Is there a more quintessentially English fixture in the football calendar than Everton against Arsenal on a Wednesday night at the end of January at Goodison Park? These are the two longest-serving members of the Premier League – Everton have been ever-presents in the top division for more than fifty years, and Arsenal have been there since Henry Norris and his dodgy dealings in 1919. These two clubs are at differing stages in their attempts to sever their links with their past. Arsenal left Highbury for the palatial glamour of The Emirates Stadium in 2006, but they haven’t yet festooned their new home with any silverware. Indeed, some would say that there is a distinct correlation between the move and the decline in their fortunes. These massive football stadia don’t build themselves, and Arsenal haven’t been able to spend the money that they would have wanted to on players over the last few seasons. They have slipped from being perennial title challengers to fighting for their lives for the fourth Champions League spot.
This is a journey that Everton may be about to embark upon. The similarity to the situation that Arsenal found so intolerable is striking. Goodison Park is one of the few remaining traditional big English football grounds. It holds a shade over 40,000 at the moment, a capacity that the club seldom seems to fill, but it is (as so many original football grounds are) in the heart of a residential area and, whils it would be possible to expand the ground further, the club insists that it would not be economically viable to do so. They are instead looking west, to Kirkby, and a 50,000 capacity stadium that would include as part of the deal the biggest Tesco supermarket in Britain. Critics argue that, regardless of any considerations regarding the wellbeing of Everton Football Club, they have a moral obligation to remain where possible in the district that they have called home for one hundred and thirty years. The removal of Everton Football Club might prove to sound the death knell for an impoverished area.
As an annual staple of the football calendar, Everton against Arsenal used to contain one minor tradition that said much about those that used to run Arsenal. Both clubs wear white shorts and, with the sort of regal imperiousness that one may expect from the nearest thing that English football has to “The Establishment”, Arsenal used to refuse to sully their kit by playing in change shorts with their red and white shirts. This meant that, every season, you would see Arsenal turn out at Goodison Park in their full change strip, even though they wore red and Everton wore blue. This is a tradition that seems to have bitten the dust. Arsenal turn out this evening in red and white. It’s not even their proper red and white. In their infinite wisdom, Nike have decided that the innovation of white sleeves introduced by Herbert Chapman at the start of the 1930s isn’t one that needs to be upheld any more. Arsenal, therefore, look from any distance like Charlton Athletic this season, and this seems to have rubbed off on their performances. There have been times this season when they have played like Charlton Athletic.
The grim truth of the matter is that their Champions League place is slipping away from them. Aston Villa may have been guffawed at when they signed Emile Heskey to bolster their strike force, but Heskey scored the winning goal at Portsmouth last night which put Villa six points clear of Arsenal and above Chelsea for twenty-four hours, at least. This is Arsenal’s game in hand, and they have to win it. Everton, meanwhile, seem destined to spend eternity somewhere between sixth and eighth place in the Premier League. This is no mean achievement on the part of David Moyes, as anyone that remembers their occasional close shaves with relegation during the 1990s will be able to confirm. They’re nine games unbeaten are Everton, and those nine games have included two against Liverpool and one against Chelsea. Their problem, however, seems to be killing games off. Each of the three matches mentioned above ended in a draw and Arsenal end up scraping an ill-deserved point from this match.
Everton start forcefully enough, but the problem for them is soon evident. Manchester United have Ronaldo, Tevez, Berbatov and Rooney. Chelsea have Joe Cole, Lampard and the increasingly stroppy Didier Drogba. Everton, by contrast, have… Arteta, Cahill and Fellaini. They don’t have players of the calibre to be able to take the game by the scruff of the neck and kill it off. David Moyes has, to this end, made something approaching a silk purse from a sow’s ear. His team plays to its strengths and defends immaculately, for the most part. Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka look like players utterly transformed from the half-decent defenders that they were at Wolves and Sheffield United respectively. However, while a successful defensive unit can be achieved by organisation and commitment alone, attacking flair requires a certain spark that can’t be exclusively coached into someone. This is why great attacking players attract such a premium in the marketplace. Everton, at present, cannot afford such premiums.
When Everton’s goal comes just after the hour, it comes from one of the few players that they do have that can change a match. A high, looping cross is met by Tim Cahill, who heads precisely into the corner of the net. It’s his hundredth career goal. As time wears on and a mist starts to encircle Goodison Park, Everton have chances to kill the game off. Cahill, for example, has a decent shooting opportunity but shoots straight at Almunia. In the dying seconds of the match, however, Arsenal’s class briefly but devastatingly shines through. Diaby’s long diagonal pass is chested down by Robin Van Persie, who shoots left-footed, across the goal to bring Arsenal level. It is a point that they don’t deserve and it is a point apiece that will not really do either side any good. Arsenal remain five points behind an Aston Villa side who are grinding out results with almost astonishing effectiveness. Everton remain five points behind Arsenal, but they were a couple of kicks away from that gap being two points. A pall of despondency falls over Goodison Park at full time – they know that they could have edged themselves into a prime position to catch and overhaul them for fifth place had they been able to hold on for that few extra seconds. Such dreams will have to wait, for the time being. At least they can console themselves with the fact that Liverpool seem to be imploding at the very top of the table. Sometimes, as a football supporter, you have to get your pleasure where you can find it.