As expected, six teenagers on the bench, only Turner with ANY Premier League experience, told the story of an abysmal pre-season without a single incoming transfer. But the composed and elegant Jack Rodwell was the only one of the many Everton youngsters to start, in centre-midfield, emulating the role of the departed Lee Carsley. It was a nervy start for both sides with mistakes aplenty as everyone struggled to get into the swing in front of a packed Goodison crowd.
Valente had to be alert early on defending well down the left, and Blackburn pushed and probed harder with a number of chances flying high or wide. David Dunn eventually scored the goal Blackburn had been threatening, but it took an excellent shot to beat Howard after 22 mins.
Everton looked simply awful in response, and were very lucky to be gifted a dangerous free kick on 40 mins. But Arteta curled it just wide of the angle with Robinson stranded. Chance squandered. But he made huge amends in stoppage time, with a fantastically executed free-kick from well out wide left. With Robinson hanging back, he curled it superbly just inside the angle this time. 1 - 1 and thoroughly underserved on the balance of play... but who cares!!!
It was better stuff from Everton at the start of the second half with more belief going forward and they even came close to taking the lead on a couple of occasions. But a sweeping move started by tenacity from Osman and a beautiful ball out wide to Arteta who went to the byeline before hanging up a floated cross to the far post where the in-running Yakubu leapt high above Warnock to power the ball home.
But the celebrations were short-lived, when Lescott was caught sleeping and Santa Cruz fired home easily — he was not offside.
A promising move by Moyes saw Bootle lad Jose Baxter — at16 years 191 days — become the latest in a long list of youngest players to wear the Everton shirt (Number 37), replacing Valente for a more attacking formation to go for that winning goal against an intransigent Blackburn side.
Everton lived on their nerves at times as they probed forward, with promising touches form the youngsters Rodwell and Baxter, who both did well. The crispness and continuity of joined-up football never quite came off, though (apart from that superb second goal!). Baxter came so close off a Jagielka cross that Robinson misjdged, and that would have brought the house down.
It had been a far better and much more entertaining second-half from 'beleaguered' Everton, who upped their game significantly, but could not quite deliver the required coup de grace, which ultimately came form Blackburn at the death. A cheap free-kick was given away well outside of the Everton area by Yakubu, but Nelson (who was clearly a yard offside when the kick was taken) headed onto the post and Ooijer had the easiest of tap-ins to win it. Disastrous!
Truth be told, I've never dreaded the kick off to a new season more than I did this summer. That eve-of-season excitement that usually grows as the first Premier League fixture of a brand new campaign approaches was replaced with gnawing anger and frustration that the team that finished "best of the rest" in May — and therefore best placed to push onto the heels of the Sky Four with some key close-season signings — was nowhere near ready, not physically, not mentally and, of course, not numerically.
At the end of a game that promised everything — a horribly convincing defeat after 40 minutes, an inconceivable victory after 63, and a hard-earned point going into injury time — that afore-mentioned anger had not only multiplied but also been joined by a measure of despair and as great a feeling of having been let down by Everton Football Club as I have ever felt in 22 years of devoted support.
The pre-match facts had already assumed infamy by a failure on the club's part to add any last-minute signings this past week. Just 10 senior players were available so Jack Rodwell, with just three substitute appearances to his name before today, was handed his full debut in central midfield. Phil Jagielka joined him in the middle in the role in which he performed so abysmally around the start of the last season and, thankfully, Leon Osman came through a late fitness test on a groin injury. Nuno Valente lined up at left back, Phil Neville on the right and Leighton Baines started in left midfield where he showed some promise at the tail end of the last campaign.
After a brief flurry of purpose from the home side in the first couple of minutes, though, the game settled into a worrying pattern of territorial superiority for Blackburn and aimless hoofball from Everton. Indeed, Neville had sliced two awful attempts to float the ball down the line for Mikel Arteta by the time Rodwell had had the game's first effort on goal, a 25-yard effort that gave Paul Robinson his first real task as a Rovers player, one he completed successfully by smothering the ball.
The warning signs from Blackburn followed soon afterwards. First Pedersen profited from a suicide pass by Rodwell midway inside his own half but the Norwegian's effort was deflected behind. Three minutes later, Roque Santa Cruz headed not far wide from Pedersen's cross. Everton were pitiful in their attempts to keep the ball — no surprise when it was being belted up towards a lone striker and the diminutive Osman — and it kept coming back time after time for almost all of the first half.
