Everton Football Manager 2018 Series: Episode 7

With 2017 fading into the sunset and 2018 showing itself in via the back door, there was little let up in the fixture list for Everton.

A daunting December had offered up a mixture of results and, whilst most were positive, we needed to bounce back from two expected losses against two elite sides.

Our first game of the New Year saw West Ham host us at that there London Stadium with the opportunity to put that Chelsea defeat behind us:

everton38Well stalemates are always likely, and neither side could break the other down in a even contest. I guess our upcoming FA Cup third round game would be the game to end our mini goal drought.

Fleetwood Town were the opposition we’d be facing on home soil and the prospect of a giant killing at Goodison Park didn’t bear thinking about:everton39It’s a good job we did a decent enough job to prevent that then. Sandro and Gylfi Sigurdsson bagged first-half goals to put us into the hat for the next round, though it would’ve been nice to score more.

But we must plow on, and another long trip down to the south coast is in order to face recently promoted Brighton at the Amex. We hadn’t been playing well but I still expected a win:everton40And a win is what we got, albeit in late fashion. They were the better side but, like any good Manchester United knock-off team, we grabbed the decisive goal to leg it back up the north west with three points in the bag.

Speaking of United, how about we host them next in the Premier League? I’d prefer not to either, but we might as well get the formality that is a loss to them out of the way:everton41I was joking, lads, we can end this run you know. Not this time around evidently as the Red Devils’ class told once more. We’ll find a way to beat you one day, Jose…

Croydon called next and the chance to move on swiftly from that Goodison defeat was in order. Would we reign supreme against royalty in the form of Crystal Palace (see what I did there? No? Oh blow you then…):everton42Hmph. I don’t know what was more baffling. That both of our goals were own goals from the same guy or that we drew because our nemesis Christian Benteke nabbed himself a brace. Curses and what have you.

No matter. A fourth round FA Cup encounter with Championship side Wolves would get us back to winning ways, even if it is at Molineux:everton43Double hmph. It seems we just can’t hold a lead of late and, even more annoyingly, they outplayed us for much of the contest. We’ll have to do the deeds at Goodison instead.

I’m not tempting fate by saying “Blah blah we’ll beat Spurs blah” as I’m starting to learn that not everything is rosy in our camp… but I remain hopeful. We’re at home after all and beat them in north London back in October. What could possibly go wrong?everton44That. That’s what could go wrong. Uuuuurrrggggh.

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Everton Football Manager 2018 Series: Episode 5

After an outstanding October, the bitter winds of November could have heralded something of a downturn in Everton’s fortunes.

The wind was certainly behind us and, with a Merseyside derby win fresh in the minds, it was time to take advantage of our confidence levels and continue to perform above expectations.

A trip to Sparta Prague was first up as we looked to book passage to the next round of the Europa League:everton24And the disappointment of failing to hold a lead away from home continues. We weren’t bad as the stats show but, ultimately, a goal on the stroke of half-time for our Czech opponents did enough to throw us off our game. Qualification for the last-32 would have to wait.

A draw away from home is never particularly a bad result, especially on the continent. Or when compared to this absolutely out-of-nowhere scoreline as we travelled to face a Leicester side struggling in the Premier League:everton25Go on, laugh it up. I certainly did. Once I’d stopped crying into my coffee and resisted the urge to launch my laptop from my bedroom window.

I’m still at a loss to explain why we were so bad. We genuinely couldn’t handle Kelechi Iheanacho or Jamie Vardy. I’m still having nightmares about them now.

We couldn’t out-battle the Foxes, but maybe we’d have more look against the Magpies. They’re much more squishable, right?everton26Right. The perfect response after a drab first half with super-sub Cenk Tosun showing his class against a team we should be beating – and did beat – on home turf.

