Wrong finale for finalists

Everton 0 Southampton 0
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The Independent Online
It was not meant to be like this. The sun was beating down, the Wembley T-shirts were being worn with a blue and white swagger; then a huge black cloud called relegation wrecked the party. Everton are back in dire straits.

Three home draws in eight days have worn the ladder leading away from the Endsleigh League to such a threadbare state that if they lose against worry-free Ipswich tomorrow night they could go into their match against Coventry next Sunday knowing the loser at Highfield Road will go down.

It is not the conclusion to a season that was anticipated when Joe Royle guided the team to the FA Cup final and then appeared to all but banish fears of the drop with a vibrant 2-0 win over Newcastle. That was three weeks ago, now the Everton manager is forced to sport the rose-tinted glasses that traditionally drop on to the noses of the afflicted at this time of the year.

"If you could have promised me it would go to the last week when I arrived here and we'd only got eight points," he said, "I'd have taken it. One win should be enough for us although this is such an extraordinary season I've given up making forecasts."

The short-range forecast for Everton is unsettled. Whereas the team steadily improved in the first five months of Royle's stewardship, their decline in the last three weeks is alarming. Deprived of Duncan Ferguson and Graham Stuart because of injury and with Paul Rideout not properly match fit, they carry little threat and even less verve.

Whether it is tiredness or that other teams have worked them out, but unleashing the "dogs of war" looks more bark than bite at the moment and as a result Royle has a tactical quandary. Should he stick with the abrasive midfield that makes Everton predictable but hard to beat or use his flair players with the resultant loss of solidity?

He tried both options on Saturday and neither had the desired effect. John Ebbrell and Andy Hinchcliffe were withdrawn in favour of the more expansive Vinny Samways and Anders Limpar and although Everton created more chances afterwards - the best two of which were missed by the edgy Daniel Amokachi from a range of four yards - they also could have lost.

Southampton, whose passing, even without the injured Matt Le Tissier, must have provoked a few nostalgic thoughts within Goodison, though they might have had a penalty when the ball hit Dave Watson's hand after eight minutes and were absolutely certain they should have had one when Gary Ablett pulled back Jim Magilton after 66 minutes.

Some would admire Terry Holbrook's refusal to bow to the consensus but Alan Ball, the Southampton manager, was not one of them. "It was his last game as a referee," he said, "and I think he was determined to enjoy himself. I can't understand the decision at all."

Ball, free from relegation anxiety, was unhappy but only to a point. Five years as a player at Goodison have left a mark and it would have been with mixed emotions that he would have greeted a victory which deepened his old club's problems.

Everton (4-4-2): Southall; Barrett, Watson, Unsworth, Ablett; Ebrell (Samways, 38), Horne, Parkinson, Hinchcliffe (Limpar, 57); Rideout, Amokachi. Substitute not used: Kearton (gk).

Southampton (3-5-2): Beasant; Hall, Widdrington, Monkou; Dodd, Magilton, Benali, Maddison, Charlton (Oakley, 75); Watson, Shipperley. Substitutes not used: Tisdale, Grobbelaar (gk).

Referee: T Holbrook (Walsall).