For the first 20 minutes Arteta barely had a look in and there was almost nothing coming down the left flank despite both Valente and Baines' ability to get forward and deliver a decent ball into the box. Lo and behold, when they did fashion their first real raid down the left it almost reaped dividends, Osman's deflected cross causing Robinson a moment of panic as it looped inches from his bar before he palmed it behind to safety. From the resulting corner, Valente hooked a left-footed shot wide right as Moyes's side showed glimpses of attacking intent.
Unfortunately, they fell behind barely two minutes later and it was as a direct result of that under-strength midfield and the gaping hole left by Le Carsley's departure to Birmingham. Far too much space opened up in the middle of Everton's half of the field and although it was eventually closed down, Jagielka committed himself with a lunging attempt to block a shot that never came as David Dunn feinted left and curled an excellent shot past Tim Howard's despairing dive. 1-0 and no more than Blackburn had deserved.
For all but the last five minutes of the remainder of the half, it really was depressing fare from Everton. While Rodwell was acquitting himself pretty well, Jagielka was struggling in the central midfield role and if Neville was supposed to be setting an example as captain, he was clearly failing as he routinely failed gave the ball away cheaply. Yakubu was lacking sharpness and Arteta continued to play a worryingly peripheral role. An aimless hoof by him downfield to absolutely nowhere after half an hour kind of summed it all up. Awful.
With five minutes left before the interval, however, the home side perked up and, consequently, brought the crowd to life. Yakubu was felled on the egde of the area and Arteta whipped a direct free kick narrowly wide. It served as a practice run for the equaliser, though. After Rodwell's half-volley had been deflected wide and a Blackburn defender had handled on the left corner of the area, the Spaniard set his sights on goal and delivered a beautiful curling free kick that sailed home and sent a wave of both relief and belief through the stands. What a difference pure quality can make to an otherwise terrible first 45 minutes.
The second half was better from Everton — it could only have been worse if they'd been playing a better side — and Yakubu should really have put them ahead 17 minutes before he eventually did when Baines delivered a dangerous cross across the face of goal but the Nigerian lacked conviction and didn't make contact on a gilt-edged chance. Annoyingly, moments like that that demonstrated what worked (getting the ball wide and crossing from behind the full-backs) and underscored what didn't (long balls straight to Rovers' giant defenders) weren't repeated often enough.
Yet when they were, as happened on the hour mark when Neville got the byline for what must have been the only time in the game and set up Osman's blocked shot, it proved to be effective. S o it proved four minutes afterwards when everything came together in another moment of pure quality. Arteta, now operating on the left, skipped down the flank, looked up to see two players raiding into the area and, rather than driving it across, chipped an inch-perfect cross that looped over the defence and fell at the perfect height for Yakubu to bury a header past Robinson. 2-1 and frustration had turned not only to jubilation but also real hope that the home side could go on and win the game.
Unfortunately, the focus required was glaringly absent and Rovers were level within a minute. Stephen Warnock sent a raking diagonal ball forwards, Lescott went to sleep and Santa Cruz took full advantage by taking it in stride and firing under Howard with unerring conviction.
Rocked back on their heels a little, Everton's response was muted and it was Paul Ince's side who showed the greater threat as the match teetered on a knife-edge with either side capable of snatching all three points. First, Blackburn were the more likely as Jason Roberts profited from a forutnate bounce and forced Howard into a one-handed save before Lescott brilliantly charged down Pedersen's shot from the rebound. Yobo was then booked for pulling Roberts back to prevent him from surging away into the clear.
Then, the pendulum swung in Everton's direction with the introduction of teen prodigy Jose Baxter who came on for Valente with 12 minutes left of the regulation 90 to become the youngest player to ever make a first-team appearance for the club. And an impressive debut it was, the youngster showing more confidence and better passing ability than other players in Blue twice his age with some purposeful interchanges and bursts forward.
The script appeared to be written for him to wipe away Wayne Rooney's ugly legacy as well when in the 89th minute Jagielka floated a ball to the back post and Baxter arrived on cue but could only steer his header a little high and wide of the target.
That appeared to be that but there was one more cruel twist in this opening-day saga and it came with virtually the last kick of the game. That it came as a result of a needless foul by Yakubu on Stephen Reid midway inside his own half two minutes into stoppage time and an offside goal was all the more infuriating. The resulting free kick was floated into the box by Warnock, Ryan Nelsen, in front of everyone when the ball was struck, nonetheless did well to crane his neck back and guide it onto the post and with Howard beaten the ball bounced across the face of goal into the path of Ooijer and the Dutchman rattled it into the yawning net to steal the points.
