Could be make or break for Moyes and Everton as jigsaw takes shape
SOCCER ANGLES:Today should be an indicator of Everton’s true strength, attitude and self-belief
THERE ARE a bucket-load of smiling anecdotes in Neville Southall’s autobiography, a life story that is as intriguing, entertaining and as far from the norm as the man himself. Evertonians will wallow in Southall’s Goodison Park years, when he became arguably the greatest goalkeeper in the world as well as an eccentric figure – his book is called The Binman Chronicles.
In it there is an early-career, pre-Goodison story that will strike a chord with Southall today as Everton go to Wigan attempting to win a fifth Premier League game of the season, and with it confirm a surprisingly pleasing beginning to it.
There was nothing Premier League about the 1980 tale from Springfield Park that Southall relates. Here was a 21-year-old just-arrived from non-League about to make his professional debut for Bury at Wigan in the old Fourth Division.
Young Southall was replacing an old Bury favourite and as the new ’keeper went to warm up in front of the visiting fans, “they started booing me.
“You’re f**king shit! Why don’t you f**k off!’ they yelled,” Southall recalls. “This was just the warm up!”
The only way was up for Southall after that. Ultimately, so it proved. But it was no straight line – Southall was loaned to Port Vale by Everton manager Howard Kendall at one stage – and the intricacies of his career should act as a warning about making assumptions about Everton’s trajectory this season. Kendall had his doubts.
David Moyes’ team are already out of the League Cup – one of the two realistic pots Everton can win in any given season – after an underwhelming, doubt-forming performance at Leeds United 10 days ago.
That was followed by a return to form against Southampton last Saturday at Goodison Park in the league. There was something about the euphoric sweep of Everton’s goals that took you back to the first Kendall era.
But then last season Everton had just beaten Manchester City at home when they travelled the few miles to Wigan.
They needed an 83rd minute Victor Anichebe equaliser to get out with a point.
So there are reasons for caution before lining up to pat Everton’s back.
But there is also a growing body of evidence suggesting Everton have developed. This is seen in results, hence they are second in the division, but also in periods of play.
Against Newcastle in the first half, for example, Everton were rampant. Yet it was in the second half that they had two legitimate goals disallowed.
But for some chronic refereeing, Moyes’ team would have 15 points instead of 13.
The Blues had sent out a message of intent from their opening night, when Marouane Fellaini inspired a momentous, victorious effort against Manchester United. The slow-starter tag, which is no myth, took a hit.
Aston Villa, Swansea and Southampton have been beaten since and while that is not a list of potential top-four finishers, Everton’s 13 points from six games looks a presentable tally, especially when compared to last season – then it took Everton 11 games until mid-November to reach 13 points. The season before that it took 10 games to get to 13 points; the season before it was 11 games.
So Everton are ahead of themselves, and when you consider that in the last three seasons they have finished 7th, 7th and 8th, there is an explanation for the excitement caused by this jump-start.
Maintaining it is the task. Only twice in the league last season did Everton win consecutive games, hardly the sign of either sufficient talent or booming confidence.
But consecutive victories must become their habit and although a win at Wigan would not convince all about blue progress, failure to do so would prompt a debate, possibly internally and possibly damaging, because at times down the Moyes years it is as if Everton have needed to convince Everton.
This season that is a happening process, with Nikica Jelavic continuing where he left off after his January arrival from Ibrox, and Kevin Mirallas offering the sort of fast midfield invention a striker like Jelavic must cherish.
Each player cost in the region of €7 million.
The cliché of a manager piecing together a jigsaw feels appropriate where Everton 2012 and Moyes are concerned.
It is the same general feeling held about Tottenham last autumn, and they finished fourth, two places above Chelsea.
Can Everton do the same as Spurs? Not if they can’t win at Wigan. Today should be an indicator of Everton’s true strength, attitude and self-belief. Wigan away might just be as big a game as it was to Neville Southall all those years ago.
Celtic earn some well-deserved respect for victory in Moscow
At the end of the day, three points are three points. That’s the kind of patter we get from managers and players after many a victory.
But not on Tuesday, not in Moscow, not from Neil Lennon. After Celtic’s surprising, heartening 3-2 victory at Spartak Moscow, Lennon did not go through the routine of routine post-match reaction. Celtic had indeed just grabbed three vital Champions League points, but the Celtic manager knew that this was about more than that.
“I think people underestimate Celtic,” said Lennon. “I don’t think we get the respect we deserve.”
Respect is hard-won for Scottish football nowadays. There are well-known, long-established reasons for this, so Celtic did Scottish football a big favour in Russia. It may be temporary – though perhaps not given that it should make people check their stride before launching a demolition of Scotland – but it can still be welcomed.
Of course, the idea of Celtic carrying a banner for a unified Scotland will not be tolerated by many. Yet Celtic won Scotland some respect in Moscow, and for themselves just as importantly, some self-respect.
There have been times in the last two years when Lennon has been questioned by the Parkhead diehards but he has steered Celtic through Champions League qualification, and now to a first away win since the inception of the group stages. He has earned the respect coming his way.
Gathering appreciation for Lennon’s players can be measured in the England call-up for goalkeeper Fraser Forster and the England speculation regarding Gary Hooper, who scored the opener with poise in Moscow. Both Forster and Hooper are 24.
And now for a lip-smacking pair of games against Barcelona. The Catalans will be heavy favourites in both but then so were Spartak Moscow on Tuesday afternoon. So Celtic can relax, they can look forward to Barcelona knowing that, as well as the money three Champions League points bring, they also have new respect in the bank.