Wayne Rooney's headline-grabbing debut season took an unsavoury turn yesterday when Everton's 17-year-old goalscoring sensation was sent off for the first time in his fledgling career.
Employed as usual as a substitute by the Merseyside club, the precociously talented striker had been on the field for 15 minutes when he was dismissed by the referee David Elleray for a crude two-footed foul that left the Birmingham defender Steve Vickers needing eight stitches in a badly gashed ankle.
Eager as ever to make a decisive impact, as Everton pressed for a winning goal with 10 minutes remaining, the teenager went for what he presumably judged to be a 50-50 ball after spinning between two Birmingham players, but was late with his attempt to retain possession, crunching into Vickers with both sets of studs showing. There was no hesitation from the referee in producing a straight red card.
However, the Everton manager, David Moyes, jumped immediately to the youngster's defence, revealing that he had asked Elleray to look at a video replay of the incident in the hope that the decision might be rescinded, although he held little hope of the Harrow official changing his mind.
"In some people's eyes it might be seen as a sending off, but I felt it was a decent attempt to make a challenge, with both players going for the ball together," said Moyes. "I went to Mr Elleray and asked him to look at the incident again, especially the film from behind the goal. He reluctantly agreed to look at it, but would not comment. I do not imagine there is any chance of him changing his mind."
Apart from a possible three-match suspension, Rooney also faces a mandatory club fine, although Moyes hinted he might take a lenient view. He also insisted he would not ask Rooney to show greater self-restraint, even though he had picked up four yellow cards in 18 appearances before yesterday, having started only four times.
"I'll be reviewing the situation carefully," said Moyes. "If you look at Everton's recent record in terms of discipline, it may seem referees are not very keen on us at the moment. I will not be asking Wayne to change in any respect. You people [the media] are saying he is a bit rough and tough, but his enthusiasm is part of his game. I'm not going to stop him challenging for the ball."
The Birmingham manager, Steve Bruce, said that Vickers, whose season has already been disrupted by injury, faced another spell on the sidelines. "It would be wrong for me to comment on the tackle because I could not see it clearly," stated Bruce. "But Steve has a bad gash in a very awkward position and has needed six to eight stitches. I dare say he will be out for two to three weeks at a time when we already have a long injury list."
Bruce had already used his three substitutes when Vickers went off, which meant both sides finished with 10 men.
That incident apart, it had been a game of few noteworthy moments. The two goals had come at the end of the first half, Tomasz Radzinski's opener for Everton cancelled out within a minute by Jovan Kirovski.
Birmingham paid the price for playing for offsides as Radzinski struck after 44 minutes, their risky tactic backfiring just as one longed for the referee to put a drab first half out of its misery. The trap was sprung by Thomas Gravesen's well-timed ball along the right, and though the Canadian's first touch was not perfect he retained possession to shoot low past Nico Vaesen.
But Birmingham's gloom was short-lived, with an equaliser coming as the half entered stoppage time. Bruce had swapped an injured Damien Johnson for Stan Lazaridis on the left flank and the change realised an immediate dividend when the Australian winger delivered the cross from which the American Kirovski headed the home side level, the former Crystal Palace player scoring his second goal in three games.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Vaesen 6; Kenna 5, Cunningham 6, Vickers 7, M Johnson 5; Devlin 5, Savage 5, Cissé 5, D Johnson 5 (Lazaridis 6, 42); Horsfield 5 (Hughes 5, 74), Kirovski 6 (Morrison 5, 61). Substitutes not used: Bennett (gk), Powell.
Everton (4-4-2): Wright 5; Yobo 6, Weir 5, Stubbs 6, Pistone 5; Carsley 5, Gravesen 6, Pembridge 5 (Watson 5, 65), Naysmith 5; Campbell 4, Radzinski 6 (Rooney 5, 65). Substitutes not used: Li Tie, Gemmill, Baardsen (gk).
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow) 6.