FA Cup Semi-Final Reaction
I have now been awake for almost 24 hours straight. In New Zealand the semi-final kicked off at 3am on Monday morning and I could not go to bed due to nervous excitement before the match. Now I can’t go to bed because of the adrenaline coursing through my body after that dramatic win. So I will attempt to channel some of that out into this blog and give my reaction to a nerve-wracking FA Cup Semi-Final. As always, bias may sneak in because my heart is as blue as blue, but I have tried to be objective and fair. At the end of the day though, Everton are in the final and that’s what counts!!!
First things first, I know that Man Utd fans and the press will give two excuses for Everton winning this game, so I’m going to start by discrediting both of them.
1) The Team Selection
Yes, Ferguson put out a young side. There were a lot of kids out there and they didn’t have much experience. However, not only did Ferguson put out a side that he though capable of winning the game, the act of putting out that side was engineered by Ferguson, to play a part in their doing so.
Make no mistake, this action by Ferguson is not akin to Martin O’Neill’s forfeit of the UEFA Cup, oh no. Ferguson wanted to win this trophy, he wanted it badly, you only had to see him jumping up and down on the sideline to know that. In putting out a shock side and in many ways reversing the expectation of most people going into the match, he was expecting to win.
And it almost worked. Everton did not play well, they could not get going and the fire that we associate with their play just wasn’t there. All week in the lead up to the match they would have been looking forward to a really tough test against a strong Manchester United team. In the end, that is what they got, but when the team sheet came through with those kids’ names on it, it pulled the rug from under our feet. The game plan was gone, as was the mental preparation, and it showed.
2) The Not-Penalty
I’ll say one thing here, watch the replay. I will admit, as Moyes did after the match, that I thought it might be a penalty when it happened. However, replays have shown conclusively that Jagielka did not make any contact with the player and that Welbeck tripped over his own feet. And despite my suspicion of Mike Riley, Moyes’ midweek allegations and the numerous strange decisions the ref made during the match, we have to give him the credit he deserves and say that he got it right.
What bemuses me is that even after seeing the replay and seeing that there was no contact the commentators on Setanta still continued to suggest that it might have been given. But usually, when a referee gives a penalty and video replays show that he has dived we bay for the blood of the official in question while ignoring the fact that it’s harder to see in real time.
In this instance, the referee has not given the penalty (nor was there a dive, just some clumsy footwork, from Welbeck), and replays have confirmed it. Why are we then looking at it and saying “well in real time it looked like a penalty so he should have given it”? He got the decision right, whether by luck or judgement and so justice has, at the end of the day, been done. So Manchester United have no excuses as far as I’m concerned. Debate my arguments all you like, I think they’re sound.
What wasn’t sound, to be frank, was Everton’s performance. I mentioned above that we did not ever really get going and I really meant it. In recent weeks we’ve been playing impassioned and high-tempo stuff, knocking the ball around nicely and looking very dangerous. Today we were almost the exact opposite, slow, flat footed and not particularly committed in the tackle, I had to hold my breath whenever United attacked. We just weren’t at the ball park at times.
Some blame must go to the pitch. It affected both teams and the game as a whole suffered because of it. Having not seen many of United’s players in action I can’t conclusively say what style of football they usually play and indeed, much of their sloppy passing may be attributed to the fact that this was a team that has rarely played together before. However, we may assume that Ferguson intends all of his players to play football in the same free-flowing style that his first team does, and therefore suggest that they too were affected by the pitch, which was awful.
As I watch Everton at every opportunity I know that we play some stunning football at times. I often get the feeling that people don’t believe me when I say that, mainly because we have Mauro Fellaini in the team, but honestly, our style is nifty passing through the midfield, playing at pace and getting behind the oppositions defence. The bobbly pitch at Wembley today certainly made that difficult but that is no excuse either.