Back to Europe and another chance to throw our name in the hat for the last-32 stage. Rosenborg secured an unlikely draw in our first encounter but, with a strong team out there, I had every expectation of securing a vital victory to all-but-confirm our progression:everton27Bish, bash and bosh. A stunning display of attacking verve, unrelenting tempo and clinical finishing -let’s not talk about our lack of clean sheet again eh? – ensured we’d at least finish runners-up in the group.

And still the games come. Another journey away from Merseyside, and this time our team bus trundled up to surprise top flight package Stoke City, who were lying in fourth at the time. Could we ‘do a Spurs’ and secure a priceless three points?everton28This is starting to smart. They weren’t lethal but we were second best throughout the game and deserved to fall to defeat. It’s not as if we were resting players either. A return to the drawing board for our away tactics was long overdue.

But that would have to wait as, a mere 72 hours later, Arsenal rolled into town. This would be a true test of our mettle. Beating the Gunners would surely send out a massive message to everyone else, despite our terrible record on the road:everton29What. The. Absolute. F*ck. Just take that screenshot. Take in all of its majesty, its awe and realism.

A quite amazing 25-minute hat-trick from Sandro blew the visitors away as we scored our first three main goalscoring opportunities and, in spite of the north Londoners’ valiant fightback – which did make me bite a few nails down to nothingness – a fourth for my Spanish hero and one for Gylfi Sigurdsson handed us the points.

A rollercoaster of a month brought to a close, it was time to draw breath before heading into the madness that was December. Though how much more crazy could it get? Wait, don’t answer that.

Everton Football Manager 2018 Series: Episode 4

October. The month of colourful leaf shedding, the sugar-laden holiday of Halloween and the time of year that I celebrate my birthday.

Would Everton, then, hand me a four-week celebration to savour or make me so mad that I spend it drunk and crying about why we’re so guff?

A visit to Wembley – the temporary home of Tottenham Hotspur – could show whether the latter would prove to be binge-drink inducing. I was expecting the worst:everton19In the words of Ron Burgundy: ‘By the beard of Zeus!’

I don’t know how they did it, or what I said, or what we collectively did, but somehow we were celebrating a first away victory in the Premier League at one of the best teams around.

Even more impressively the lads came from behind to win, with Cenk Tosun in particularly fine form as he nabbed another brace to continue his decent start. Hip hip and, dare I say it, hooray.

With that result in the bag, the FM gods would, by the powers of balance, decide to hand us a shock home defeat to newly-promoted Huddersfield off the back of that surprise triumph:everton20Huh. I guess they’d all been partying the night before and were too hungover to intervene.

The customary ‘rocket at half-time’ team talk at the interval thanks to an underwhelming first 45 performance and, the good lads that they are, elected to smash the Terriers and leave them with their tails very firmly tucked between their legs.

A home tie against Sparta Prague in the Europa League followed those two domestic clashes, and another win would do very nicely indeed:everton21It’s a relatively easy thing to state, but it’s pleasing to see us rack up three successive wins. It was a deserved victory and, coupled with our earlier results, had us sitting nicely in second place in our group.

A potentially tricky trip to Turf Moor to face Burnley was next up. Given how well we’d done against Spurs, had we finally turned a corner with regards to our away form?

In a word, no:everton22It was to be expected. We’re not the tallest team in the Premier League and, in Chris Wood, Burnley have a powerful striker who dines on whipped crosses into the box. That’s something to bear in mind for next time we play the Clarets.

Those are the kinds of matches that will put paid to our hopes of finishing as high as possible in the top flight and, with a Merseyside derby at Goodison Park fast approaching, those two dropped points could be something that bites us on the arse.

Could I become the first Everton boss in almost eight years to lead the Toffees to victory over them lot across the park? I guess there’s only one way to find out:everton23I’m not sure what’s more incredible. That we actually beat Liverpool, that ‘Mr Snake’ himself Mo Besic scored his first ever goal for us or that it proved to be the winning strike in a Merseyside derby.

