I’m man enough to admit that Everton didn’t do enough to win the Cup Final. It hurts me to say that, and I’m incredibly proud to be an Evertonian all the same, because after the season we’ve had, it’s miraculous that we made the final at all. We got the perfect start, but if anything that possibly cost us as it got Chelsea going from the off, whereas had we frustrated them from the off and snuck one later on, we may have hung on.
I hope that that admittance will help to show that in my following complaints about Howard Webb I’m not being bitter and making excuses for our defeat: we weren’t the best team and so we didn’t win, simple as that. No, my complaint of Howard Webb is rather that he ruined the game completely and absolutely for Tony Hibbert. Hibbert, our longest serving player, a born and bred Evertonian was playing in the biggest game of his career and fulfilling his boyhood dream, but Webb completely spoilt it for him, and I think that is tragic.
We knew before the game that much of Chelsea’s threat would be focused through Florent Malouda who has finally realised his obvious talent in recent months and become a constant threat for Chelsea. Sure enough, Malouda had a great game and was probably my man of the match. However, early on, probably not even five minutes in, as he was played through he outpaced Tony Hibbert and ran across him, forcing completely innocuous and incidental contact between them which sent him tumbling: fair enough, not a dive, but a free kick, and nothing more.
However, Howard Webb being Howard Webb, i.e. a complete twat of a referee, decided that Hibbert must have tripped the Frenchman on purpose and comes sprinting across to book the English full back. Honestly I’ve never seen a more pointless and ridiculous booking. Hibbert could not have prevented the contact however hard he tried, it’s simply one of the oldest tricks in the book from an attacker, and it’s intended to win a free kick, but should never lead to a booking because there is quite simply no intent whatsoever.
Because of Webb’s ineptitude though, Tony Hibbert had picked up a booking within 10 minutes which meant that he now had to try and contain Chelsea’s main and trickiest threat while walking a tightrope. He’d already seen how lightly Webb was prepared to flash his cards and so knew that every tackle he made from then on would have to be inch perfect, which in a cup final in sweltering heat, is very difficult to do, even when not facing world class opposition.
As a result, I think it’s fair to say that Hibbert had a bit of a nightmare for the rest of the half. Usually a combative and tough tackling full back he was forced to hold off from making challenged just in case he got it wrong because he knew that in such hot conditions, going down to 10 men would be absolutely cataclysmic for Everton. Subsequently, Hibbert’s reluctance to close down Malouda as quickly as he would normally have done allowed the Frenchman to pick out a mysteriously unmarked Didier Drogba to equalise, proving both that Webb had an effect on the scoreline and that our defence isn’t as impenetrable as I often claim, Yobo and Lescott both ball watching and allowing Drogba far too easy a goal.
What infuriates me further though, is the dreadful inconsistency of the referee. If Webb had booked Hibbert for that incredibly innocuous clip of heel, then he should have been producing yellow cards left, right and centre. We wouldn’t have liked it, and he’d have been damned for it, but he would at least have been consistent and even towards both sides. However, his failure to punish Michael Essien for a terrible tackle after about 20 minutes shows that either he’s completely inept or that the speculated bias towards the big four clubs is becoming more pronounced.
Essien is a player I like, he is a hard but fair type of player like myself, but occasionally can be reckless and get them wrong. He got one wrong on Osman (I think) after about 20 minutes, the Everton player had the ball on the touchline and the Ghanaian came diving in, studs up, feet off the ground, one leg either side of Osman’s in a scissor like tackle and completely failing to get the ball until he subsequently flicked his leg out to push it away.
If ever there was a more blatant case of going through a player to get the ball I haven’t seen it, and given that the tackle fulfills three of the traditional ‘red card offence’ characteristics, he could easily have been shown a red card. I don’t think there was any malice in the challenge though, and so personally would have awarded a very lenient yellow and had him on his best behaviour from then on, but to see Howard Webb put his arm round him, crack a joke (they both laughed at something) and then let him away with nothing but a chat was sickening.
It was the sort of tackle that, intent or not, can end careers and though luckily on this occasion it didn’t (lord knows Everton have had enough serious injuries already this season) the danger was still there and it is the sort of tackle that needs to be clamped down on as strictly as possible because otherwise players will have their careers, and their lives, ruined. I cannot even begin to hypothesize quite why Webb felt that no caution at all was called for, it was just plain bemusing and incredibly infuriating given Hibbert’s earlier caution.
So at the end of the day, I am absolutely gutted that Everton lost, but I can accept it. When you are outplayed, you have to graciously accept defeat and I’m willing to do that today. We came up against a side packed full of quality and came up short, though after seeing Arteta, Jagielka, Yakubu, Valente and Anichebe in their suits on the pitch beforehand it is easy to be filled with ‘what-if’s. But we’ve taken a big step this season and can be proud of our efforts, and hopefully soon we will finally add some silverware to Moyes already long list of achievements.
But as bad as I feel for myself, and for all the Everton fans and the players and Moyes and especially Blue Bill Kenwright, I feel especially for Tony Hibbert. He would have been absolutely distraught at how the game went for him, as he was substituted at half time as Moyes recognised that the risk of going a man down was not worth taking.
So for Hibbert, who grew up Blue as I did, who has been at the club for most of his life and who wanted it more than anyone else out there on the pitch today, you have to have some pity. In recent weeks I’ve spoken about referees ruining matches and while Webb didn’t quite ruin the game as a whole this time around, he certainly ruined it for the man to whom it meant the most, and that is a terrible tragedy in my opinion. Let’s just hope Hibbert can have another go next year.