The game was entering the final minute of normal time, and David Moyes was incredulous. Everton, with the chance to go fourth, had contrived to lose. They had dominated the game, but the visitors, Tottenham Hotspur, had stood firm. What’s more, they had nabbed a goal, and were set to celebrate a smash-and-grab victory. The hosts could have gone fourth, but instead it would be the visitors who would go home celebrating three points and a step towards Champions League qualification. Despite having more of the ball, more chances, and a partisan home crowd on their side, Everton couldn’t make a breakthrough. It just wasn’t their day. Fans got up to leave.
Five minutes later, this unremarkable game in December 2012 was over. Except it had become remarkable, thanks to two minutes of unmatched drama. Everton had emerged from the gaping maw of defeat, clutching on to victory. The closing stages of the Premier League tussle had broken the limbs-o-meter.
Everton went into the winter clash with Spurs having lost just two of their opening 15 league games, away to West Brom and Reading. Yet, while the Toffees were refusing to lose, they were also struggling to win. Moyes’ charges had recorded an incredible eight draws by the time Andre Villas-Boas’ Spurs arrived in Walton.
There had been plenty of frustration, particularly when it came to early and late goals. Fulham lead the Blues after 7 minutes thanks to a Tim Howard own goal, and snatched a 2-2 draw in the 93rd minute after Seamus Coleman needlessly gave away possession attempting to run the ball out of the defending half. Everton had conceded within the first 15 minutes in all of the five games preceding that November draw, including against Liverpool, where a first-half fightback saved face after the visitors to Goodison had taken an early 2-0 lead. Reading waited until ten minutes from time to score a winning goal, while Sebastien Bassong claimed a point for Norwich in the 90th minute at Goodison. The following game, Arsenal opened the scoring in the opening 60 seconds. Clearly, Everton were having serious issues at the start and end of games.
Spurs were in a none-too-dissimilar boat. The Londoners had lost 8 goals and 11 points from winning positions, crumbling in the second half against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. The Lilywhites came to Goodison with momentum, having won their last four games (scoring 11 times in the process), but without the injured Gareth Bale.
In the summer of 2012, Dan Levy and Bill Kenwright had sat down at the negotiating table. Levy left with a cool £4.5m; Kenwright emerged with the triumph of bringing Spurs flop Steven Pienaar ‘home’. The South African’s injury-blighted second spell at Goodison would leave Levy looking better off, though on this particular dark Goodison evening, the winger was in sublime form. Pienaar crafted the first chance of the game with a cushioned header that allowed Leon Osman to fire in a shot, which was blocked. Nikica Jelavic, on a barren spell in which the striker had scored once in seven league games, was himself blocked by Hugo Lloris as he bore down on goal. Like Pienaar, the Croatian’s contribution would eventually be telling.
Everton were having plenty of luck on the wings. Kevin Mirallas and Coleman were making inroads on the right, aided by a succession of raking defence-splitting passes by Darron Gibson, while on the left Leighton Baines’ deliveries were giving the Spurs defence headaches. Coleman’s rasping strike found the side netting, not long after a crucial William Gallas interception denied Jelavic a tap-in. The hosts were in control, but were failing to make it count – something for which they had been punished many times already that season, most notably against Fulham, Norwich and Newcastle. Kevin Friend wasn’t helping either. The referee correctly refused to give Everton a penalty after it was claimed Clint Dempsey handled the ball, but failed to punish Gallas for a legitimate handball.
Steven Naismith’s introduction for the injured Kevin Mirallas added another attacking dimension in the second half, and almost brought about the opener. Baines, whose form would earn him a spot in the PFA Team of the Year come the end of the season, saw his free-kick blocked, but fizzed in a dangerous shot at the second time of asking. Naismith stretched to turn the ball home, but to Goodison’s chagrin the Scot failed to make contact.
Bar a dipping Jan Vertonghen effort which was tipped over by Howard, Spurs were more interested in preserving a point than taking all three. And yet, with 15 minutes remaining, Everton had not found the winner their pressure merited. Clint Dempsey, 30 yards out, decided he may as well try to turn the tie in Spurs’ favour. Thanks to a deflection off Sylvain Distin which looped over Howard, he did just that.
The Goodison faithful were seething so much, steam was rising in great plumes from the chilled terraces. Once again, it was to be a case of what ifs, and if onlys. Everton were stuck on 999 Premier League goals – a 1000th would be very welcome.
Yet it was Spurs who next came close to adding a goal, through Gylfi Sigurdsson. The Everton bound (censored) Iceland midfielder struck a vicious effort which rattled the Park End crossbar. Blues fans were now up in arms. Where are you, Everton? Where are you? Let’s be having you.
Steven Pienaar didn’t get to write the script for his career – he probably would have left out having muscles as durable as cobwebs. But when Coleman whipped in a hopeful last-minute cross, his stage was set. Pienaar was too far from goal to score a header, too small to win an aerial battle with Spurs’ hulking defenders. And yet…
The South African threw himself headfirst into the flight of the ball, guiding it past Lloris and into the corner. He had taken a lit match to the combustible Goodison atmosphere. Fans who had been flung forward by the raucous celebrations were barely back in their seats 88 seconds later, when it went supernova.
It seemed like Everton would have to settle for yet another draw, restricted to one point despite a performance good enough for all three. There was time for just one more attack. Gibson curled a ball from deep to the edge of the penalty area, where substitute Apostolos Vellios was lurking. This was his moment, and it promised to be a spectacular one. Vellios launched himself into a bicycle kick. Unfortunately, the Greek striker miscued his effort completely.
Fortunately, Nikica Jelavic reacted, as the Spurs defence – perhaps even time itself – stood still. Jelavic stretched every sinew and poked the ball past Lloris to instigate the sort of limbs that will give health and safety experts nightmares for years to come. That moment, and the image of Jelavic taking a hat off a fan in the Lower Gwladys, will live on long after memories of the whopping 16 league draws (and only 7 defeats) from that season fade.
David Moyes was on the pitch. Goodison was bursting at the seams with pure joy. Evertonians across the world were punching the air with Mayweather-esque ferocity. In a matter of moments, a run-of-the-mill frustrating Everton defeat had become another brilliant, dramatic scene played out on the grand old footballing stage that is Goodison Park.