Football: Everton fall under weight of expectation: Crystal Palace post first home win - Forest stay in touch - Newcastle maintain Premiership lead - Misery continues for Spurs

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The Independent Online
The performances may ebb and flow, but the results remain constant. It is 13 matches without a win now for Everton, the last four Premiership ones without a point or a goal. Since last October, they have taken six points from a possible 60 away from home.

You can do a lot with statistics, but massaging these ones into respectability is too difficult a task, and there appears no immediate prospect of better days.

Earlier this month, having been competent at Old Trafford and useful at Portsmouth, Everton looked about to stage a recovery. However, they then folded at Southampton and were abysmal hosting Coventry. On Saturday the performance improved but not the result, an Andy Preece goal giving Crystal Palace their first home win of the season.

Improvement is a relative term. Everton may have been better than for the past fortnight, but they were still poor. The midfield passed the ball around neatly enough, but they were impotent in attack and nervous in defence.

Mike Walker, the Everton manager, retains a remarkable degree of support from the supporters and Peter Johnson, the chairman. The vultures, however, continue to circle.

Arsenal, the improving West Ham, and Norwich are Everton's next opponents; three wins would see them off the bottom with comfort, but would you bet on it?

Palace, however, may well be about to rise up the Premiership table. They have an easier run of fixtures - Leicester, Coventry and Ipswich - and this victory caps a series of unrewarded good performances, most notably against Newcastle last week.

Last year Palace were First Division champions, yet it is the team which trailed them home, Nottingham Forest, that stand second in the Premiership.

The main difference has been in scoring goals; Forest have 25, surpassed only by Newcastle, while Palace have seven, the equal lowest.

Fortunately, they have developed one of the Premiership's tightest defences.

Since the 6-1 home defeat by Liverpool on the opening day of the season, Palace have conceded eight goals in 10 league games. Chris Coleman and Richard Shaw have formed a solid core, with Nigel Martyn a maturing presence behind them.

Everton, in contrast, are over-reliant on the fading grandeur of Neville Southall and Dave Watson. With Watson injured on Saturday, they looked likely to concede from every cross, eventually doing so when Preece rose above Matthew Jackson on the far post to head Chris Armstrong's cross past Southall on 52 minutes.

Southall, perhaps off-balance, was rooted to the spot for the goal, and ended the match arguing with Walker. It was an unfortunate finish to his 464th appearance, a figure believed to eclipse Ted Sagar's club record.

Sagar, another great goalkeeper, ended his Everton career during their last spell outside the top flight 42 years ago. It would be a shame if the same happened to Southall who, while no longer the authoritative figure of the mid-1980s, is still capable of heroics. On Saturday he made several important, if scrappy, saves.

Preece's goal, and his joyous reaction, perhaps symbolised the other difference between the clubs - hunger and team spirit. While Everton are a mixture of new signings, loan signings and pre-Walker players, Palace are a unit.

Six of the side on Saturday were former youth-team players, all but Preece have been with the club for at least two years. It is a similar balance to that which won Arsenal the title five years ago.

'They have grown up together,' Alan Smith, the Palace manager, said. 'They drink together, stick together. They are men in the best sense of the word.

'In these games, where it is all about living on your nerves, you need players who are mentally strong. One of the things I learned on the way up in management is that you cannot afford whimsical players, they get you the sack,' said Smith.

The way Everton stuck to their task after going behind suggests team spirit is better than results indicate, but it is a difficult mix. Every new player displaces someone else which can create resentment, especially in the case of loan players. Some excluded players will fight to regain their place, some agitate to leave, others will settle for reserve-team football - especially at a club with good salaries such as Everton. That is what Smith calls the 'comfort zone'. 'There are not too many players in that position here,' he added.

Preece, Smith's only summer signing at pounds 275,000 from Stockport, epitomised their hunger. Having come late into the game after years in jobs such as van driver, labourer and salesman, he appreciates his position.

'I know what it is like to have to go out and earn a living,' the 27-year-old said. 'I then spent five or six years getting to the top flight and I want to prove myself. It is such a lift to play in front of these big crowds, when I am feeling tired the atmosphere keeps me going.'

Everton's pounds 7m forward pair, Duncan Ferguson and Daniel Amokachi, were less successful. Both worked hard but missed good chances. Ferguson, on loan from Rangers, looked useful when not complaining to the referee, and brought a marvellous save from Martyn with an early volley on the turn. However, he later headed straight at the goalkeeper after again linking well with fellow Rangers player on loan, Iain Durrant.

Amokachi, the Nigerian World Cup star, was anxious and out of touch, twice making a hash of good chances. 'I don't regret coming here but it has all gone wrong,' he said after the match. 'I have to accept my share of responsibility, I am missing too many chances - my contribution is not enough. I am hoping, praying, we can change things before it is too late.'

There is a long way to go in the season, but it is worth noting that this time last year Swindon had five points. They remained anchored to the bottom all season.

Goal: Preece (52) 1-0.

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Martyn; Humphrey, Coleman, Shaw, Gordon; Bowry (Pitcher, 75), Southgate, Newman, Salako; Armstrong, Preece. Substitutes not used: Dyer, Wilmot (gk).

Everton (4-4-2): Southall; Jackson, Unsworth, Ablett, Burrows; Stuart, Samways (Parkinson h-t), Horne, Durrant; Ferguson, Amokachi. Substitutes not used: Rowett, Kearton (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

(Photograph omitted)

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