Theo Walcott got us off to a storming finish inside 30 seconds – the best way to start any game, let alone against your rivals – and, while Daniel Sturridge’s late goal led to some squeaky bum time, Besic’s maiden Everton goal proved to be the difference.

I take it all back, Mo, play as many games as you damn well like from now on.

Unbeaten in five matches and fourth in the league standings, October seemed to finally be a turning point in our season.

Next time: Into the crunch domestically and continentally…

Everton Football Manager 2018 Series: Episode 3

The long summer days of August make way for Autumnal winds in September, or Fall if you’re of an American disposition.

There could be a hilarious joke about ‘falling’ down the league table here, given how wildly inconsistent we’ve been this season, but things have actually appeared to be looking up.

With the international break providing a much needed break for those not in action for their countries, a return to action against Manchester United was the perfect setting to get domestic proceedings back underway he said through gritted teeth:everton13And that, ladies and gents, is how frustrating we are on the road. Luke Shaw’s sending off just minutes after Anthony Martial’s opener gave us huge hope of actually winning a match outside Merseyside but, no, we fell further behind instead.

Matters were further compounded when Muhamed Besic received his own marching orders, because 10 vs 11 wasn’t annoying as it seemed  and, after yet another blast in the dressing room at half-time, an improved showing saw Davy Klaassen grab a consolation.

Not content with serving up a ‘early bath’ performance at Old Trafford, Besic had also elected to induce a changing room mutiny when he was dropped from our 25-man Europa League squad in favour of loan signing Daley Blind.

What? I didn’t mention that? Well, we’ve got Blind on loan for the season as Garbutt’s, well, garbage and Baines needs cover.

Despite being told it was necessary to cull a midfielder for much-needed defensive cover, the Bosnian threw a wobbly not unlike that of a child being denied its favourite bedtime story for the fifth night in succession.

Editor’s note: This is where that conversation with Besic would have gone if Tom had elected to, you know, print screen it before – well, this would spoil things now wouldn’t it?

Given that Besic wasn’t too influential in the dressing room, I was informed by my assistant that it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. He was wrong.

Editor’s note 2: And here. Sort it out Tom, for goodness sake!

With morale down among my stars and a revolt just two months into my reign, it wasn’t a surprise to see us stupidly throw away a 2-0 lead away to Rosenborg in our first Europa League group game days later:everton14Two late goals from Yann-Erik de Lanlay robbed us of all three points and Besic any opportunity to feature for us for a loooooong time to come. The dickhead.

Four games without a victory and a home encounter with recently-promoted Brighton offered a huge potential banana skin to us. How would we fare with almost everyone against me thanks to Besic-gate?everton15It was crap, we were crap, but a vital win was picked up thanks to Sandro’s solitary strike. Bless you, you wonderful Spaniard.

A tricky Carabao Cup home contest against Arsenal was thrown up three days later and, with injuries starting to mount and the games coming fast again, the chance to play some fringe players wasn’t to be passed up. Hopefully they could do the deed and send us into the fourth round:everton16Eh, there’s always next year. And at least Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored his first of the season…

One win in six. Ugh. But, with two more home matches to come against ‘easier’ opposition, we had a grand chance to get some positivity rolling. Crystal Palace were up first:

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Keane as mustard! Hahaha…haha…ha.

Much like Brighton it wasn’t pretty, but Michael Keane’s first Everton goal proved to be the difference. Coupled with yet another home league clean sheet and we were looking good at home. If you forget that Arsenal loss. Ahem.

It was time to round September out with a Goodison meeting against Lokomotiv Moscow in the Europa League. We need a win here. Nothing else will do:everton18That’s more like it. Tosun and a Walcott brace – though it should have been a hat-trick – in a commanding display not seen since Norrkoping. Back-to-back wins again and things were looking rosy ahead of *gulp* an away trip to Spurs…

Next time: Obscene October has Evertonians dreaming of success?!

