Everton (verb) – to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the most unlikely of ways; to encapsulate the very essence of comic irony; to find new ways to self-efface.
‘Everton’d it’ has become a catch-all phrase for most Blues. Blew a lead? Everton’d it. That striker who had gone 20 games without scoring for his new club has put a brace past us? Everton’d it. Cruising 2-0 against relegation fodder, only for a lapse in concentration to cue ten minutes of panic? Everton’d it again. A promising run of form has been blown to smithereens by one afternoon of unexpected and largely unprovoked collapse? Oh, you better believe we’ve Everton’d it. Perhaps now we are entering into a new era of professionalism, free spending and steely-eyed ruthlessness. But old habits die hard. Over the past couple of decades, the question has been “to Everton, or not to Everton?” Normally, the answer has been the former.
One of the more remarkable examples came in 2004, when Manchester United arrived at Goodison Park needing three points to keep up with Arsenal, who had deposed Alex Ferguson’s side at the top of the league only recently. Everton were in the midst of an atrocious season. Even though David Moyes led the Blues to seventh in his first full season in charge, the Scot was in serious danger of becoming a one-season wonder just as Evertonians were discussing with relish the possibility of the club returning to the top half, where it belongs. Man Utd punctuated Everton’s best run of form of the entire season with a 3-2 win at Old Trafford on Boxing Day – three wins from four was the best the Blues could muster in the league at any stage. The previous week, an incredible Nigel Martyn display had earned Everton a goalless draw at Anfield, but a midweek FA Cup exit away to Fulham punctured the limp balloon of optimism.
Evertonians arrived at Goodison aware that their side would most likely be under the cosh from the off, but they did not anticipate the degree to which the Red Devils would utterly railroad the abject home defence in the first 45. In the opening minutes, United had already reduced the Everton back four of Pistone, Stubbs, Unsworth and Hibbert to a quivering mass. Paul Scholes thundered an effort into the post and Ruud van Nistelrooy, handed a simple opportunity to notch his 100th Man Utd goal on the rebound, fluffed his lines. So too did Louis Saha, as the Red Devils’ new signing headed wide.
But Saha would not miss not long later, in just the ninth minute of the game. Mickael Silvestre’s hopeful punt forwards cleared the Everton defence, who waved vainly for offside as Saha breezed through, unable to believe his luck. Saha was able to take the ball down, sign some autographs and hand in his tax returns before firing a volley past Martyn with the sort of panache that would one day make him an Everton favourite.
Alessandro Pistone was struggling horribly as Darren Fletcher repeatedly found time and space to fire in crosses from the right wing. That being said, Everton were beginning to get a foothold in the game. Naturally, it was about then that United doubled their lead. A neat passing move was brought to an end by Lee Carsley’s interception, which bobbled towards the waiting David Unsworth. However, Unsworth somehow avoided the ball as if it was a transfer away from Merseyside. An awkward attempt at a clearance failed completely and van Nistelrooy, once he had shaken off Alan Stubbs, was able to convert from an acute angle.
The boos began to ring out around Goodison. Or perhaps they were saying “Ruud”. Cue Hans Moleman.
Scholes had apparently taken out a restraining order on the entire Everton midfield, as the United dynamo constantly found himself in acres of space. Upon receiving one pass from Fletcher, Scholes burst towards the penalty area and lifted the ball into the path of Saha, who had ghosted in at the back post. Martyn had prevented many a certain Liverpool goal the week before, but this time around his poor attempt to block the Frenchman’s underhit effort meant the ball ricocheted off his left foot and surely sealed three United points before half-time.
Manchester United led 3-0 at the break, but, given the wealth of wasted chances, it could have been six or seven. Everton needed a complete turnaround in fortunes, and after delivering an Apollo-sized half-time rocket, Moyes replaced Pistone, Francis Jeffers and Steve Watson with Gary Naysmith, Wayne Rooney and Tomasz Radzinski.
Moyes was not exactly a glass-half-full kind of manager at Everton, but even Roberto Martinez during his ‘phenomenal’ phase would have surely given up the ghost based on the first-half shellacking Everton received. And yet the changes paid dividends. Naysmith plugged the left-hand gap, while the skill and effort Rooney and Radzinski provided gave Everton genuine attacking options. United’s weakness was from set pieces, something which was exploited many times that season, and the hosts put emphasis on making theirs count.
In the remarkable comeback that was to follow, two goals would come from corners. Just four minutes into the second half, Naysmith whipped in the set piece and Tim Howard flapped at the ball and missed, leaving Unsworth to convert a diving header at the back post. A stony-faced Unsworth collected the ball from the net and ambled back to the centre, well aware that the goal was hardly worth celebrating in the circumstances. That didn’t stop Goodison cheering the tiny glimmer of hope that appeared before them, though.
Another Naysmith corner, lofted in much deeper than before, caused havoc among the visitors’ defensive organisation. The conspicuous presence of Duncan Ferguson did not help matters. It was John O’Shea who suffered the ignominy of watching the ball bounce off him and into the Park End goal. The Goodison roars grew louder. Surely not. Surely…
There were still 25 minutes in which to find an equaliser. Everton needed just 10.
Ferguson had already missed a gilt-edged chance to equalise by the time Everton were awarded a free-kick just inside the opposing half. Thomas Gravesen lined up the free kick 40 yards from goal and assessed his options, before curling a peach of a cross onto the penalty spot. Silvestre was watching Stubbs like a hawk. Roy Keane had tabs on Rooney. Nobody was watching Kevin Kilbane. The Irish international steamed in and planted a header past Howard, wheeling off triumphantly amidst the Goodison frenzy.
Incredibly, with 15 minutes still left on the clock, Everton were set to become the first side since Sky invented football to strike off a three-goal Manchester United lead.
Desperate to score, United turned to Cristiano Ronaldo to find a solution.
United pushed on in search of a winner, but Everton sensed glory in the point they had seemingly snatched, and stood firm.
Then United had a chance. Paul Scholes was in…
…but Martyn denied him with a superb save.
In the 90th minute, United piled forwards again. Naysmith was left stranded on the left, unable to stop Quinton Fortune moving forward and finding Scholes.
Scholes played the ball in to Gary Neville, who was somehow unmarked in the penalty area.
Neville did not bother with multiple touches; the right back instantly fed the ball out to Ronaldo on the wing.
Ronaldo looked up, saw that he had an age with which to pick his spot, and curled in the cross.
There was one Manchester United player lurking with intent near the six-yard box, able to get anywhere near Ronaldo’s ball. There were three Everton defenders in the vicinity. But none of them picked up Ruud van Nistelrooy.
The Dutchman headed home from close range to settle matters.
There was even time for Rooney to spurn an opportunity to grab a draw deep into injury time, but that is not how Everton scripts tend to work.
From despair, Everton had found triumph. Then they had decided that they didn’t care for triumph much, and returned to the sweet, familiar bosom of despair.
More than one generation grew up with moments like this. Games which encapsulated Everton as a verb. Those generations, even when faced with the momentous changes the club is currently undergoing, cling grim-faced to cautious pessimism as Unsworth clung to the ball with the score at 1-3. After countless occasions such as this one, the unbelievable becomes mundane. That is why the tagline ‘Nothing will be the same’ did not wash well with many.
This is an example of ‘Evertoning it’ from a time long gone now. Hopefully, a time gone forever.