My father watched a lot of football – fifty years or more. He always said that you could judge the strength of any XI by the strength of its bench – so he would have enjoyed the Everton selection at Upton Park. Roberto Martinez’s substitutes comprised Robles, Heitinga, Oviedo, Deulofeu, McCarthy, Lukaku and Stones – okay, that’s a little below the level of the Big Four (or is it Big Five?), but it’s better than most other Premier League clubs. It’s also Everton’s best bench since Kevin Richardson and Adrian Heath warmed the wood in the 80s.
That the club enjoy such riches is down to two reasons, neither of which have much to do with money: long term planning and short term opportunism. The long-standing policy of buying players a notch or two below top class and moulding them into outstanding players (the “Tim Cahill” approach) has brought international honours to Phil Jagielka, Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines. Two more experienced pros in Sylvan Distin and Tim Howard round out the all-important defensive unit and local boys Leon Osman and Ross Barkley roam in front of them, looking for the killer pass. Kevin Mirallas’ consistency is improving with his fitness and Steven Naismith and Nikica Jelavic bring plenty of experience further forward.
But what has delighted Evertonians over the last seven days, is the impact of the new blood picked up late – very late – on transfer deadline day. If Gareth Barry’s assured performance against Chelsea gathered the plaudits last week, this week Romaleu Lukaku came on in the second half to score the winner and complete a recovery from 1-0 and 2-1 down away from home – the kind of thing top teams like Manchester United do. Underlining the fantastic window Everton enjoyed, Leighton Baines scored both equalisers. His retention – in the teeth of his previous manager’s covetousness – not only gave Everton another season with a world class player, but underlined the man’s status as a Loyal Blue.
All that said, bench strength counts for nothing unless the manager is prepared to use it. Blues fans will shudder at the memory of Walter Smith’s monotonous 60th minute and 85th minute substitutions, seemingly without regard to the match situation or individual form. Roberto Martinez is of a different generation and different culture – he had all three subs on by the 52nd minute and, sure enough, the first of the three goals arrived just ten minutes later.
September is proving a great month for Everton – not a phrase used often in recent years. A wind of change is blowing through the club, as the Moyes Empire is being transformed by the Martinez Method. With Everton the last club in the Premier League still unbeaten, things have gone better than any Blue could have hoped for in mid-August – long may it continue.