Tag Archives: Everton

Funeral for a fan proves football is more than just a game

For any football fan, the words “it’s only a game” are among the most frustrating and belittling you can hear when your side has just lost.

My girlfriend, Jayne, is typically culpable for this. I fell victim to her comment as Sam Clucas put Swansea 3-1 up against Arsenal and I was put in a foul mood for the rest of our night out.

 We were on a trip back to her hometown of Liverpool for her grandfather’s funeral. Bernie Watkinson was a father of five, a loving husband and a lifelong Evertonian.

I had never met Bernie, but I had heard stories of his devotion to the Toffees stretching throughout his life, right up until his final days.

The day before he died, he was talking to his grandson, Michael, about Everton’s chances at Wembley as they played Tottenham Hotspur. Big Sam’s men were without a win in five.

“I’m glad he wasn’t here to see it,” Michael said at the wake, as Spurs swept Everton aside with a crushing 4-0 win.

Footballing farewell

The quiet coach we sat in on the train up to Liverpool Lime Street seemed particularly apt considering what awaited us over the next few days.

The air conditioning was bitterly cold, much like the Irish Sea winds that batter the city, and the lack of voices foreshadowed the eerie silence that hung inside Bernie’s wife’s living room before the funeral cars arrived on Monday morning.

However, what set the precedent for the coming days wasn’t the cold or the quiet, it was watching what I could of the FA Cup tie between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion on my phone.

Liverpool’s chaotic 3-2 defeat, which saw two uses of the new VAR system, and also the Reds’ first home defeat in 19 games, seemed almost like a gift to a grieving Evertonian family.

‘The conversations that took place were a true testament to football’s ability to give everyone an escape on a sad Sunday afternoon’

I met Jayne’s grandmother, and all of her aunts, uncles and cousins for the first time on Sunday afternoon, in the same room that we would all reconvene in again the day after for the funeral. Hardly the best circumstances to meet an entire extended family.

You could sense the expectation for tomorrow; as though the emotion of what was to follow was already in the room just waiting to come out.

Despite the lingering sadness, the television shone a bright green as Manchester City played Cardiff, also in the Cup. City’s sharp baby blue cut through a room made grey by the cloudy weather, and what amazed me the most was that it wasn’t just ‘on’.

Everyone was watching it, and all had an opinion on it, whether it was the ridiculousness of the Noisy Neighbours’ Middle Eastern funding, or the selective use of VAR.

Most prominent in conversation was Liverpool’s defeat the day before, with one member of the family getting an absolute battering from everyone else, being the sole Liverpool supporter.

The conversations that took place were a true testament to football’s ability to give everyone an escape on a sad Sunday afternoon.

It was incredible to see how football became a safe haven for 15 or so distraught family members, and it was a big two fingers to the people who say it doesn’t matter.

The following morning, the tears that held back on Sunday began to fall and football’s safe haven shifted in to being an avenue of remembrance.

The flowers, carried through the rain to the cars, were blue and white and would later lie around the Dixie Dean statue outside Goodison Park. Small touches throughout the day reflected Everton’s stature in Bernie’s life.

Anywhere but Anfield

Bernie’s wife, Bettie, was adamant that the trip to the crematorium mustn’t pass Anfield, though she organised that the cars would drive around Goodison Park before moving on.

To close the service, the celebrant finished with the words “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum”, the club motto. Balloons were released to the theme of the TV series Z-Cars, the same music that the players walk out to before each home game.

Despite the Evertonian focus, and Bettie’s desire to stay away from Anfield, avoiding Liverpool FC would always be a hard task. The crematorium’s main gate faced onto Stanley Park. Jutting out over the horizon stood Anfield’s Main Stand and Anfield Road Stand, imposing itself over the surrounding area.

Liverpool’s illustrious and, in 1989, tragic history as a football club means that they are the most renowned club in the north west. Everton remain firmly in the shadow of their neighbours.

