Football: Ferguson saves the lost souls

Everton 2 Ferguson 48, Barmby 67 Nottingham Forest 0 Attend ance: 32,567
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The Independent Online
Nobody at Goodison Park yesterday could recall the Toffees getting stuck in a losing streak of seven League games. It was hardly surprising. Even in Everton's formative years, when they wore black, the home side never hit such a prolonged patch of funereal form. Having equalled the club record of six point-less matches, established in the Dixie Dean era and equalled in Royle's own playing days, the threat of a sackcloth-and- ashes backlash hung over the latter-day boys in blue. The stakes were even higher for Joe Royle, their boss - some of us were there in case the last rites should be administered to Royle's managerial life at Goodison.

Instead, we witnessed a heartening revival. For 45 minutes Royle saw his charges play like lost souls. Then Duncan Ferguson made the vital breakthrough, in the third minute of the second half, and Everton were a side transformed. Nick Barmby, restored to action after mid-week bench duty, added a second. There ought to have been more. There would have been, had Graham Stuart been able to shoot straight. But Royle was a winning Premiership manager again, for the first time in seven long weeks. Evertonians were no longer singing the blues.

Avoiding relegation was Royle's immediate objective when he returned to Everton, minus his boots, and he has spent pounds 25m in 26 months only to find himself back where he started. Such a state of affairs could hardly have been envisaged when Andrei Kanchelskis put Everton 5-0 up in the 35th minute of Southampton's unhappy visit to Merseyside in November. The talk then was of a serious championship challenge and, when the Royle Blues last won a Premiership fixture at Derby on 16 December, they were level on points with Manchester United.

At the kick-off yesterday they were 19 points behind the champions and there were signs that the home supporters were getting restless. The travelling Evertonians may have serenaded St James' Park with "Joey Royle's blue-and-white army" for an hour and 14 minutes against Newcastle on Wednesday night, but Everton's four-goal capitulation left them with a familiar sinking feeling. It probably would have been different had Duncan Ferguson buried one of the three clear chances which fell his way but, as Royle swallowed the bitter pill of yet another defeat, it was no surprise that he lamented his lack of "an out and out goalscorer".

Ferguson, a one-time guest of Her Majesty at Barlinnie, might have been guilty of letting Newcastle out of jail but, after trotting out to the Z Cars theme yesterday, he earned his redemption. The early signs were not promising. Paul Gerrard made a nervous start to his first home game as Neville Southall's replacement in the Everton goal and both David Phillips and Ian Woan went close for Forest, as Royle's men struggled to string three passes together, let alone take control. At that point the only thing to cheer Everton's manager was the "Royle In" banner draped across Archibald Leitch's criss-cross balcony in the Bullens Road Stand, opposite the home dug-out.

As half-time approached, however, Everton built up a promising head of attacking steam. Ferguson fired a shot not too far wide of the target and then, in injury time, Earl Barrett clipped the woodwork from close- range. Ferguson's goal, coming while Forest were still digesting their half-time tea and psychotherapy, was just what Everton and their manager needed. It was only the Scot's eighth of the season, but it gave the lie to his reputation as a one- dimensional target man. Ferguson displayed the nimblest of footwork as he controlled Stuart's headed flick-on on the edge of the six-yard box, turned smartly to dribble the ball around Mark Crossley in the Forest goal and finished with a clinical, low shot.

Confidence flushed through the blue-shirted ranks and only Stuart Pearce's textbook covering tackle on Stuart delayed Everton's extension of their lead until the 67th minute, when David Unsworth crossed from the left, Ferguson rose to head against the near post and Barmby rammed in the loose ball. The celebrations might have spilled over the ash track into the Church of St Luke the Evangelist. Royle declined his invitation to attend the post-match press conference, citing exhaustion. It was no surprise. His prayers, after all, had been answered.