similarly the Liverpool Echo sports desk are reportedly desperate for the day when there’s a mass brawl featuring the team from one of the city’s foremost gay bars, just so they can use the headline ‘UNSPORTING LISBON’.

Anyway, we always say that it seems far more straightforward to play a strong team against lower league opposition and make substitutions once you are in charge rather than encourage them by fielding some sort of wanky scratch side, and it appears that David Moyes has come around to the same way of thinking. The result was a professional performance with only one minor scare.

Bryan Oviedo’s inclusion along with Phil Neville and Marouane Fellaini gave the side the look of the wall of Dennis’s, the old barbers on County Road, and on 12 minutes, after a slow opening, the Costa Rican bundled through a couple of players at the corner of the home side’s penalty area. The ball broke for Fellaini whose curling shot struck the foot of the far post and Nikica Jelavic reacted quickest to turn it home from an awkward angle.

By modern Kopite woodwork-based calculations it should really have counted as 1.5 goals, but seeing as we won there’s no point quibbling this time.

On 19 minutes Scott Brown in the Cheltenham goal made a great save from Baines’s free-kick but from the resultant corner Alan Bennett, whose father knew Lloyd George, conceded a penalty when he was spotted climbing over the back of Fellaini. You could understand why the home side weren’t happy with it given that the Belgian never jumped but Leighton Baines showed no mercy, smashing the spot-kick home hard and low.

That took the wind out of the home side’s sails and for the remainder of the half only the excellent set-piece delivery of Billy Jones posed Everton any sort of threat whatsoever. The Blues for their part looked content to play patiently – Fellaini had the best opportunities to extend the lead with a low shot wide when he should have slipped Anichebe in and then a wayward header following a strong run and decent cross by Seamus Coleman.

Three minutes after the break, with the home defence all over the place, Baines cut the ball back to Leon Osman who almost walked the ball in, side-stepping Bennett and firing low past Brown.

Only two minutes later though, the Everton rearguard looked equally dishevelled when Russell Penn latched onto Kaid Mohamed’s smart pass and beat Tim Howard at his near post.

Jeff Goulding then passed up a decent opportunity with a header in the six yard box as Everton suddenly looked ready to make the game hard work. However, before the home side could get too excited the Blues scored the best goal of the night. Anichebe burst down the right-hand side before clipping a pass inside for Coleman. While running at full pelt the young Irishman controlled the ball brilliantly before lobbing it over the helpless Brown.

Finally, on 89 minutes, the excellent Anichebe turned provider again, this time breaking down the left before picking out Fellaini for a straightforward finish.

Overall it was the sort of performance that you always feel other top Premier League sides take for granted against lower league opposition but that Everton often fail to produce.

Away to either Sunderland or Bolton Wanderers in the next round definitely has a proper, messy ‘book Monday off’ look about it.

Everton 3 Southampton 1

Like an impromptu trip out in Uncle Jimmy’s Silver Shadow, this game began full of nervous excitement for Southampton but quickly descended into bewilderment and dismay after 13 minutes of frenzied attacks.

This Everton, as we have established, are kind of boss when they field a full strength side and take matches seriously. However, for all their brilliant football, which is attracting praise from all quarters, it does always feel as if it can be undone by the most straightforward attacks from less sophisticated opponents. At times we are almost like the fella with the twirly sword who Harrison Ford shoots in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Newcastle showed that, Swansea threatened to at times, and Southampton opened the scoring at Goodison when Gaston Ramirez, totally unmarked in the six-yard box, headed home a deep corner that somehow completely deceived Tim Howard despite the rather honest nature of its back-post loopiness.

The rather likeable Nigel Adkins, who always looks like he is on the verge of casually mentioning ‘when Christ first spoke to him’, did his homework and decided that the best course of action was to push up on the centre-halves and try and force Everton to ‘go long’ as often as possible. As a result, the Toffees struggled to settle into any early rhythm and could have easily gone two down when Jay Rodriguez simply outpaced the horrible slow Johnny Heitinga in pursuit of a punt downfield, only to slide his low shot narrowly wide.

Southampton looked genuinely ‘lively’ then, and to say that Leon Osman’s opening goal on 25 minutes settled the crowd’s nerves would be something of an understatement. Adkins admitted that the Saints’ biggest worry was about the threat of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar down the left, but it was on the opposite flank where the damage was done. Kevin Mirallas and Seamus Coleman showed endless pace and endeavour throughout and it was the Belgian’s wicked cross that narrowly eluded the returning Nikica Jelavic only to drop perfectly for Leon Osman to plant a shot into the roof of the net.

After that, Everton were unstoppable. On 32 minutes Mirallas picked up a ball deep in his own half, played a one-two with Marouane Fellaini and then slipped a pass through for Jelavic who, rather atypically, drove into the box and placed a low, left-footed shot across Paolo Gazzaniga, finding the bottom corner of the net. File under ‘clinical’.

Six minutes later Jelavic scored his second with the sort of finish we are more accustomed to seeing from him. Coleman did brilliantly, taking the ball from a throw-in, pushing it past the defender on one side and running around the other before hanging a cross up to the back post. Yes, that does sound quite Lawrenson, but there’s only so many ways of describing this stuff without the occasional cliché creeping in. Jelavic’s powerful header from an awkward angle was over the line before Gazzaniga, bucking in the air like a hooked marlin, got a glove on it.

In fairness to the young keeper he made a number of decent saves, leaving the visitors at least a glimmer of hope throughout the second half. Who knows, if Ramirez hadn’t put the ball just wide after neatly lifting it over the exposed Howard, or Ricky Lambert’s header had drifted just the other side of the post, there might still have been a nervy end to a match in which Everton were once again the better side by an enormous margin.

It’s difficult to know whether we are actually conceding more chances than usual at the moment or whether it’s more that we are so dominant and playing such attractive football that whenever the opponents get a sight of goal it stands out because it just seems downright unfair now that they could actually score.

Thankfully they never and the Super Blues now sit a rather resplendent second in the league. It’s pointless speculating about where it will all end in terms of league position because there is so much of the season left to play and far sterner opponents to face than Swansea City and Southampton. Just enjoy the present aceness for what it is. Which is ace, obviously.

Quickly, going back to Jimmy Saville, if there’s one serious lesson that must be taken from this whole sordid episode, it’s that if someone looks like creepy old nonce case then they almost certainly are.

Some have said that it’s just a shame that he is no longer around to face these accusations, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do the next best thing. Who is up for throwing a brick through the window of Stoke Mandeville?