Two matches in to the brand-new, pristine 2012/13 Barclays Premier League season and to be perfectly honest, I feel pleasantly, excitedly relieved.
The opening weekend couldn’t come soon enough; the welcomed structure of those two gracious days off from work and education returned. Everything down to Alan Hansen’s analytical nonsense on Match of the Day made me smile and feel human again.
Even Euro 2012 and (especially) the Olympic football could not bring the same communal feeling that weekly Premier League matches do. As Sunday ended, I was moderately pleased with the dramatic matches that had unfolded before our eyes.
Liverpool had been beaten, Swansea, who are impossible to dislike, had trounced QPR and Manchester City’s home fixture against Southampton provided a fantastic advertisement for English football (and also left us wondering how on earth we had made upwards of £12m for Jack Rodwell). However, there was a gap, a void, something missing: and that was Everton.
Agonisingly, a Monday night meeting against Manchester United to kick off our season eventually rolled around. The newly purchased royal blue shirts swarmed Goodison Park, the rickety second home which we had greatly missed. Tickets flashed at the turnstiles, which buzzed, clicked and urged thousands inside the historic ground. Those overpriced steak pies were tucked in to with the white plastic forks and the fluorescent Stewards assured that your bottle’s lid was removed and the contents poured in to a flimsy plastic cup.
The aurora of genuine optimism and hope, which I had recalled and described countless times, existed. Even myself, a skint teenager anxiously watching the build up with friends at a dusty, deserted local sports club, could sense it; this would not be another slow start, Everton would not and could not let us all down here.
As predicted, David Moyes’ men came out of the blocks like Usain Bolt tied to a rocket, and instantaneously took the game to Sir Alex Ferguson’s defensively depleted Manchester United side. Taking full advantage of the opposition’s wariness, a variety of tactics confounded the tame Red Devils.
Whether it be the smooth, one-touch midfield triangles that slithered through United’s structure, Leighton Baines’ expert crossing from the left with the instrumental Steven Pienaar offering as a much needed helping hand (their slick teamwork often caught out a naïve Antonio Valencia at right-back) or a ball launched up field to the world-class Marouane Fellaini which would rest upon his chest as if it were deflated. The iconic Belgian has a notorious first touch many footballers would die for.
After a first half in which Everton were by far the better team, David De Gea (who, it has to be said, is an excellent shot stopper) kept Manchester United in the match by his extended fingertips on a number of occasions. Continuing with the trend, the opening of the second half witnessed even more ruthless attacks upon the opposite goalmouth until, deservedly, the breakthrough came. In the 57th minute, Darron Gibson’s corner found Fellaini’s head in slow motion, which directed the newly-styled Premier League match ball in to the bottom of the Gwladys Street goal. The Belgium had officially made United’s professionals look like schoolboys. Cue the much-awaited pandemonium, rocking the age-old stands as thousands of Evertonians celebrated wildly.
As they say, the real work arrives when you are a goal up. Additionally, if David Moyes simultaneously decides for his players to sit back and invite pressure for the remainder of the match, that real work comes in the form of stomach wrenching nerves. Therefore, typically, Everton defended.
‘Christ, Moyes,’ I thought, as United fans cursed at the dusty screen around me.
Nightmarish thoughts of the F.A Cup Semi-Final from the previous season entered my pre-occupied head, threatening to shatter my confidence in Everton; however, the more I watched, for every opposing cross that met Phil Jagielka’s forehead, the confidence expanded inside of me. Moyes had it spot on this time; United could not create anything, Tony Hibbert was defending like a warrior and the whole heroic unit was putting one hell of a defensive shift in. We could take this all day.
I don’t care who, even if you are the most successful team in England, nobody spoils a night like that under the magical Goodison Park floodlights.
And so, what felt like a year later, the final whistle was blown. Feeling like I had literally just stepped off a rollercoaster, I spared a moment to laugh at the odd United fan and left with a fellow Evertonian, in awe of what Sky Sports had just delivered us, replaying the 90 minutes’ events in my head. It wasn’t the fact that we had beaten Manchester United; it was how we had beaten Manchester United.
Naturally, that warm, unexplainable emotion that only exists in me when Everton pull off something remarkable was still making me smile continuously for at least 48 hours later. Don’t get me wrong here; I was not getting carried away. It was simply that the optimism in me had shifted upwards by two gears.
In my eyes, the real test had not yet even begun. Even with our stereotypical slow starts, sometimes the ‘big clubs’ still suffer at Goodison Park; that has always been the way. Take Aston Villa: currently a bottom half, uninspired club with not much to play for. These teams are usually the type to profit from Everton’s underperformances. Therefore, the 3pm kick off at Villa Park on the second Saturday of the season played on my mind for the remainder of the week.
When it arrived, and the bright white, rightly confident giant killers emerged from the tunnel on to the pitch upon where they had hardly won in the Premier League era beforehand, I knew the statistics had been brushed from Everton’s shoulders.
Subsequently, a small South African who had found love once again at the club who loved him curled a beautiful rocket into the far corner of Shay Given’s goal, sparking an all-out assault. A powerful, deceiving Fellaini header (from the pin-point cross of new right-winger Phil Jagielka) and a Leighton Baines assisted, one-touch enviable Jelavić finish later and Everton were cruising; 0-3 ahead before half time.
Someone pinch me.
While the unrealistic yet fantastic chants of ‘We’re going to win the league!’ from the elated travelling Evertonians echoed around the otherwise depressed stadium, I, like most other Blues, was unsurprisingly in dreamland. I honestly believed, and still do as I write these exact words, that the frustratingly characteristic slow start has mercifully ceased to exist.
The ball pinged across the freshly maintained Villa Park grass as if were effortless for the outstanding players in white to do so. It took me back to a time where, at the back end of last season, I sat in Lower Bullens watching an outrageously good Everton thrash a dire Fulham. At a time where, similar to the opening two fixtures of what could be Everton’s greatest season in a long time, that content, thankful satisfaction and pure optimism encircled the royal blue gathering, who relaxed in the late afternoon’s April sun.
The final goal of both the match and Tim Cahill’s competitive Everton career hit the back of the net and all four stands celebrated (minus the Fulham fans obviously, who, if you can remember, spent quite some time performing the Conga to entertain themselves).
As I retook my aged seat, an older man directly in front of me caught my attention, slowly typing a text message into a grey Nokia which appeared almost as old as Goodison itself. In a precious few characters, he summed up this season’s ‘perfect start’ and the emotionally uplifting superiority that we, as Evertonians, have all experienced of late.
‘Barça 4, Fulham 0,’ it read.
‘Barça 4, Fulham 0,’ it read.