Everton Vs Wigan Athletic. Is there any fixture less appealing than that which occurs on Boxing Day? I’ve been to my fair share over the years and have often found them to be amongst the most foul-tempered games I have ever attended.
I remember one in 1995, Everton v Sheffield Wednesday, which was the worst match I have ever been too. Wednesday beat us 4-1, a score-line that probably flattered Everton. The crowd were in a really sh**ty mood and booed the players for most of the game. Thousands of supporters left long before the final whistle, the appeal of a comforting pint or an empty bus home overriding any sense of loyalty to the disappointing pile of bol**cks they had paid to watch.
I remember watching those leaving with a sense of envy. There was a massive shaven-headed scally stood to next to me, screaming colourful insults and threats at all those choosing to leave early. Such close proximity to this embodiment of raw fury ensured that I stayed there until the bitter end, desolately munching on a mars bar that I brought from my selection box.
The Sheffield Wednesday game was not an isolated example. Going to the Boxing Day match was as integral to my family’s Christmas traditions as turkey, gluttony and the ever-present stench of whiskey. And so I have a pretty extensive back catalogue of memories to draw from. Sadly, few of them are happy ones. I’m not sure if it was due to the inevitable post-Christmas come-down, or the fact that a lot of those attending the game were suffering the ill-effects of a Christmas day binge but I remember most of these games as being characterised by a foul tempered crowd, more intolerant of the home side’s shortcomings than at any other point in the season. As a result I grew to hate these games, dreading their approach in the fixture list.
Aside from the horrible atmosphere, these matches were also really difficult to predict. Take that Shef Wed fixture. At the time, under the guiding hand of Joe Royle, Everton were on a bit of a roll. Although still near the bottom of the table (following several months under the management of Mike ‘calamity’ Walker) we had managed to take eleven points from five games. Shef Wed weren’t that good and the supporters, reasonably, expected us to take something from the game. But instead Everton got their eye-wiped.
Maybe it’s the Christmas festivities that make this fixture so weird. There’s no way some of the players involved don’t have a few too many sherrys on Christmas Day. Like those assembled to watch the game, they too might be feeling the ill-effects of the holidays.
It’s the unpredictability of the Boxing Day fixture that makes tomorrow’s game against Wigan Athletic so hard to call. On paper at least, Everton must the favourites for the win. Wigan have had a pretty dire start to the season, currently find themselves in the bottom three and have lost four of their last six games. Everton by contrast, have had their best start for years and find themselves just outside the top four. We have also become very difficult to beat, having only lost two from our last twenty six Premiership games. Throw in the fact that Everton are at home, a ground that has long-been a formidable place for other teams to visit and you’d be forgiven for predicting that Wigan would leave the game with nowt.
But of course, paper means sod-all when it comes to Boxing Day. And so, there’s every chance that Wigan could upset the form-book and give Everton a decent kicking tomorrow.
Regardless of the result, the game should at least represent an interesting clash of styles. They might lie at the nether regions of the Premiership, but no-one could label Roberto Martinez’s side of playing ‘typical’ relegation football. Wigan, in short, play it about nicely. It might not be the most advisable approach for a team with their resources but Wigan Athletic have still prospered in the Premier League when other, more conventionally ‘direct’ teams have failed.
Had this game been taking place a few months ago then I’d have said that Everton, while not nearly so passing-obsessed as Wigan aspire to be, were at least heading in the same direction. But in recent weeks we seem to have reverted to the playing-style that has been more common during the Moyes-era; tough to break down, big on crossing, difficult to play against.
Oddly, although ‘technically’ inferior to what we were playing before, it’s actually yielding results. We’ve gone from a team that outclassed its opponents yet ended up drawing almost every game to one that is finding games more difficult yet is coming away with the win. It’s the style of play that I prefer Everton adopting; tougher and more solid. It might not be as exciting to watch or dazzle teams with its brilliance but it works.
Normally it’s also the style of play that would probably be good enough to dispatch Wigan Athletic, much as it did last year. But then that game didn’t fall on Boxing Day.
Luckily I won’t be anywhere near Goodison tomorrow, having sworn off this fixture after I left home, setting up a new set of traditions with my own family (although keeping the gluttony). I’ll listen to it from a safe distance instead, my only link with the past a single mars bar (stolen from my kids selection box) that I will gleefully stuff down my face.