Replacing the irreplaceable can be eye-opening

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The Independent Football

There are mysteries, conundrums, and examples of Football Association inertia. Quite why the disciplinary hierarchy of football's governing body saw no purpose in seeking a response from Robbie Savage for his apparent desire to reposition one of Olof Melberg's retinas will be known only to them. Should you have missed it, the act, during a fracas in Sunday's Birmingham City-Aston Villa derby was described by Jeff Winter - the retired official who has reappeared as an obliging ref-a-quote - as "sly, and not the act of a man".

Savage's "crime", if the act was indeed as premeditated as it appeared, should at least have resulted in observations being demanded from the Wrexham-born wind-up wholesaler and his Swedish "victim". The FA's failure to do so was one in the eye for reason. In football's league table of obnoxious behaviour, gouging ranks marginally below spitting, for which Bolton's El-Hadji Diouf was rightly condemned and suspended recently.

Predictably, verbal fisticuffs have ensued, with City's manager, Steve Bruce, informing us that Winter was "a bog-standard referee who loved himself" and worse. Yet, for this observer, the most intriguing aspect of the whole debate has not been as much Bruce's vehement defence of the Welsh whiner, but his assertion that Savage is near-indispensable within his own team.

There lies the dichotomy where this serial antagonist is concerned: for all the vitriol from opposition supporters, most would applaud his combative qualities, and, it must be said, no mean passing prowess, if acquired by their own club. To be precise, Bruce's response to criticism of his midfielder was : "The question is, even if I were to sell Robbie, where would I find another Robbie Savage?"

Perhaps he should seek advice from his friend, the Everton manager David Moyes, who, most commentators assumed in the summer, would be driven to distraction by the rather more daunting task of finding another Wayne Rooney. Instead, he used the situation not as an impediment, but an opportunity to remodel his team. He has since constructed one endowed with balance, both in deployment of personnel and of egos, and an indefatigable team spirit.

Isn't the reality that teams tend to be resilient, that they repair themselves when a large fissure appears? For all the loss of a celebrated individual, there is an opportunity for another to enforce his claims. Arsenal, for example, still won matches handsomely at the start of the season, when Patrick Vieira was unavailable. Four wins, 16 goals, from four Premiership games, during which the teenager Francesc Fabregas showed prodigious potential, suggested their French captain's absence was not necessarily the handicap the Gunners' faithful had predicted.

The north London club is one matter, blessed as they are with copious reinforcements. What of Liverpool who, with their dependence on Steven Gerrard, find themselves in a position similar to Everton's last season, when it was apparent that Rooney was not long for this world of blue in which he had been nurtured?

It could be that the cavalry will arrive in next month's transfer window, bearing the talent required to galvanise the Anfield club and convince Gerrard that a Premiership or Champions' League trophy is in the offing. If not, then despite Liverpool's strong protestations one can only imagine this young man decamping to Europe if not the Russian dependency of Stamford Bridge.

Dare one suggest that such circumstances would not necessarily be calamitous? It could actually be the making of those left behind. The Everton chairman, impresario Bill Kenwright, was, under-standably, just as zealously protective of Rooney a year ago as Rick Parry, Liverpool's chief executive, is of Gerrard now.

Yet the Goodison captain Alan Stubbs will readily admit that the England teenager's move has forced the team-mates he left behind to accept far more responsibility. "There were times last season when it wasn't going the way we wanted and we would look to Wayne," Stubbs says. "We gave the ball to him, hoping rather than expecting that he would do the things we know he's capable of. Now we've had to look to ourselves to go that next step."

Not that anyone could have predicted just how enormous that step would be. If we're honest, who didn't succumb to the logic of a strictly scientific equation: 11 Premiership strugglers minus wunderkind equals certain relegation? The analysis was absurdly simple. Rooney's desertion would deprive Everton of a turbine, and provide one to power Manchester United's championship drive.

While we still await to gauge the long-term effectiveness of Everton's teenage talisman on United, there is already pleasure among the Goodison fraternity derived from the contemplation that young Rooney might have to return home to participate in the Champions' League next season. If they'd have him, of course.

Everton have prospered sufficiently for Moyes to admit an interest in the title. Though it's rather like the penniless kid with his nose pressed up against the toy shop window, with this year's "must-have" gift (I'm told a Robosapien) in mind, it's not altogether implausible. Not if that reported £10m transfer booty is available to a manager who the Everton chairman describes as "remarkable".

True believers of an Everton title success extend little further than the Kenwright household. Which is not to say that there aren't many whose affiliation lies elsewhere (outside of north and west London and Manchester) who will not be relishing such a prospect. They will be conjuring affectionate thoughts of a cramped, anachronistic Goodison with theZ Cars theme serenading a couple of slapheads (the crucially creative Thomas Gravesen and the man-marker Lee Carsley), two ageing centre-backs (34-year-old David Weir and 33-year-old Stubbs), and a pair of forwards (Tim Cahill and Marcus Bent) bought from the £1.8m proceeds of the sale of the reputedly inharmonious Tomas Radszinski.

Can Everton continue to flourish? Possibly, the only danger is that Moyes & Co begin to believe they can live the fantasy and fly, like The Snowman traditionally does on TV at this time of the year, or they may just find by spring those aspirations beginning to melt.

Coppell's Santa clause

On that seasonal note, we can always be guaranteed that at least one managerial Scrooge appears at Christmas, normally forbidding his players' partying. This time around Steve Coppell at Reading has gone a stage further: a ban on Christmas shopping, and visits to and from relatives.

His stance was provoked by the Royals' three successive 3-0 defeats during the Christmas period which ultimately cost them a place in the play-offs last year. "If players have to go off Christmas shopping [after training] it's not the ideal preparation," he explains. "This may sound stupid, but having to fight the crowds in a busy shopping centre, going off visiting, or having people visit you, can be demanding. The wives would not agree, but I don't think footballers should be going shopping."

So far there has been no chorus of complaint from the vicinity of the Madejski Stadium, and certainly not yesterday. Sounds like the best Christmas present any player could have.

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