When the world is queueing up to applaud, something usually goes wrong and it did with a vengeance yesterday for Arsenal. The champions, whose Premiership season had hitherto resembled a regal tour rather than a bruising campaign, were beaten for the first time, and the striker who brought them crashing from their pedestal is just 16 years old.
Like the boy who pointed out the emperor's nakedness, Wayne Rooney, a striker of astonishing precociousness, struck with a minute remaining to bring the records tumbling down. Arsenal had surrendered an unbeaten Premiership run going back to last December, had been defeated on their travels for the first time in 24 matches and lost their position at the top of the table. The only blot on Everton's day is that Liverpool were the beneficiaries.
Often momentous goals are scruffy, but this one was worthy of its status. Rooney, who had come on as a substitute with 11 minutes to go, controlled a dropping pass from Thomas Gravesen with a sure touch 25 yards out and, spotting that David Seaman was off his line, curled a right-foot shot over the beleaguered England goalkeeper into net via the bar.
It was a spectacular way to decide a match and was applauded by the Arsène Wenger, who had spoken of going through an unblemished season. "It was a special goal by a special talent," the Arsenal manager said. "But you don't have to be a connoisseur to know that. He is intelligent, quick and is accurate in front of goal and the biggest English talent I've seen since I've been in this country." Indeed, William Hill have installed Rooney at 7-2 to become England's youngest ever senior player by beating Michael Owen's record of 18 years and 59 days.
Some praise, but that was endorsed by the Everton manager, David Moyes. "It was a great goal," he said. "Sometimes we criticise Wayne for shooting from unrealistic positions but it was not unrealistic this time."
It would be wrong to attribute Arsenal's demise to Rooney alone because Everton, for whom Gravesen was outstanding, bristled with intent. They competed like their futures depended on it and intelligently used Tomasz Radzinski's pace to trouble the visiting central defenders. But the result did come as a surprise given the start the champions made to the afternoon.
Arsenal, strong, athletic and buoyed by a self-belief strong enough to hold up buildings, swaggered into Goodison and had taken the lead after eight minutes thanks to the pace and vision of Thierry Henry and the persistence of Freddie Ljungberg. Henry appeared to have few options in central midfield but he meandered to the left and then accelerated away, crossing from such an initially unpromising position it seemed to surprise Nwankwo Kanu. The ball cannoned off the Nigerian, David Weir slipped as he tried to clear and Kolo Touré deftly knocked a pass through for Ljungberg to score from six yards.
Neutrals sat back in anticipation of an exhibition and to a certain extent Arsenal did too because there was a hint of carelessness about the way they conceded an equaliser after 22 minutes. A quick free-kick caught the visitors in mid-protest and after Gravesen held off Patrick Vieira, Lee Carsley crashed a shot against the post.
Again Arsenal were slow to react and Radzinski collected the ball 30 yards out, cut in and got his shot in just before Pascal Cygan could make up the ground. Seaman almost recovered his position and Ashley Cole was positioned on line but the ball eluded them both.
Arsenal had to increase their urgency and they might have regained the lead within three minutes of the start of the second half, the former Highbury goalkeeper Richard Wright saving at Kanu's feet from Vieira's pass. But it was a sign that things were not going entirely to plan when Sylvain Wiltord, who had been resting on the bench, had to be introduced just after the hour and he almost scored with his first touch. Henry was thwarted by Joseph Yobo's tackle and, with Wright out of position, the Frenchman had a narrow angle to aim at as well as a rapidly crowding goal-line and hit his shot against the post.
Arsenal, increasingly tetchy, poured forward but Wiltord's effort was to prove their closest, if not their last, effort and it was Everton who finished the stronger. Rooney came on and scored and, in injury time, might have had another when he audaciously tried to chip Seaman from the edge of the area. This time the ball looped over but it did not matter and the only consolation was that Seaman, who has been given a torrid time by the tabloids since his England aberration in midweek, was not at fault for that or for Rooney's winner.
"He had no chance," Wenger said. "No goalkeeper in the world would have saved the goal." How had the other players reacted to surrendering the unbeaten record? "They are very down," Wenger replied, "but they are winners. I would like to congratulate my team for what they have done. They deserve respect."
Everton 2 Arsenal 1
Radzinski 22, Rooney 90, Ljungberg 8
Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 39,038