Anfield being in the backdrop to his funeral service seemed to represent the club being in the backdrop to Bernie’s life as an Everton supporter; never in full focus, but too hard to ignore.

After the wake, where alcohol became the family’s ‘safe haven’, I thought that my time soaking up the Evertonian lifestyle had come to an end. However, Jayne’s father Chris mentioned that he could get tickets for Everton’s game against Leicester City on Wednesday night.

One last win for Bernie

I had to go, not only as a football supporter, but as a way to pay my own respects to Bernie. Despite never meeting him, he shared my passion for the sport.

Before going through the turnstiles that I had passed just two days before on the way to the crematorium, we went to the Dixie Dean statue. Bernie’s flowers were sat to Dixie Dean’s left, resting alongside the flowers of other late Evertonians. Chris took a picture for the rest of the family to see, and then we made the walk around the ground to the Bullens Road Stand.

Our tickets were in the Lower Bullens, tucked away at the back, shielded from the dreadful wind and rain that lashed down on those in the Paddock Stand in front of us.

‘Football’s ability to make people forget, remember and feel elation or dejection in a heartbeat, proves that it is more than “just a game” ‘

The seats were fitted after the 1990 Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster demanded all-seater stadia. They were close together and wooden. Supporting beams holding up the Upper Bullens Stand stood in front of us, blocking small strips of the pitch. Fortunately, the blocked parts of the pitch weren’t in front of the goals.

Everton’s form, without a win since beating Swansea 3-1 in mid-December, meant that Sam Allardyce’s promising start seemed to be fading and the pressure was starting to mount on the former England manager. 

Despite a nervous start, Big Sam’s side took the lead though January signing Theo Walcott, who would score again 15 minutes later, providing a man-of-the-match performance in his second game for his new club.

The return of Seamus Coleman for the first time in 10 months would have felt like a new signing for Allardyce, with Everton having struggled for much of the season without their two most experienced full-backs, Coleman and Leighton Baines. 

The victory helped to end my four days on Merseyside on a lighter note. A victory with Bernie’s flowers still outside the ground is the send-off any football fan would want after they’ve gone.

On top of that, with Walcott being an ex-Gunner, it felt like I did my bit to help his club kick on from what had been a disappointing Christmas period.

After spending time in a city that has given so much more than just money to the game of football, and with a family that had been immersed in it for so long, it was gratifying to see just how revered it still is in people’s lives.

Football’s ability to make people forget, remember and feel elation or dejection in a heartbeat, proves that it is more than “just a game”.

Palace and Everton stalemate suits neither team

A rainy afternoon in South London was the setting for a lively 2-2 draw between Crystal Palace and Everton as both sides fought for a victory they desperately needed.

With both hosts and visitors in trouble at the wrong end of the Premier League, a single point suited neither, but defeat would have been unthinkable.

The game began horrendously for Toffees caretaker boss David Unsworth as the hosts were ahead within a minute at Selhurst Park. Palace’s first attack of the game was finished off by James McArthur, who found the net after Ruben Loftus-Cheek had forced Jordan Pickford into an early save.

However, that lead was short-lived as the Evertonians fought back to level matters soon after. Eagles defender Scott Dann fouled Oumar Niasse in the penalty area, and Leighton Baines made no mistake from the spot.

There was a real question mark over whether Niasse was touched at all in this one – and that doubt led to an FA charge for ‘simulation’ in the days following the game.

Wilfried Zaha then put the Eagles back in the driving seat, as he was brilliantly picked out by a cross from Joel Ward, allowing him to roll the ball into an empty net at the far post on 35 minutes.

Calamitous

What then followed was a calamitous piece of Palace defending as Everton were handed their second gift of the day, thanks again Dann and goalkeeper Julian Speroni.

