By Matt Rowson
Being late for Goodison Park will become a tradition if we're not careful. As on our previous visit, we scramble into Liverpool later than hoped - mere traffic rather than a blown tyre this time. My brother is way ahead of us but finds a suitable refuge, "in a church, eating sandwiches with some old women in Everton shirts". He meets us as we tumble out of a swiftly hailed taxi... only to discover that Everton, in their wisdom, have installed a scanning device on each turnstile. This may have hidden benefits in terms of avoiding ticket fraud, it certainly does nothing for the priority in hand - getting a load of increasingly irate people into a football stadium quickly. Still, what do you expect for £30? We're privileged to be here after all.
When we locate our seats we find that we have a letterbox view between the bottom of the roof and the heads in front of us, but are nonetheless able to see the whole pitch. The roof is low, the atmosphere is boisterous and the entire ambience increasingly claustrophobic as the game progresses.
Forget the warm-up, line-ups and so forth, we just about grab the kick-off, and have had no time to think about the match to come. Mariappa for DeMerit, who starts on the bench, is the only surprise in the otherwise as-expected line-up. The monstrous Shittu (take the "monstrous" bit as read henceforth, but it's a fact that remains at the forefront of one's thoughts whenever he enters view) gets off to a dodgy start with a skewed but inconsequential header, but otherwise we look pretty positive and have the early pressure, albeit without creating an awful lot.
Instead it's Everton who threaten first on the break, Johnson showing for a ball on the right flank and sending in a decent cross. Foster's hands are safe, but the attacker was ahead of him and we were in trouble had he made contact.
Unabashed, we continue to look anything but cagey... James Chambers is running his nuts off as ever, but his limitations as a wide midfielder are evident on a couple of occasions when, having worked himself a position lack of confidence in his crossing ability forces him to lay back. A winger really needs to be able to cross, particularly in this division.
Big Doris, however, is making a very good show of being completely unimpressed by his new surroundings, and is involved of most of our better stuff going forward, not least when a break on the left sees him slip Young into space, his shot from the area forcing a comfortable save from Howard.
At this point the chronology of the afternoon forces me to retreat into the stand to seek out a toilet cubicle. I'm certainly unusual (but not unique) amongst football supporters in needing somewhere secluded to dose myself up on insulin on occasions, but surely most supporters need a number two at some point... as such the forraging through the maze like underbelly of the stand, working my way through four corners labelled "Gents" before finding the cranny I was after, was a bit of a pain. My mood wasn't improved by a roar from outside, and Andy Johnson's unwelcome grin on the monitor above my head. I'd missed an Arteta chance also, it transpired, so Everton's pressure had been building, but TV replays betrayed the massive deflection that beat Foster.
Nonetheless, it was becoming increasingly obvious that we had a problem in the centre of defence, where Adrian Mariappa's confident showings pre-season were not being replicated. We were helped somewhat by Everton's seeming reluctance to get around to attacking... but too often Mariappa was sucked underneath Beattie leaving Johnson free to scamper into a gap and Shittu exposed. Just this chain of events lead to a yellow card for Shittu later in the half, when he really might have walked as last man.
Before this, we made a decent fist of snarling back at our hosts. Marlon came into the game for the first time, found rare space from Yobo's attention on the right and send a good ball across that just needed a touch. King and Henderson then exchanged passes before Valente felled the former in mid-flight, perhaps fortunate to escape a booking. Finally King did work himself into space for a clear shot on goal... the away end to a man, woman and child had "Go..." in their throats, but it didn't come, the bounce didn't fall for him and a defender headed wide for one of a number of corners.
Everton came back at us, and had their best spell of the game. From the free-kick won off Shittu's desperate challenge, Arteta hit a crossbar that rattled it's objection for several seconds afterwards. Another free kick was then given away slightly further out for a foul that I noted Chambers' booking for but official records seem to credit Francis with. Either way Valente was in some discomfort for a while afterwards, and was finally withdrawn early in the second half. A yellow card no doubt merited, but slightly uneven given Stubbs' escape for a similar over-the-ball challenge on Francis earlier in the half.
