A winter break? Say it aint so.
The festive period is without doubt my favorite part of the English football calendar. Games come thick and fast, the third round of the FA Cup is on the horizon and it’s the time of the season when in the Premier League the table really starts to take shape. Everyone has played everyone now, and teams can craft and refine their ambitions for the remainder of the campaign.
For match going supporters, it is also a wonderful time of year. Going to the game provides a great opportunity to get out of the house, drag yourself away from the chocolate and mince pies, and just take a bit of a breather from the sometimes relentless Christmas celebrations.
Granted, Boxing Day isn’t really an ideal day for a game and when the fixtures come out during the summer, you’re praying for a home game. If you get an away tie, then getting halfway across the country when public transport runs a reduced service can be a bit of bother.
But getting to home games isn’t that bad. Someone needs to drive though, which means no festive drinks for one poor soul.
Sunderland were ideal opposition in many respects. Bottom of the league, no away goal in two months and an awful record on Merseyside. A routine win to maintain the good mood around Goodison Park?
Well, not quite. Leon Osman conspired to fall over the ball in comical but disastrous fashion, and the Toffees were facing a penalty and the prospect of playing 70 minutes with ten men.
Roberto Martinez’s side still dominated proceedings but some last ditch defending and marvelous goalkeeping kept Everton out. Sunderland clung on and Everton were left to reflect on their first home defeat of 2013. The Black Cats certainly deserved something out of the game, but some of their time-wasting was a little embarrassing; keeper Vito Mannone was slowing the game down as early as six minutes in.
We had a boxing day party to attend at my grandparents that evening, and with the majority of the family being of a red persuasion, my dad and I readied ourselves for a fair bit of stick. Things looked even bleaker as Liverpool took an early lead against Manchester City. Great.
But in the end, none of us were overly happy and we drank the night away bemoaning the respective incapability’s of Osman and referee Lee Mason.
The next contest was just three days later against Southampton – see why I love the festive period? – and a game I’ve admittedly been a little hesitant about for a while. The manner in which the Saints team press the ball was always going to cause problems for an Everton side intent on playing out from the back.
The fixture was shaping up to be even more troublesome when you consider Everton were without their captain Phil Jagielka and the suspended duo of Gareth Barry and Tim Howard. Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas were also rested, with Martinez preferring the industrious qualities of Bryan Oviedo and Steven Naismith on the flanks.
Antolin Alcaraz made his first start in Everton blue and in the end, his inclusion turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise. His composure on the ball, which far surpasses that of Sylvain Distin and Jagielka, was key in the Toffees playing through the Southampton press. On first glimpse, he looks a strong acquisition, with his reading of the game a particular strong point.
The game kicked off at 1:30pm local time and, as such, those in the Gwladys Street end at Everton’s Goodison Park had to contend with bright sunlight for the opening period. It makes for difficult viewing, especially down the other end of the pitch. A sore right arm too, as those in the Street End have to constantly shield their eyes.
Despite the glare emanating across Goodison Park there was no missing Seamus Coleman’s opening goal. He scored another belter and is fast becoming the Premier League’s outstanding right-back.
Twelve months ago, David Moyes said the Irishman had some distance to go until he was on the same level as fellow full-back Leighton Baines. Based on recent showings, he is certainly not far off and the former Sligo Rovers player surely represents the best £60,000 ever spent in the Premier League era.
Southampton deservedly equalized through Gaston Ramirez and were impressive throughout; probably the best team to come to Goodison Park this season. Like the Toffees, they had to field a team gripped with injury and suspension, but they bossed possession and harried Everton throughout. Ultimately, it was two pieces of class from the Blues that was their undoing.
The second of which lead to the winning goal. Pienaar picked out the driving run of the magnificent James McCarthy, and his wonderful first time flick allowed Romelu Lukaku to hammer home. The Belgian forward has looked a little at best labored and at worst lazy as of late, but Martinez has kept him on for the full 90 minutes for the majority of games. Goals like that are the reason why and he looked a completely different player after his first goal in five league games.
Everton held out and following Chelsea’s win over Liverpool, the Toffees will start 2014 in fourth place. Considering the doom and gloom that gripped many blues after David Moyes’s departure this summer, it is a remarkable achievement. Thirty seven points from the opening 19 games is an excellent return and a similar haul in the second half of the campaign will surely secure Champions League football for the Toffees.
A couple of other notes from the past couple of weeks; Huge credit must go to the travelling supporters of both Sunderland and Southampton. Both clubs sold out their away allocations and that is no mean feat during a notoriously expensive time of the year. Factor in the appalling weather and travel chaos that has plauged the UK over the past couple of weeks, supporters of those two clubs deserve massive praise for making long journeys to the North West.
— Football Away Days (@FBAwayDays) December 26, 2013
And finally, Everton and Liverpool football clubs have been doing a huge amount of good work over the Christmas period. First of all, both sets of players carried out their annual visit to Alder Hey Childrens Hospital, which always puts a huge smile on the face some youngsters who are having something of a rough time.
Everton were have also been running an event called ‘Blue Chrimbo’, in which players and former players have turned up out of the blue to surprise supporters at their home. So the likes of Leighton Baines, Sylvain Distin, David Unsworth and Leon Osman have all been out and about meeting the most deserving supporters.
The final surprise was perhaps the most heartwarming though, as Martinez made the trip to visit to visit 93-year-old Annie Carson, a lifelong Evertonian. Annie told the current boss of how she used to watch the likes of Dixie Dean, Joe Royle and Alan Ball in her younger days, and Martinez was blown away by her passion for Everton and longstanding football knowledge. For the full story click here.
Footballers get tons of stick, but when the local clubs gives back to the community with events such as this, it really does raise a smile.
Happy New Year to you all! Thanks for reading!
Editor’s note: Read the previous The Heart of English Football columns by Matt Jones.