There are more than a few iconic photographs from Everton’s history, ones which speak a thousand words. So above is a picture about which I will now write a thousand (or more) words. It is a scene that portrays adrenaline-fuelled ebullience at its purest; a joyous pile-on, with a beaming Tim Cahill punching the air. Behind them, a distorted pandemonium, a mass of flailing limbs. The 200th Merseyside derby was petering out into a forgettable episode of a normally gripping drama, after 67 minutes of tepid football. Just a minute later it would become unforgettable. The man at the foot of that ruck is responsible.
Everton went into the 2004/05 season on their lowest ebb, which, considering the plight of the club from 1990 onwards, is saying something. A season of abject failure had concluded with Everton, who closed out the campaign with a thrashing at the hands of pre-Sheikh Manchester City, finishing 17th. Wayne Rooney had gone off to Euro 2004, lit the tournament up, exited it in a storm of controversy and left Goodison Park to join Manchester United. Fellow striker Tomasz Radzinski preferred the bright lights of Fulham, and the only players signed in the summer were Marcus Bent, from Championship side Ipswich, and Tim Cahill from third tier FA Cup finalists Millwall. An outlay of close to £18m less than had been received up front for Rooney did not inspire confidence. A 4-1 home beating at the hands of Arsenal on the opening day left Goodison in a deep gloom.
And yet the Blues went into the first Merseyside derby of the season knowing that victory would lift them above the Gunners into second, and not far adrift of leaders Chelsea. Of their first 16 league games, Everton had won 10, only losing against Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs, with draws against Man Utd, Newcastle United and Aston Villa thrown in. How had the unfancied Blues done it? Success was all down to a team dedicated to each other, with more grit than the M1 on an icy winter morning. That was encapsulated the week before at Goodison. Twice Bolton led, and twice they were pegged back, before a Radhi Jaidi goal sealed victory for David Moyes’ scrappy side.
Everton had already claimed six 1-0 wins, plus a 0-0 at Old Trafford. Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Newcastle could not overcome the Toffees despite all taking early leads. Norwich had wrestled back parity after being 2-0 down, only to be on the wrong side of a winning goal from a team that refused to back down. There were goals across the midfield and attack – Cahill, Bent, Leon Osman, Lee Carsley, Thomas Gravesen, Kevin Kilbane and Duncan Ferguson had all provided at least one. At the other end, Nigel Martyn had rolled back the years with some incredible performances, aided by a no-nonsense defence.
The derby, though, was the biggest task the ragtag bunch of hard-working, strong-willed Blues had faced. Not due to form – Liverpool were a full nine points adrift of Everton, having lost against the likes of Birmingham, Bolton and Middlesbrough – but due to history. David Moyes hadn’t yet enjoyed a win over the old enemy. Everton hadn’t enjoyed any victory in the fixture in the 21st Century. Liverpool had proved themselves a gutsy bunch in midweek when, faced with Champions League elimination, overcame Olympiakos thanks to dramatic late goals from Neil Mellor and Steven Gerrard. The 200th derby was certain to be a hard-fought affair.
Hard-fought it was, though at the expense of excitement. The opening seconds were ominous; Liverpool’s pre-planned kick-off routine came undone as Gerrard swept the ball left straight away, only to gift possession to Osman. End product was to be a thorn in both sides. A Gerrard free-kick was dangerous, but Mellor’s flick-on drifted wide. Everton’s first attack presented them with their best chance of the match. Bent flicked the ball to Gravesen, and then took on the return pass from the midfielder before holding the ball up. That gave Cahill time to dart into the penalty area. Bent’s ball into the middle was excellent, the diminutive Australian was perfectly placed, but the contact necessary to beat Pepe Reina wasn’t forthcoming.
The game was full of derby grit, but that came with plenty of loose touches and indiscipline. Cahill’s outstretch leg was enough to persuade Gerrard to go to ground and earn a soft free-kick. The dead ball reached Mellor unmarked at the back post and the youngster seemed destined to write his name into the history books for the second time that week, only for Martyn to appear out of nowhere and make a magnificent stop. The ball fell to Gerrard, but the Liverpool talisman’s typically thunderous strike was blocked by David Weir. Sami Hyypia then hooked a volley over the bar. Liverpool were finding Bent to be a handful, likewise the Everton back line and Gerrard, who was at the centre of every Red foray forward. Cahill was an aerial threat too; had he connected with the ball after Chris Kirkland flapped at a Gravesen cross and missed, Everton would have taken a lead into the break.
The second half was one of few chances. Salif Diao launched a half-volley over the bar. Gerrard lined up a free-kick in a dangerous position, but slipped at a critical juncture and launched the ball into the Park End.
An untimely slip? Well, he won’t have to worry about that happening again.
And then, the big moment. Kilbane intercepted a poor clearance and fed the ball to Gravesen. His cross from the left narrowly evaded a leaping Cahill and was cleared, only for Bent to collect and hook the ball to Osman. Osman ran into trouble and tried to return it to Bent, only for his short pass to run past the striker.
Great moments are made simply by the right people appearing at the right time. Bent wasn’t on hand to collect the ball, but Lee Carsley was. His shot was precise, curled past Kirkland, who was perhaps distracted by Cahill standing directly in front of him. Not for long, though. Cahill was soon gone, wheeling away in pursuit of Carsley, who was quickly mobbed. Soon the bald head of the Ireland international was all that was visible as the delirious Blues piled on. There were plenty of reconstructions amid the bedlam in the stands. It was a picture-perfect moment.
It was almost as if both players knew the definitive moment of the match had come and gone. Cahill fluffed his lines after a corner caused panic, before Gerrard thundered a strike wide of the post when it seemed a certainty he would score. Another wonderful Martyn save denied Gerrard, then Alan Stubbs fired a low free-kick narrowly wide. Jon Arne Riise cleared off his own line, as did Cahill. The tit-for-tat couldn’t last forever, and after some tension, the final whistle blew.
It marked a special moment in Everton’s recent history. Carsley had claimed the derby for his own, and it was one that took Moyes’ Blues 12 points clear of their great rivals. Everton were second, the highest they had been in a post-August Premier League table. We are still waiting for something to better it. Quite literally, days do not get better than this. That iconic image is a constant reminder of one of the best days in recent memory.