Football: Southall turns back the years

Everton 1 Speed 31 Ajax 0 Attendance: 15,264
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The Independent Online
It was not a good day for the slipping giant at Goodison Park yesterday. It was hardly a great one for the slumbering one either. But, then, Everton did manage to avoid being taken to the cleaners by Ajax. The boys in blue, in fact, emerged from their black hole of a summer with the promise of some tangible sparkle.

Howard Kendall might have been third choice for the chair in the manager's office, and he might be struggling to find willing volunteers to rebuild his Everton empire of old, but he is 90 minutes away from depositing a prize in a trophy cabinet that once bulged with enough silverware to be an advert for Dura-Glit.

The former dogs of war, now just plain underdogs, bit into the pedigree pride of Ajax to reach this afternoon's final of the Umbro International Tournament. Gary Speed performed the sinking-of-the-teeth operation, his 31st-minute goal proving sufficient to decide a soporific opening contest for which one of the referee's assistants, the flagging Mr Horlick, might have provided suitably-named sponsorship. Ajax, they of the giant reputation, were certainly caught snoozing yesterday.

These are hard times for the Amsterdamers. Fourth in the Dutch League last season and downgraded to Uefa Cup status on the European stage, the Bosman effect has drained away much of the talent from the champion continental club class of '95. Louis Van Gaal has gone too, leaving Morten Olson with the task of halting the slide.

Kendall would doubtless swap places, and players too. The Everton manager did parade three new faces in his starting line-up and - while Gareth Farrelly and John Oster struggled to keep pace with the method and movement of the fluid Ajax unit - Slaven Bilic never looked out of step.

Much of the ebb and flow was dictated by the visitors but Bilic and his defensive colleagues were never obliged to revert to siege-mentality mode. Minus Jari Litmanen and Michael Laudrup, both on the injured list, and with Patrick Kluivert a Milan man now, Ajax had Shota Arveladze foraging in isolation at the apex of their formation. Industriously though the Georgian strove, Shota simply could not get a shot in.

The only effort worthy of note at either end in the opening half-an-hour was a long-ranger from Andzej Rudy that Neville Southall, at 38 an enduring reminder of the Goodison glory days from Kendall's first managerial term, managed to claw safely wide without too much trouble.

Ultimately, it was the first piece of creative ingenuity from the home ranks which provided the breakthrough, Nick Barmby turning his marker and slipping the ball through for Speed, who had timed his run to perfection, to score with a neatly flicked shot.

For Edwin van der Sar in the Ajax goal it was not exactly a setback to match the last one he suffered on the fringes of Stanley Park - the Dutch penalty shoot-out defeat against France in the Euro 96 quarter-final at Anfield. His outfield team-mates, however, were stung on to the offensive.

Sunday Oliseh unleashed a 20-yard drive that was deflected narrowly wide and Tiijani Babangida was even closer to the target with a chipped shot. Rudy managed to hook the ball into Southall's net from a Richard Witschge corner, but his 39th-minute effort was disallowed for offside by the referee Peter Jones.

Van der Sar's involvement in the second half was largely reduced to a spectator role. Everton produced little but held firm. They had their veteran custodian to thank for that, Southall pushing back the years as he stretched to push out a sublime Ronald de Boer free-kick.

Ultimately, however, it was Southall's left post that made victory safe, thwarting a downward header by the substitute Martijn Reuser. A lot more wood-touching will be required to bring the good old glory days back to Goodison.