On an afternoon of scrambling mediocrity, it was John Gregory's visiting Aston Villa who looked the more likely to secure a victory made out of little more than effort and industry as he attempted to stop the rot which has plunged his club into a minor crisis and brought calls for him to lose his job as manager. On New Year's Day, don't forget, Villa were Premiership leaders.
Given his tendency for abusing the nearest official, it was a surprise to see Gregory taking immediate advantage of the technical box, from which he will be banned for 28 days starting on 13 December. He was busy whistling, gesticulating and shouting at regular intervals throughout the first half but none of his efforts succeeded in raising either his team or Everton to levels which could stimulate the senses.
Without a win in their last seven Premiership outings, and beaten at Coventry last Monday, Villa were in dire need of a result. But Everton, struggling as badly to put their game together, were in no mood to offer any charity in a first half riddled with misplaced passes and barely a worthwhile shot on target.
The only notable event came after 16 minutes when Don Hutchison was cautioned for a late tackle on Lee Hendrie. It appeared to be a challenge made out of frustration.
There were, remarkably, 21 British players on the pitch at the start, and worryingly the match fell into a sleepy and rhythmless shambles as both teams attempted too many ambitious long balls. Hutchison's midfield partner and Scotland team-mate John Collins was the one notable exception, but he saw too little of the ball in the hurly-burly as so much of the play passed over his head or whistled around his shoulders.
Even Walter Smith was prompted to jump from the dug-out and give vent to his feelings. Having threatened before the match to quit Everton if majority shareholder Peter Johnson did not soon sell his holding and move on, the question was when Smith might decide to throw in the towel. Everton's dismal first-half display prompted thoughts that he may leave at any moment.
The lively Francis Jeffers provided some movement alongside Kevin Campbell at the focal point of Everton's attack but, like Collins, also received few accurate balls to feet. He did, however, fire in one shot after five minutes which rifled into David James' midriff, and saw another after 12 minutes beat the goalkeeper only to be ruled out for offside. Alas, they were all Everton had to show in attack in the opening period.
Given the pressures on Gregory's future, it was no surprise to see Villa lift the tempo of their game after a tongue-lashing at the interval. Almost immediately Julian Joachim escaped on the right and, from his reverse pass, Dublin fired a first-time shot narrowly wide. Everton, too, looked more in the mood at this stage, with Jeffers unlucky not to earn them a penalty after 51 minutes when he appeared to be brought down by James in the area.
Spurred on by the directions and vocal chords of Richard Gough, a remarkably sprightly 39, Everton pressed forward to take the initiative for a short spell during which they almost snatched the lead. A close-range shot by Campbell was charged down by James and on the rebound David Unsworth hit a cross-shot which ricocheted off Jeffers and arced over the bar.
Soon afterwards Steve Watson followed Ian Taylor into the referee's notebook as the challenges became increasingly scrappy, and Gregory boldly responded to the needs of the moment by sending on Benito Carbone as a substitute.
The little Italian added some much-needed vim and almost snatched the winner when he latched on to a misplaced pass-back by Richard Dunne and then guided a low shot from 20 yards against the foot of a post. A few inches to the left and Gregory's day would have been made and, perhaps, his scalp saved for the time being.Reuse content