At the end of the day, neither side every really stamped any authority on the match. United did control the game at times but very rarely threatened much, and Everton too had spells but couldn’t unlock the United defence, where Ferdinand and in particular Vidic justified their nominations for the Player of the Season award. They were immense, and with Jagielka and Lescott solid at the other end and no established, fully fit striker on the team for either side for much of the proceedings (for very different reasons of course), it is little wonder that the deadlock wasn’t broken before penalties.
When it came down to penalties I must admit I was scared. I think I have only once supported a team that won a penalty shootout and that was when Everton beat Hartlepool (I think) in what is now knows as the Carling Cup. But to be honest, we wouldn’t really have minded losing, because we had more pressing issues to deal with (i.e. the threat of relegation) as we so often did back in those days.
The omens weren’t good then, and when Tim Cahill blasted his penalty over the bar I looked at my brother and thought here we go again. As Everton fans we have been through so much over the years, but things are now coming good for us, and you can bet your ass we wanted to win this match more than any Man Utd fan in the world today.
Thus the relief when Dimitar Berbatov stepped up and justified every criticism ever levelled at him with tamest, weakest, most passionless penalty of all time was immense. Howard saved well with his feet and I was already beginning to take back every bad word I’ve said about our up and down ‘keeper this season. So after Baines had slotted a beauty into the top corner beyond Foster’s flailing arms, Howard’s comparisons with the legendary Neville Southall were starting to seem more sensible as he made a good save from an average Rio Ferdinand penalty. We dared to dream.
Phil Neville showed what an incredible pro he is then, it meant as much to him as it did to me I’m sure, and yet he was the coolest man in the stadium when he slotted past Foster, with Vidic performing a ridiculous jutter in his run up and still only squeezing the penalty in off the post. James Vaughan then seemed to mock Vidic’s run up with a little boxing-style quickstep in his own run-up (which may also explain the black-eye he was carrying) but the Everton youngster scored in much more convincing fashion than the big centre back.
Finally Anderson came forward needing to score to keep United in with a shot and did so with one of the calmest penalties of the night. Unfortunately for him Phil “Mr. Consistent” Jagielka then stepped up to the plate and rifled his match winning penalty into the corner of the net with aplomb. We knew he wouldn’t let us down, and I was screaming myself horse and jumping around my living room and swearing more in a couple of minutes than I ever have in my life. I detes penalties but winning them actually feels great – I hope to repeat the trick more often in future, should it come to it.
All in all then, an eminently frustrating game was settled in a rather vicious manner, rather fitting really because watching the match was at times torturous for me, and I’m sure for every other fan who had a vested emotional interest in its outcome. At the end of the day though, I naturally feel that the right team progressed. Yes, Ferguson wanted to win and thought his young players capable of doing so, but after (rightly) criticising Rafa Benitez’s arrogance in midweek, he showed a bit of hypocrisy here today assuming that his youngsters could outplay Everton. In the end they nearly did, but no one can out fight us and we wanted it more.
So no quintuple for United, Everton have denied them that much. But the real news is that Everton are in the Cup Final against Chelsea. My greatest footballing memory is watching the FA Cup Final in 1995 as a six year old, when we beat the Mancs 1-0 thanks to Paul Rideout and I ran whooping around my garden. It has been a very long and bumpy road from that day to the next, we have almost been relegated on numerous occasions and I myself have moved around the world on three occasions.
But the bond between me and my club is still as strong as it has ever been, and as strong as the will of David Moyes who is a fantastic manager and who deserves to win a trophy. It is as strong as the spirit and sense of togetherness amongst our squad, injured players like Mikel Arteta and the cup tied Jo were at Wembley today to support their mates, and in the end they’ve done them proud.
I want more than anything in the world now to be able to go to Wembley on May 30th and support my club. One thing is for sure, we out-sung the Man Utd fans by some distance today, and that noise will be double come May. It has been a long hard road for Everton fans over these past years, since we were robbed of our glory days in the 80’s we have never quite recovered. So good luck to Man Utd, go on and have your four trophies, we only want one, but we want it far, far more than you want your four.
Man of the Match: Phil Jagielka – solid at the back, nerves of steel to net the winner.