For much of last season, a typically combative yet unusually stylish Everton looked good enough to grab a trophy. And at the season’s end, they more than deserved their sixth place finish above many wealthier clubs.
The trophy didn’t come however, because of a team led by an articulate Spaniard who has since become the bearer of Evertonian hopes and dreams.
Roberto Martinez’s Wigan dumped us out of the FA Cup with such ease that March afternoon, it was as if he’d used time travel to predict every kick and plan our downfall accordingly. It wasn’t meant to happen that way, Wigan were apparently not good enough to beat us. More importantly, I’d set up an online betting account, the kind listed on 8/10 of divorce papers, and stuck a tenner on Everton to win 3-1. However, three beautifully taken goals in four minutes let Wigan continued on their unlikely road to Wembley glory.
Four games into the new season and Everton are playing a version of the patient passing game Martinez used to win his former side an FA Cup and relegation. Like many Everton fans, I’m keenly aware our style of play has had a checkered recent history. And like all blues I want to see good football, but I want Lineker talking about us on Saturday night telly, not Manish on the later slot.
It’s still early, but the signs are good. Pundits keep saying Everton lack a cutting edge despite lots of possession – and though it pains me to say it, they are right. Unlike Barcelona, the Jedi masters of tiki-taka, we don’t have a Messi or Neymar to put the ball in the net after an umpteenth pretty pass. Instead, we have a mysteriously out-of-sorts Croatian and few just-arrived strikers who haven’t had time to break their boots in. Having said that, things are positive largely because so many players in the squad look so composed on the ball, which suggests there’s much more to come this season.
Also, after an amazing final few hours in the transfer window deadline, the club played a blinder by adding some excellent players. If the Premier League was decided by who’s best at getting players in, our name would be on the silverware already. What club (apart from his own, Chelsea) wouldn’t love to have goal machine Romelu Lukaku for a year? And James McCarthy, a prime engineer of that fateful 3-0 FA Cup victory in March, is as young, creative and fiercely competitive as they come, while Gareth Barry…yes, well Gareth Barry.
I must admit I was not jubilant about his arrival, a dying breed kind of guy – a Man City squad member with an English accent. And for me, he’s lost a lot of pace and his performance in recent internationals puts the ‘non’ in anonymous. But football is, of course, a funny old game and in our hard-fought first win of the season, he was dynamite. Well, not tiki-taka TNT but he did make an astounding last-ditch tackle to save our bacon against Chelsea and knocked the ball about like he’s been playing under Martinez for years. These are good signs indeed – and I haven’t even got to Ross Barkley.
Has any starlet of recent years, at Everton or anywhere else, got as many people talking as this lad? Each time I see him he reminds me of another former great: Trevor Steven one week, Gazza the next. He is painfully young of course, miles from being the finished product, but everything about his approach screams quality. Whether it’s his running at players, or how he throws the ball around the pitch like a young Zizou, there’s just so much to enjoy. And best of all we are seeing him get better and better. This is one of the things about football that ridiculous wages and corporate greed will never diminish – a story of greatness unfolding before our eyes. A bit like Wayne Rooney? Perhaps, but let’s leave him aside for now.
If Barkley’s emerging class has been a spectacle, Leighton Baines’ heroic loyalty, class and Mercury-nominated haircut have been as much of a joy. He’s one of the best attacking left-backs in the world (yes, the world), he takes a guitar to away games like some sort of character you’d scoff at in Roy of the Rovers and best of all he’s a blue.
It hasn’t all been good recently. We lost Fellaini for a start. But, although he was clearly our best player, the transfer request spoke volumes about where he wanted to be. Also, I think we’d probably have won the first three games under Moyes. But would we have had such a great transfer deadline day? I think not.
There is much to look forward to, however. If football gets you down this year, and being an Evertonian it certainly will, just think of Bainesy rising above it all on a Monkey Magic cloud of cool to lift the gloom. Well, I will anyway.