Everton Football Manager 2018 Series: Episode 2

It’s all come down to this. Pre-season preparations done and dusted, squad assessed, a couple of decent Europa League matches to get us to speed and the bread and butter of the season is ready to get underway.

The start of a new Premier League campaign is always a fun-filled romp of hopes and expectations either beginning in scintillating style or being dashed within 90 minutes of a new term.

You don’t need me to tell you, then, which one Everton chose to kick off the season with an away trip to Southampton:everton8Standard Everton. Just when you expect them to deliver and usher in a new dawn they go and toss your dreams aside like that time in secondary school when a teacher laughed at me for wanting to take up medicine. But I digress.

To be fair to the hosts, they completely deserved it. Two assists for Cedric setting up goals for Charlie Austin and Steven Davis, a display to forget for Leighton Baines’ stand in – in the form of Luke Garbutt – and a curious case of Wayne Rooney being played on the right wing. Yeah, I don’t why either.

What better way to brush aside that huge disappointment, then, with our Europa League Play-off round first leg clash with IFK Norrkoping:

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Norr-koping chance of us throwing this one away, am I right?

Hat-trick heroics from Cenk Tosun and a maiden goal for talented winger Nikola Vlasic and the tie is as good as over. Supposing we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot a la Odd…

Only three days had passed – and that was something we may have to get used to – before we entertained former Blues boss David Moyes and his merry band of West Ham stars at Goodison Park. It seemed our home form would be key to enjoying a decent season, so it was imperative to get points on the board and truly put that sloppy Saints display to bed:everton10A laboured first-half performance gave way to a much improved second 45 showing after a rocket was shoved where the sun doesn’t shine, with Gylfi Sigurdsson’s first Blues strike and an own goal from Aaron Cresswell sealing a first league win of this gaffer’s reign.

There’s no let up in the number of fixtures, and no time to rest on our laurels, with an away trip to try and prevent Norrkoping from pulling off – stop sniggering at the back – a shock come from behind victory, however, but how did we fare given we’d lost our other two away games so far this campaign?everton11Hmm. It wasn’t vintage by any stretch, but Sandro’s goal just before half-time really put us in the driving seat before they nabbed a late consolation. I’m getting the feeling that our trips away from Goodison may become something of an issue.

Maybe it’s because I’m an Evertonian and I’ve been taught to expect the worst. Or just because we generally are guff on the road:

everton12Yep, it’s definitely an issue. Le sigh.

Next time: Ordering a main course of a rack of wins, and discontent in the changing room…

Everton Football Manager 2018 Series: Episode 1

Pre-season. The time of year when hopes and expectations are renewed among fans and players alike. Until the inevitable sorry start leads to pessimism, obviously.

With two Europa League qualifying rounds to navigate ahead of even booking our place in the group stages, the 2017/18 pre-season campaign was wrought with friendly encounters interspersed with those competitive fixtures – which is always nice when your team doesn’t have a clue how you expect them to play.

Thankfully, a few fitness-driven matches were to come before a showdown with Norwegian outfit Odd saw us perfectly primed to face off against even opposition. Shit joke, don’t care.

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Look at that lovely green patch ended by that horrible red colour. I never liked red.

A drab defeat to Argentine Primera Division club Tigre being the only blot on an otherwise solid start, then. Time to take on Odd.

Thankfully, we were drawn at home for the second leg, so a lovely easy victory, with a couple of crucial away goals, would be the perfect way to start off my reign in L4 with my beloved Blues, wouldn’t it?

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Club captain Phil Jagielka with his best Titus Brambell impression there, the utter pillock

You stupid bastards.

3-0 down after 47 minutes and I was raging. We hadn’t even been that bad and, like a Slaven Bilic West Ham side caught in European headlights, we were staring into the ‘third round exit’ abyss.

On came Ademola Lookman and Sandro who, presumably because Odd thought they’d done enough, gave us a sliver of hope of progression with a goal apiece to set up the return fixture nicely. The lads weren’t getting off that easily, however, and a stern telling off had them well aware of what was expected next time out.

