Hmmm. Before we get to the match report, let’s consider attitudes to referees and the decisions they make in football games. In the opinion of this reporter there is a clearly measurable relationship between the level at which a team’s fans scream and hurl abuse at the match officials and how well their team are doing; ie, when a team is losing or are clearly not in the ascendency, the level of insults and sense of being unfairly treated goes up significantly.
This is for a number of reasons: the team “under the cosh” will be making ever more desperate attempts to make 50/50 balls their own and thus will make more fouls that are possibly borderline; the winning team gain an impetus in every part of their play that results in their challenges being “just” legal; officials tend to, rightly, give the benefit of the doubt to the attacking team; it’s the stuff of split second, minuscule margins; blind loyalty inevitably comes into it as well. It can be bloody annoying when you are at the side of the pitch without the benefit of higher definition action replays etc, but it is basically the way of football and always will be.
What doesn’t help this scientific analysis though is when all of the above coincides with some genuinely poor decision making by the referee. More of that very soon.So, Goodison Park. Home of one of the most admired clubs in English football, for the way they play, the way they have maintained healthy league positions without the silly money of oil sheiks and Russian oligarchs, and for installing such a progressive manager as Roberto Martinez once the seemingly inevitable move to Manchester United happened for David Moyes. It is a ground and surroundings steeped in football tradition. We drank in a pub from which you could see both Goodison and Anfield from its front door, up through the steep terraced housed streets for the latter and down through the greenery of Stanley Park for the former. It was a pub that resembled someone’s front room with a bar in it…
Steve Bruce made just one change with Robbie Brady returning from his hernia operation in place of Stephen Quinn. So on a warm afternoon mixed with sun and showers City lined up thus: McGregor; Rosenior, Davies, Faye, Figueroa; Elmohamady, Huddlestone, Livermore, Brady; Aluko, Graham.
City started brightly with enterprising play down the right initiated by Ahmed Elmohamady that whilst it didn’t result in much in terms of chances, certainly took the sting out of Everton and the home fans. Then an attacking move from Everton brought about a disputed corner following which Leon Osman passed to an unmarked Kevin Mirallas who’s shot found it’s way through the advancing City defenders and past a strangely motionless Allan McGregor and into the net. Just eight minutes gone and 1-0. To experienced City fans at the wrong end of the pitch in the Lower Bullens something instinctively felt wrong about it. Replays showed Gareth Barry running back from an offside position when the shot was struck, getting either a touch on the ball or obscuring McGregor’s view. Or both. The goal should have been cancelled out for offside but it was a hard one for the officials to call. In terms of the science of these things, it was a decision that wasn’t a huge surprise.
Everton then had a spell of possession which didn’t amount to much but was worrying all the same, with Ross Barkley standing out as a quality player with excellent touch and vision. Then on 16 minutes came another significant decision point for referee Swarbrick. Barry (not quite wearing a villain’s black cape and swarthy moustache…) made a poor, late, high lunge at Danny Graham which resulted in nothing other than the stricken forward being laid out for some time and subsequently carried from the pitch on a stretcher. It was as clear a yellow card as you will ever see and given the direction to referees these days to punish tackles likely to cause serious injury (doh) one wouldn’t have been surprised to see a straight red card. The bile and venom being spat, quite literally, from the more vociferous element of the City following was more than valid on this occasion.
Graham was replaced by Yannick Sagbo and City got into their game again, looking a real threat particularly from corners at which Abdoulaye Faye was spectacularly dominant. Everton started to lose their composure and stray passes out of play from both Phil Jagielka and Seamus Coleman were very much not the stuff of the School Of Science. And then Barry was involved again…in the shape of another horrible foul, this time on Aluko. It was a clear over the top challenge with the ball not really involved at all, and on this occasion the referee produced a yellow card. In Steve Bruce’s post match interview he, the consummate professional, talked about what a good pro Barry has been over the years but…he clearly should have been sent off.
Then on the half hour mark came a much deserved equaliser. Sone Aluko went past England’s first choice full back Leighton Baines very easily and supplied a wonderful cross for Sagbo who smashed it into the net. 1-1. Amber smoke bomb. Scenes of mayhem. And most importantly a very real feeling that City could get something, even the win, out of this game as they were not in the slightest bit overawed by Everton at this point. The first half finished with further opportunities for Aluko and Faye and thus half time chats were very much of the upbeat kind.
A word for the travelling City support. It was excellent on Saturday. The City Till I Die at 19 minutes was sung loud and proud and the rather pleasant presence of England internationals Eni Aluko (presented with a City Till We Die scarf by a young ‘Ulltra) and Toni Duggan in the midst of the Tiger Nation, prompted further singing, I must add, of a very respectful nature along the lines of “…give us a wave” and “Brucey sign them up”. Unfortunately getting them back to the King Harry for a pint afterwards didn’t work out.
The second half commenced with a period of Everton possession, mostly in their own half and around the halfway line, but it was sufficient to cause concern for City. A Jake Livermore shot was deflected wide but other than that the feeling was very much of Everton getting a grip on the game. Before the game started a glance at the Everton substitutes caused a few concerns with the name of the returning Steven Pienaar. And so it came to pass as Osman made way for the South African and within a minute he got on the end of a quite brilliant defence splitting passing move, and flicked the ball past McGregor, with his first touch of the game. 2-1.
From then on it was very much the home team’s game. City struggled to compete in centre midfield, and chances galore came Everton’s way with 2nd sub Aroune Kone hitting the post and then shortly afterwards being denied by McGregor within minutes of replacing the relatively ineffectual Romelu Lukaku. George Boyd replaced a limping Liam Rosenior with Elmohamady moving to right back, but Boyd’s initially lively contributions were outweighed by the ever advancing Baines on the Everton left, putting City under further threat with several last ditch tackles by the ever excellent Curtis Davies helping to minimise the Toffees’ chances. Only a half chance for Brady at the other end gave us anything to get excited about.
Unfortunately Baines, to this football watcher previously another good, honest pro, blotted his copybook in the final minutes by taking a terrible dive in City’s penalty area for which he was rightly booked. Ironic jeers were suitably supplied.
And that was that. Another away game against a team expected to finish above City, in which Bruce’s men competed, and could quite conceivably have got a point and possibly more if Everton had been reduced to 10 men as they most definitely should have been.
And so…Tottenham Hotspur away next Sunday will again be one heck of a challenge, but we will travel in the hope of something, be it a point, an even hand from the officials, Sagbo getting 90 minutes, a Tom Huddlestone goal…one has to dream.