It is not a foregone conclusion that the man who takes his side to the title is automatically manager of the year. Tony Pulis would be a candidate for keeping Crystal Palace in the Premier League. Should Newcastle make it to the Champions’ League, you would have to consider Alan Pardew. For Rene Meulensteen it would have been a point at Everton.
The last man in charge of Fulham to have done so was the gloriously-named Bedford Jezzard in 1959. Since then there have been 21 League games at Goodison Park and 21 defeats. Everton v Fulham is the most predicable result in the English game and 4-1 was an entirely predictable scoreline. “If you saw the scoreline, you would think we were back down on our knees but it wasn’t like that at all,” said Meulensteen and for seven minutes after Dimitar Berbatov had equalised he could dream.
Everton had not capitalised on some overwhelming first-half dominance and, after the interval, Fulham had shown little of the defeatism that had accompanied their previous visit to Merseyside, last month’s 4-0 defeat to Liverpool that had pushed Martin Jol a little closer to the brink.
Everton had seen Gerard Deulofeu carried off with a hamstring injury, which his manager, Roberto Martinez, called “the day’s big negative”. Meulensteen had destabilised the Everton midfield by pushing Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell further forward. Alexander Kacaniklic had somehow contrived to miss an open goal and, when Gareth Barry clipped his heels, Fulham had their opening.
Those who imagine that the new year will see England flooded with Bulgarians in search of work should realise that Berbatov has barely broken sweat since arriving here. However, he can still take an icy penalty and gently rolled the ball into the corner of the net, just as he had against Aston Villa last week.
Everton may not have played with the swagger that accompanied their displays at Old Trafford and the Emirates but they are a supremely resilient side. This was their 17th consecutive game at Goodison without defeat, matching a record set in their championship-winning season of 1986-87. “I’ve seen it happen many times when the home team lose the lead and they collapse,” said Martinez. “But here we were brave, adventurous and creative, even if the scoreline flattered us. Fulham are a different side to the one they were three weeks ago.”
The recovery began when Romelu Lukaku slipped through Steven Pienaar, whose low, hard cross brushed Maarten Stekelenburg and John Arne Riise before being rammed home by Seamus Coleman. That, said Meulensteen, was when he knew history would repeat. A scrambled goal, nodded in by Barry, and a running drive from Kevin Mirallas put the varnish on the afternoon.
It had begun without any sense of anxiety. There is no more traditional club than Everton and the last home game before Christmas opened with a Salvation Army band and a blue Santa parading around the touchline. It ended with the players and staff singing “Bring me Sunshine” on Goodison’s big screens.
Until the interval they were bathed in self-confidence, although Martinez sensed a mental tiredness that would show itself later. Stekelenburg, like Edwin van der Sar, a wonderful Dutch goalkeeper who has found himself at Fulham, saved wonderfully when Lukaku chested the ball from point-blank range. Deulofeu was running wild.
There was, however, only one goal. It came when Pienaar turned the ball across the face of the 18-yard area for Leon Osman. You expected him to look for the pass but he cut inside and sent a curling left-footed shot past Stekelenburg. Osman is one of Everton’s most underrated players, one of only two – Tony Hibbert is the other – who can remember the club before it was transformed by David Moyes.
Everton (4-2-3-1): Howard; Coleman, Jagielka, Distin, Oviedo; Osman, Barry; Deulofeu (Mirallas, 63), Barkley, Pienaar (Stones, 88); Lukaku.
Fulham(4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg; Riether, Senderos, Hughes, Riise; Parker, Karagounis (Bent, 77): Dejagah (Duff, 83), Sidwell, Kacaniklic (Kasami, 69); Berbatov.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Man of the match: Pienaar (Everton)
Match rating: 7/10