Football: Everton ready for a new era

Let's focus on the astonishing events at Goodison rather than an anachronistic gesture from a cynical game where cheats often prosper
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN 2022, it will be a teaser on A Question of Sport - "Why did a winning manager offer the opposition a replay following a 2-1 home win in the fifth round of the 1999 FA Cup?" And the gifted-but-troublesome England midfielder Regan Gascoigne will rack his brains (every one of them inherited from his mother's side of the family) and say: "It's not fair, I always get the hard ones."

I spent yesterday trying to get worked up on Sheffield United's behalf following Nwankwo Kanu's shameless opportunism, or as Steve Bruce put it, "ungentlemanly conduct". But I failed. After all, isn't football already a study in ungentle- manly conduct?

Consider the professional foul. The penalty-seeking dive. The attempts to get opposing players sent off, as perpetrated by Slaven "Kenneth Branagh" Bilic on Laurent Blanc in the semi-final of the World Cup. And consider too the near-canonisation of Robbie Fowler when he told a referee that Liverpool did not deserve a penalty. That was like praising a man for not robbing a bank.

The convention of booting the ball back to the opposition when a game is restarted after a player has received medical attention is worthy enough. But let's not delude ourselves that it is anything but an anachronistic gesture from a cynical game in which cheats often prosper. And having got that off my chest, let me now focus on the far more astonishing events of the weekend, namely the goals by Francis Jeffers and John Oster which beat Coventry and took Everton into the quarter-finals of the Cup.

Surgeons can give pigs' hearts to humans, aeroplanes can fly faster than the speed of sound, I can sell an eight-year-old Volvo in cyberspace, Hale and Pace can get their own television series, but until Saturday Everton could not score more than a single goal at Goodison Park. The statistics are shaming. In the Premiership, this season's top scorer at Goodison is Manchester United. And United have scored 45 more League goals than Everton. A difference of 45 goals, half-way through February. Dixie Dean will be turning in his grave. Bob Latchford will be kicking the cat.

Yet we Evertonians don't care about any of that now, and those of us with longish memories can't help recalling that League form was also pretty dire in 1983-84, until the fabled Kevin Brock back-pass at Oxford United let in Adrian Heath, whose goal arguably sparked off a chain of events which led to a Milk Cup final against Liverpool, an FA Cup, two League championships and a European Cup-Winners' Cup, all in the space of three seasons.

I'm reasonably certain that nothing like that will happen this time. But even so, it was heart-warming - if a trifle disorientating - to hear Stuart Hall say on Radio 5 Live that Everton were "a revelation bordering on the brilliant today".

Never mind that he used to heap exactly the same sort of praise on the It's A Knockout team from Weston-super-Mare which, despite wearing Tweedledum and Tweedledee costumes, managed to avoid being knocked off rope ladders with giant sponges thrown by the team from Leighton Buzzard. I'm sure that he knows what he's talking about, football-wise. Even if nobody else does.

Last week, incidentally, more than 50 MPs with nothing better to do, signed a parliamentary motion congratulating Stuart Hall on 40 years in broadcasting. "His use of the English language - especially in football reporting - has made him an icon with the youth of today," declared the motion. "His rich, mellifluous voice is redolent of Sinden and Gielgud, intertwining Shakes-peare, Keats, Wordsworth et al, amid the mud and tears at Accrington Stanley."

Actually, it sounded suspiciously as if he wrote it himself. And I don't think he spends much time at Accrington Stanley any more. But I have to say that the old boy's verbose meanderings on Sports Report have given me much pleasure through the years, and have brightened up many a forlorn drive home from Goodison Park.

These days, I only get to see Everton when they play in London, usually with my friend Chris, whose distinctive Liverpudlian accent can sometimes be a liability.

I recall sitting in the main stand during a game at Stamford Bridge a few years ago, which Everton were leading 1-0 with five minutes to go. To my horror, Chris's emotions suddenly nutmegged his brain, and he stood up and yelled "Come on ref, blow the bloody whistle!"

As 30 or 40 very disapproving faces turned our way, he had to make that snap decision familiar to many people who follow their teams away from home. Loyalty or survival? Mercifully, he chose survival and, mustering a passable West London accent, added, at the top of his voice, "before those Scouse bastards get another bleeding goal!"

Comments