God is great, so they say. But Steven Pienaar is better.
The silky South African, with his feet like finely-tuned instruments and knees like fine china, influenced many an Everton game in his two spells at the club. One of the most memorable came at Old Trafford on April 22 2012, when what was meant to be a routine Manchester United win en route to title victory took a spectacular turn.
2011/12 was a mixed bag for Everton. A sluggish start to the season caused unrest among the Goodison Park faithful. “I, as manager of Everton, have not won enough games this season for them to come (to Goodison”, David Moyes admitted on January 3. “I have not entertained them enough. We have not scored enough goals. I need to do that to get the supporters to fill Goodison”. Everton had won two home Premier League games from their last nine attempts when Manchester City came to town. New signing Darron Gibson’s rocket sent the title chasers packing. An unlikely hero in Denis Stracqualursi saw off Chelsea, and an FA Cup run gathered apace. Hope was starting to return, even when Moyes marked his 10th anniversary as manager by leading a heavily rotated side to a 3-0 derby defeat, all for the benefit of a 1-1 draw at home to Sunderland in the FA Cup quarter-finals.
Everton were on a run of four league games without defeat when they headed for Old Trafford, the most recent being a 4-0 thrashing of the Black Cats, but the grim spectre of a heart-wrenching FA Cup semi-final defeat to Liverpool hung over the club. A good result against the champions would go some way to soothing souls.
The equation was simple for United. Win, and they could afford to lose to rivals City, as victories over Swansea and Sunderland would seal another title. Points dropped would mean relinquishing their grip on the trophy, with the Etihad clash on April 30 essentially becoming a title decider.
Everton lined up with Johnny Heitinga and Phil Jagielka in the middle of defence, with Tony Hibbert and Sylvain Distin flanking them. Former United men Phil Neville and Gibson provided the midfield anchor, with Pienaar, Leon Osman and Marouane Fellaini supporting January signing Nikica Jelavic. It was Moyes’ side who started the better, with Osman and Jelavic testing the United back line. The opening half hour was a fairly even affair in terms of chances, with absolutely no sign of the goalscoring carnage that was to come.
Given the task of tracking back to cover the runs of the ever-pedestrian Hibbert, Nani was somehow still remiss in his duties. The right back’s deep cross evaded everyone bar Jelavic, who had tailed off behind Rafael to the back post. The Croat’s header, perfectly weighted, looped over David de Gea and into the far corner.
Yet Everton’s lead would not last. Hibbert returned the favour, allowing Nani plenty of time in which to whip in a cross. Wayne Rooney ghosted between Jagielka and Heitinga to glance in the equaliser. United had the bit between their teeth. The second half began with a period of United pressure, which inevitably led to the home side taking the lead. Pienaar went down, but Antonio Valencia opted not to put the ball out, much to the away fans’ chagrin. Nani’s centre was blocked by the lazily outstretched leg of Gibson, Neville went to clear, but the ball landed at Danny Welbeck’s feet. Welbeck took a touch, enough to bamboozle Heitinga, and curled a stunning effort into the top corner. Five minutes later, Welbeck and Nani combined, the latter finishing a fine passing move with a dinked finish over Tim Howard. 3-1 United. Game over, right?
What is most baffling to this day is that Manchester United seemed unable to deal with Tony Hibbert. He is no enigma. He had no turn of pace, no trademark move. If he ventured into the opposing half he did so with the pace and resolve of an iceberg, ready to either put in a cross or play a short pass inside. Perhaps there was an artistic simplicity to the way Hibbert played that day, a tortoise-like performance that subverted United’s expectations of football played at a hare’s pace. Darron Gibson played the ball out to Hibbert on the wing and Nani watched, transfixed. Patrice Evra, the left back, was 10 yards further up the field, staring as if Hibbert had previously been invisible. The Everton stalwart wasted no time, firing in a first-time cross. Fellaini, the grateful recipient, swivelled and struck the sweetest of volleys into the corner. Perhaps, one day, true football hipsters will study this Hibbert showing with awe.
If only Johnny Heitinga had been in such inspired form. The simplest of Welbeck dummies threw the Dutchman completely, and he could not recover in time to stop the one-two between the young striker and Rooney, the latter of whom slotted his 33rd goal of the season past Howard with consummate ease. With ten minutes left, Evra directed the simplest of headers on to the post as United searched for a fifth goal. 4-2 United. Game over, right?
Nikica Jelavic was starting to look a bargain. The £6m signing from Rangers was on hand as a Phil Neville floated ball aimed vaguely in Fellaini’s direction was not dealt with by the home defence, and a trademark first-time finish made it 4-3 with eight minutes left. All Everton needed now was a moment of magic.
A clever backheel on the left wing by the South African brought substitute Tim Cahill into play. Cahill opted for the easy pass to Neville, who fed Fellaini in the box with a clever reverse pass.
No, honestly. I’ve watched it back a few times now, and it’s a nice pass – a forward pass – by Philip Neville.
Fellaini took control of the ball, and of both Jonny Evans and Paul Scholes as he took a touch, swivelled, and played a simple pass into the centre. Rafael, standing motionless, had not noticed Steven Pienaar ghosting in behind him. None of the United defence did. Yet the big Belgian sensed he had a part to play in something special. Pienaar did not need a second touch. He stretched and prodded the ball past a prone de Gea.
Cue pandemonium in the away end. Incredibly, Everton had snatched a draw.
But this is Everton, remember. Things aren’t that simple. United bombed forward in search of a winner. In the 95th minute, Rio Ferdinand latched on to a Rafael cross. This was the archetypal ‘Fergie Time’ moment, the classic late United winner that snatches victory from defeat’s gaping maw. Moyes had alluded to it already, scoffing at the man who would later name him as his successor as he approached the fourth official, angrily jabbing at his watch. The ball made a beeline for the top corner, only to be denied by Howard’s outstretched palm.
And that was it. For Everton, who would stretch their unbeaten league run at the end of the season to nine games with two home victories and a pair of away stalemates, the point was less important than the restored pride. For United, it was devastating. A 1-0 defeat at the Etihad put City in charge of their destiny, and that unforgettable final afternoon of the season put paid to the Red Devils’ title defence.
Everton were not kings, but they were very much kingmakers. That Old Trafford afternoon will not be forgotten in a hurry.