Nine defeats in their last 13 Premiership matches have transformed Everton's season. Once contenders for Europe, they run the risk now of ending the season engaged in an anxious struggle to stay above the relegation places. The only consolation for the careworn Royle was that this performance did not merit the result.
His side, in fact, were hugely unlucky, gaining no reward from a second half in which Leeds were pinned inside their own territory and had to draw deeply on the defensive resolve that has become their hallmark under George Graham's management. This was their 19th clean sheet in 36 matches this season and, not for the first time, the goalkeeper Nigel Martyn was their man of the match. Two outstanding saves in the last 10 minutes preserved for Leeds their first-half advantage in a frantic finale.
First, with splendid anticipation, Martyn spotted Gary Speed's astute defence-splitting pass and spread himself superbly to block Michael Branch's route to goal. Then, in the last seconds of added time, he pulled off a breathtaking point-blank save to prevent Speed salvaging a point on his return to the club he left last summer.
"That last save was absolutely wonderful," Graham enthused. "But shot- stopping is only one facet of Nigel's game. It is his command of the penalty area and his decision making that makes me rate him so highly. He is in the top three in the country and I can't believe he is not in the England squad."
In front of Martyn, the centre-backs David Wetherall and Robert Molenaar were outstanding, the former containing Duncan Ferguson's aerial threat as well as most defenders can, the latter forcing Royle to withdrawn an ineffective Nick Barmby after an hour.
As luck would have it, Royle's team paid for their one serious lapse, Molenaar evading his marker to head home Lee Bowyer's corner.Reuse content