A 4-0 friendly thumping of Hungarian team FC Ludogorets got us back on track before the return leg of our third qualifying round tie against Odd. Surely we couldn’t mess this up?

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A sea of Blue as far as the eye can see

You’d be right, we didn’t. A pulverising display of attacking verve – not seen since my protein pancake mix was decimated by my Nutribullet last week – was much deserved and sent us into the next round, with a Sandro hat-trick and Theo Walcott goal on their home debuts doing the deeds.

It wasn’t all good news as Leighton Baines and Walcott both succumbed to ankle problems, but we were through. Huzzah and hooray!

Transfer wise, not much had happened by comparison. Jonjoe Kenny and Shani Tarashaj were packed off on loan to earn them regular minutes – the latter laughably suggesting he should have stayed and fought for a first-team place, bless ‘im – while Saint Etienne opted to give Oumar Niasse some regular football with the caveat that we’d haul him back here if our strikers ever became short of a leg or two.

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Nice that Saint-Etienne decided to pay us Theo Walcott’s weekly wage for the privilege of temporarily taking Niasse

A slender 2-1 home win over Turkish side Akhmat set us up perfectly for an opening day trip to the south coast to face Southampton… or so I thought.

Next time: The proper season starts, and transfers galore! Maybe…

Stones saga a damning indictment of football

The news that reached Evertonians on Tuesday afternoon was the news that everyone associated with the Toffees had been dreading.

The handing in of a transfer request by young centre back John Stones – who has been the subject of vast speculation throughout the course of the summer transfer window, thanks in no small part to Chelsea’s unrelenting pursuit of the 21 year old – left supporters of the Goodison Park based club shocked, angered, dismayed, distraught and offended.

That Stones has left it this late, with less than a week of the current transfer window left open, is reason enough for many to call into question their fealty to the sport of football as a whole.

And yet, Stones’ decision to leave Merseyside isn’t just an indictment of modern football, though it is not aided by the media circus that dominates such occasions.

It is an indictment of football as a whole since its inception.

Richer clubs have always bought the best players from other clubs, because it’s how those richer clubs stay on top and, in turn, weaken their rivals.

Everton themselves and Liverpool did so in the 1980s, Manchester United in the 1990s, and now it is the turn of Chelsea and Manchester City – in England at least – to pluck the very best talent from across the globe  to bring to the Barclays Premier League.

The argument remains, of course, that Stones naturally wants to play at the highest level, winning copious amounts of silverware and playing alongside some of the best footballers in the world in the process. That is a given.

But for football fans, no club is more important than their own.

Evertonians are no different. Everton supporters want the best, most talented players to see their club challenge for success, and to finish in the very highest of echelons in each competition they participate in.

The sale of Stones would once again throw realism into the equation and confirm that football clubs like Everton are inevitably swimming against the tide. That any and all attempts to achieve some success will be thwarted when other clubs circle around their most gifted players.

There are many parties who could be held accountable for this sorry saga.

The blame could be placed at the feet of Stones, who has left Everton in the lurch by handing in said request just one week before the close of the window. Or at the feet of the board, whose inability to suuply manager Roberto Martinez with substantial funds – Romelu Lukaku aside – to push on after Everton finished fifth in 2013/14 with a record Premier League points total. Or at Martinez himself, who failed to get the best out of the Blues’ best first team squad in nigh on 28 years.

Outside of the club, fans could blame the national media, whose dogged daily interest in this story has whipped up a mass frenzy. Or Chelsea, who leaked their opening offer in the first place, and since then have used every trick in the book to unsettle one of Everton’s brightest young starlets.

Where the blame lies doesn’t matter, however. What matters is the never-ending cyclical nature of the best players eventually being bought by the top clubs, and preventing other teams from remotely competing.

And that is the most disheartening reality of all.