The Thrill of Chasing UEFA Champions League Qualification: The Heart of English Football
The last time I wrote one of these columns, Everton’s season looked all but done. A 4-1 defeat in the FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal seemed to have put an end to the Toffees’ challenging for anything of note in the final knockings of the campaign. I was expecting a strong finish, but at best a spot in next season’s Europa League.
At that particular juncture, Everton were off the pace in the race for the UEFA Champions League and supporters were ready to file this season under “transitionary,” as is so often the case when a new manager takes over. But, as I’m sure you’re well aware by now, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Roberto Martinez guided the team to five consecutive league wins on the back of that FA Cup exit, and suddenly Everton had a sniff of a potential fourth place finish. With that, of course, comes the glitz and glamor of Europe’s elite competition.
It was still but a dream at that point, but with Everton set to welcome Arsenal to Goodison Park in Week 33, a win would make Champions League football a very realistic ambition.
A massive game, one of the biggest Goodison has hosted for many years. As supporters, they’re the kind you relish, but with the Aintree Grand National meeting taking place a day before the game against the Gunners, there were a few weary faces and a plenty of sore heads on Sunday morning for those who had enjoyed a day at the races. Like my Dad.
I have to admit, I was a little worried the atmosphere might suffer as a result. Early games on a Sunday don’t typically produce the most raucous of crowds anyway, and when you factor in a city of hangover-stricken Liverpudlians, it’s not a recipe for stellar crowd backing.
But on arrival at the ground, there was that buzz that has been festering for weeks now, a buzz that has gripped the region as of late. Everybody’s talking about the football and the whole of Merseyside is unashamedly excited about what the end of this season might bring.
That buzz was transmitted into the ground ahead of the game, and the players fed off it. They were up for the clash from minute one, and when it became wholly apparent Arsenal were not, the noise levels lifted again.
The players responded and romped into a 2-0 lead before half-time, with Steven Naismith and Romelu Lukaku running riot, bagging a goal apiece. Eventually the Toffees ran out 3-0 winners, but it could have been many, many more.
Naismith scored the opening goal, and on celebrating there was a wonderful shot of a young fan in the crowd; a moment that captures all that’s brilliant about the game for me:
The visitors were poor, it must be said. But Everton’s performance that day was the best I’ve ever seen from a Toffees side in a big game; they were simply sensational. Martinez has fashioned a team that is tactically astute, incisive, dynamic, energetic, mature and enterprising.
At 3-0, Seamus Coleman was juggling the ball down the right-hand-side and nutmegging Santi Cazorla! Everton (that’s Everton) were taking the mickey against Arsenal. It was bloody brilliant.
Oh, and the atmosphere was fantastic throughout. What on earth do I know?
It was only after that emphatic performance that I started to genuinely consider the possibility of Everton making it into the Champions League. I posted a misty-eyed, pre-game rallying call prior to this one, and touched on the prospect of the iconic sides coming to Goodison and that stirring music blurring out under floodlights. But after beating Arsenal, it’s not just a pipe dream anymore. It’s genuinely there for the taking.
As an Evertonian though, you learn to reign in your expectations. You half expect the team to go to Sunderland in their next game and lose, such has been the patent for disappointment down the years. But, despite claiming I’d done enough away games in my last piece, we made the trip up to the North-East to watch the Blues continue their Champions League charge. I’m a sucker, aren’t I?
Sunderland is a long, long way from Liverpool for those not entirely familiar with the geography. We set off at 9:00AM to make it for a 3:00PM kick-off, but long train journeys like that are brilliant.
Each group of supporters has their own little routine. Some lads play card games, others have a sing, we bought a couple of papers, some football magazines, put some bets on online and enjoyed a few pre-game beers. Bliss.
The Stadium of Light is always a place I’ve enjoyed going to. The Sunderland supporters are friendly and keen to talk about the game with away supporters, which is not always the case at some grounds. For me, I always find it intriguing to get an opinion on Everton from match-going supporters and the Mackem fans we spoke to all said they’d like to see the Toffees make it into the Champions League. After their team had beaten the Toffees, of course!
In the ground itself, the away supporters are up in the very, very top tier of the stadiums biggest stand. Usually it doesn’t make for a particularly good atmosphere, especially when the temperatures are a little chilly up in the North-East. But the 3,000 Toffees who made the trip were in fine voice, clearly galvanized by the team’s marvelous performance against Arsenal.
This game against Sunderland was always going to a difficult one. The Black Cats were awkward opposition and battled extremely hard throughout the 90 minutes, but Everton found a way to win. They ground it out and in doing so, have heaped the pressure back on Arsenal.
Away games like that–where you nick a stuffy goal a long, long way from home and win 1-0–are always the best. Better that a comfortable victory in many respects. The supporters knew the team had been in a battle, we knew Everton hadn’t played well but they came out the other side. They’d earned those three points.
That’s seven wins on the bounce now and as a supporter you start to find yourself thinking “why can’t Everton go on and win every game until the end of the campaign?”. Martinez has the supporters dreaming again, and as the away end sang on the way out of the Stadium of Light on Saturday, “the school of science, is on it’s way back”.
We got back to Liverpool at around 10:00PM absolutely exhausted. On our return journey, the amount of strangers that complimented the Everton team and wished us well for the rest of the season was incredible. This manager and this team seems to have captured the imagination of a lot of neutrals and whatever happens in the final weeks of the season, it has been a privilege to watch this team for the past nine months.
There’s just five games to go now and I intend on attending them all as Everton look to finish the season with a flourish. Next up is Crystal Palace at home and if the Toffees win that, they’ll be just eight points off the top of the table, which is a stunning achievement.
Who knows, next season I might be writing this column after a trip to the Camp Nou or the Bernabeu? I suppose I can dream a little bit, can’t I?
Today is the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster and I couldn’t possibly post a column entitled “The Heart Of English Football” without paying respects to the 96 Liverpool supporters who lost their lives in Sheffield on that spring day in 1989.
My Grandad and Uncle were both in the Leppings Lane stand that day, but thankfully in the tier above the crush; my Dad was at the other semi-final to watch Everton at Villa Park.
It’s a day solemnly discussed in truth, but the picture they all paint is a harrowing one. No mobile phones, no way of letting loved ones know that you’re safe, no way for Evertonians to find out if their red mates, brothers, sons or daughters were alive.
My Mother and Grandmother had to sit at home knowing that supporters had died at Hillsborough and hoping for hours after that the phone would ring with good news. Thankfully it did, but for other families, it did not.
The pain and anguish suffered by so many people that day and in the aftermath of the tragedy is unfathomable. Thankfully, the unyielding spirit of the victim’s families has helped reveal the truth about what really happened on April 15 1989 and those in positions of great authority who acted in an incomprehensibly irresponsible manner look set to be brought to overdue justice.
We should never forget the 96 supporters who went to a football game 25 years ago and tragically never came home. RIP.