An agonising way to start a campaign now fraught with with worry for Evertonians coming off the back of the worst summer in living memory. A team that arguably needed two or three key additions after the sale of James McFadden in January has since lost six more players and not replaced any of them, leaving Everton desperately short of experience.
The upsides to this defeat were few but welcome nonetheless. In Arteta and Yakubu there is genuine quality in the attacking third of the field. The Spaniard underlined just how badly he must have been affected by the injuries that plagued him for so much of last season with two key moments that provided both of the Blues' goals. Certainly, there weren't many examples of his mesmerising balls skills — they've been restricted significantly by opposing teams putting two men on him these days— but to see his dead-ball accuracy return is a very pleasing sign.
The legendary Moyes team spirit still seems to be there and they're going to need that in abundance this season. And, finally, the two teenage debutants showed exactly why there is so much buzz surrounding them with highly promising displays.
But without some serious key signings between now and the transfer deadline, all those upsides do is provide reassurance that a fight against relegation is probably not on the cards. On this evidence, matching last season's achievements looks a very tall order and we can pretty much kiss any chance of breaking the top four or repeat qualification for the Uefa Cup through League position goodbye.
That, after all Moyes has built and having brought the team so tantalisingly close to challenging the dominance of the top four, would be an absolute travesty but the longer we go without new faces arriving and the more time drifts by without the manager signing that new contract, the more it points to potentially devastating problems off the pitch. How else do you explain the fourth most successful club in the country and last season's 5th-placed team starting a new season with just 10 fit senior players and unable to fill the full complement of substitutes?
This was supposed to be the season. Having finished "best of the rest", reached a Carling Cup semi-final and enjoyed a club-record run in the Uefa Cup, the platform was there to take another serious crack at the top four.
Instead, Everton Football Club face the prospect of starting the 2008/09 season with just 10 available senior players. An already small squad has lost six players this year and, at the time of writing, not one new face has been brought in. Quite how this been allowed to happen beggars belief and raises some very serious questions about what is going on at Goodison these days.
Win or lose, the analysis and the recriminations will no doubt go on but there can be no doubt that the 11 players who take to the field against Blackburn Rovers are going to need vocal support and encouragement throughout. The 2004 close season was horrendous but a "backs-against-the-wall" attitude in the season that followed saw the Blues finish fourth.
A similar attitude after an even worse summer this time around would not be a surprise from a David Moyes team but unless something truly seismic happens between now and the transfer deadline, you fear that all the pluck and spirit in the world won't be able to carry a team of kids anywhere near either the Champions League places or the Uefa Cup final come May.
If there is a silver lining it's that before the window slams shut, the Blues face a Blackburn team who are also in pretty bad shape, follow that up with a trip to newly-promoted and equally badly funded West Bromwich Albion before another home game with Portsmouth on 30th August.
If Moyes can motivate his side to a couple of victories from those three and strengthen the side before the end of the month, then the outlook will be a lot brighter. Seeing what has gone on — and, more pressingly, what has not gone on — this summer, it's a pretty big "if".
With Steven Pienaar, Andy van der Meyde and Tim Cahill ruled out through injury, Lee Carsley, Thomas Gravesen and Manuel Fernandes gone, Mikel Arteta and Leon Osman are the only established midfielders available... and there are unconfirmed reports that Osman is a big doubt as well and Yakubu hasn't trained since Tuesday after taking a knock, which would leave Moyes with a real selection headache.
Jack Rodwell is almost certain to make his first Premier League start in a defensive midfield role, Leighton Baines will be needed in left midfield and Dan Gosling is also in the frame if the manager opts for a five-man midfield. In terms of formation, much will depend on the fitness of James Vaughan who, after avoiding suspension, is struggling with an ankle injury.
At the back, Phil Jagielka and Joseph Yobo are the likely pairing in the centre, flanked by Phil Neville and Joleon Lescott, or Moyes may opt for Nuno Valente at left back and Jagielka in midfield. The bench will only have six of the available seven spots filled, with youngsters Lukas Jutkiewicz and Jose Baxter among those selected by Moyes.
Pre-season was poor on the whole and off-the-field events have really dragged club morale to the depths, but another opening-day victory would be a superb tonic for a beleaguered club.
May appear here later
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2008-09 Reports Index|
|When Skies Are Grey||Report|
|Everton fans' reports|
|Other media reports|
|4 the Game||Report|
|Subs not used|
|Van der Meyde (injured)|
|Pedersen (76' Treacy)|
|Dunn (??' Tugay)|
|Roberts (83' McCarthy )|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scoress|
|Saturday 16 August 2008|
|Sunday 17 August 2008|
|Aston Villa||4-2||Man City|
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|After 17 Aug 2008|