Arteta sent in another wicked free kick that drifted onto the head of Cahill and thence off the inside of the post. We were hanging on a bit, but with that Everton's pressure subsided, Doris (again) combined well on the break with Francis to work the latter a shooting opportunity, again too close to Howard. A gorgeous crossfield ball from the left found Young loitering on the right touchline, his ball to the back stick found Mahon's bald pate, his fierce header again not well enough directed and Howard saved. Finally some rare Everton carelessness on their right gave Powell another crossing opportunity, Big Doris held off Stubbs at the far stick and headed down but Howard was there again. The half ended; much as we could have been further behind we were still in the game and had created a greater number of chances. The mood in the stand was defiant as the teams trooped in.
Lucky Half-Time Chocolate: Something posh from M&S
Reason: Acquired by Sarah at Donnington Services
Level of Success: Dreadful. Strictly stock newsagents' fare from now on.
A bit of a statement of intent at the start of the second half, with Hameur Bouazza replacing James Chambers leaving us playing what can not unreasonably be described as 4-2-4. Enter, too, Jay Demerit for Mariappa, whose handling by Betty will be interesting to monitor.
And with Demerit once again stuffing Johnson into his pocket ("every time, Johnson!" reminded my brother as the striker was humbled) we looked a lot more assured at the back, giving us the freedom to throw bodies forward. Bouazza immediately found space on the left, he freed King to his right whose wicked cross was halted by an excellent defensive header by Stubbs. Minutes later Boozer had possession again on the left; his first cross was deflected back to him for a new-found confidence to prompt him to attempt to chip Howard from a narrow angle - he succeeded, but beat the bar also. Young, flitting in and out of the game, popped up on the right and sent a ball whistling inches past Henderson.
Very much on the front foot now, it was Everton playing on the break throughout the half. Their most convincing attack came when Johnson freed himself from Demerit and broke down the right to square for Beattie, who fired wide under pressure.
But really, there was only one team in it after the break. Some fine work by the thoroughly impressive Chris Powell released Bouazza again, and again he tried to beat Howard, becoming the third player of the day to rattle the woodwork to our left. Then a bouncing ball into the box seemed certain to fall to the still combative Henderson, but when the bounce didn't favour his shot he rolled it back to Francis, who drove narrowly wide. We were getting closer.
Young broke down the right, his low cross deflected wide by Stubbs. Young's was probably the only penalty appeal in the stadium; not an unreasonable one based on TV evidence, certainly more plausible than the one which came later, but it passed by unnoticed as we pressed relentlessly. Francis put over from another good position from the corner. The belief only wavered when King, on being freed by the active Bouazza, took his boss's advice and trusted his left foot from a position where we're used to seeing his right foot do damage. That should have been the one.
Priskin came on for his debut in place of an exhausted Henderson. Everton broke inconsequentially, their attacks long since devoid of threat. Until a ball is put in from the right and hits Chris Powell, appeals, penalty. We didn't have a great view, of course, but did feel hard done by... the ball had been kicked against him from our position. Match of the Day reveals the lunacy of the decision, the ball squarely hitting Powell in the face some distance from his hands; how two officials conspired to screw this up is inconceivable. And incidentally if you don't know your arse from your elbow, so to speak, then no amount of TV replay, fourth eye, whatever, is going to help. At the time, with less than ten minutes to go this didn't seem a particularly significant development, the ferocity of our attacks having petered out for all of Priskin's encouraging tidiness. As Arteta sent Foster the wrong way, the game merely ended eight minutes earlier than scheduled.
Which is one reason for not dwelling on the penalty call too long, appalling as it was. Had Everton not had a two goal cushion, Hameur Bouazza might not have been uncontested in hurtling towards the corner flag to keep the ball in play in the final minute, Priskin may not have had the space to square to Francis who finished with the help of another deflection. We didn't lose this because of that decision, we lost it because we didn't take our chances. Everton, mind, had two efforts on target in ninety minutes and scored two goals. One effort on target if you're fussy about the deflection to Johnson's shot. We had plenty, enough to have buried the game. Instead, we wasted chances and lost it.
Beaten but not disheartened, then, on a day when our fellow promotees achieved more eyecatching results. If, when, those chances start going in we're going to scare an awful lot of people. It's all still good...
This is probably my last contribution to BSaD after ten years. Thanks for making it this far...