Returning from Craven Cottage on a beautiful Spring day after a beautiful Everton win (well, beautifulish – none are ugly), only two blots could be spied on the horizon. South London gave every indication that its recession was in the past (and the Tories hence electable) and Liverpool were, if anything, even more unstoppable than the Blues. Had I been 40 kilos lighter, I could have made a case for it being 1986.
But it wasn’t just the number of red boots worn by Everton players that would have surprised a time traveller from 28 years ago – it was the crisp football played not just by the team challenging for Europe, but also by the team rock bottom of the Premier League. In the second half anyway.
I was surprised to see both Everton’s young midfield guns in the starting XI after the attention paid to them as a result of their excellent performances in the 3-0 midweek shellacking of Newcastle – I’d have rested Ross Barkley and probably Gerard Deulofeu too, but Roberto knew that they are in his strongest available XI and start they did. Though Everton’s best work in a disjointed first half display came through the cute Catalan, he was often a peripheral figure as Fulham buzzed around his supply lines (especially Leon Osman, as poor on the bank of the Thames as he was good on the bank of the Tyne). Ross Barkley picked up a knock early, but had never got into the game and did not emerge for the second 45 minutes.
As is the way with 21st century managers, Martinez does not see the bench as a set of insurance policies for hobbling players, but as set of cards to be played as he sees fit. Steven Naismith slotted in off Romelu Lukaku (sometimes interchanging with the point of the attack the better to stand up Fulham’s pace-free centre-backs) and carried a threat throughout. As soon as Ashkan Dejagah showed his potential, Deulofeu was withdrawn in favour of Kevin Mirallas, who duly took the pass of the match (maybe, the season) from the third substitute, Aiden McGeady, to kill off the game. Tim Howard may have been Man of the Match, but the three substitutes won it.
For the crunch match vs Arsenal next Sunday, Roberto has to consider another careful balancing of his resources. Does he bring back the club captain whose fitness is likely to permit him to start? Or does he stick with Everton’s best outfield player, the precocious John Stones, whose game, especially in possession, is developing rapidly? I’d pick Stones – he really is that good already – but the Boss may have other ideas. Whoever does get the nod, we know that he, and 17 other Evertonians in the matchday squad, will enjoy the complete confidence of a man who has brought back a swagger last seen when Aha told us that “The Sun Always Shines On TV”. It’s shining on Merseyside now too.