‘Referee Andrew Taylor was booed and jeered off the pitch by the home support after the game, the Palace faithful laying the blame for the dropped points on his shoulders’

The pair nervously exchanged passes before Idrissa Gueye stepped in to intercept, and Niasse took the opportunity with great aplomb, rolling home to put his team back on level terms on the stroke of half time.

There was far less goalmouth action in the second half but it was not for want of trying. Palace dominated throughout but ultimately were not being able to find the key to unlock the Everton door. In fact for all of their possession and attacking intent a key element of the forward line did seem to be missing all day.

A certain Belgian sitting on the bench looked on longingly, and in fact there were a few deliveries again from Ward in the second half that might well have been more of a problem for Pickford if Christian Benteke had been on the pitch.

In the second half, both defences were tightened up and even the eventual late introduction of Benteke, left out of the starting line-up, could not deliver a winner.

Referee Andrew Taylor was booed and jeered off the pitch by the home support after the game, the Palace faithful laying the blame for the dropped points on his shoulders as the full-time whistle blew.

Hodgson irritated

Sitting down for just three minutes to chat to the media, Palace boss Roy Hodgson was irritated by his side’s inability to turn possession into victory.

‘We can discuss it till the cows come home, but the referee gave it as a penalty they took it and they scored it’ – Roy Hodgson

“If you look at the performance over 95 minutes, I believe we played well enough to win the game,” he claimed.

In combative mood, the ex-England manager was then asked whether it was time to turn these dropped points into wins. “Yeah, well how do you do that?” he shot back at his inquisitor, staring into his soul.

When it was suggested it was his job to galvanise his team, Hodgson then asked pointedly: “So what do I actually do then?”

On the issue of the penalty, he said: “I’m pretty certain you’ve asked Dave Unsworth the same question and he’s said it was a foul, and now you’ll ask me and I’ll say it wasn’t.

“We can discuss it till the cows come home, but the referee gave it as a penalty they took it and they scored it.”

When the press conference cameras were switched off, Hodgson turned to journalists and began a small rant, visibly irritated by the way the game had gone.

In fairness to him, many would agree that Loftus-Cheek and Zaha have breathed fresh life into his side.

Unsworth praises team

Everton’s heroics in coming from behind to beat Watford may feel a distant memory, but Unsworth’s credentials as a potential Everton manager may well be enhanced after recent weeks.

A lot of Blues fans will argue that Ronald Koeman failed to get any kind of response during the final weeks of his tenure. At least the team are playing for Unsworth.

He could yet remain in the role, given Everton’s unsuccessful tug-of-war with Watford over Marco Silva.

After the game Unsworth was in fairly good spirits. “They’ve been terrific since the first training session that we came together, up until today’s game. They’ve given me everything and I can tell the Everton fans have given me everything as well.”

Then on the penalty and with the smell of an FA charge in the air, Unsworth understandably took the “I haven’t seen it since and couldn’t see it from where I was sitting” approach.

Only time will tell whether his efforts thus far will be enough for majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri and chairman Bill Kenwright to give him the job on a permanent basis, but the former player continues to stake a claim.

Five Chinese Super League players Premier League clubs should be looking at

While it may not yet be able to compete with Europe’s elite in most aspects, the Chinese Super League has still become an attractive destination for players across the world seeking a fresh challenge – and a hefty pay packet.

President Xi Jinping’s 10-year plan to make the country a footballing superpower has resulted in CSL teams being bankrolled by massive corporate investment to make the great sporting leap forward.

This January alone, the likes of Brazilian international Oscar, Argentina’s Carlos Tevez and Belgian star Axel Witsel, have moved to Chinese clubs Shanghai SIPG, Shanghai Shenhua and Tianjin Quanjian in deals worth insane amounts of money in transfer fees and wages.

Former Chelsea player Oscar earned his £52m move to Shanghai SIPG after impressing in the Premier League, as did other recent additions to the CSL such as John Obi Mikel, Graziano Pelle and Demba Ba.

But to turn the tables – here are five CSL players who Premier League clubs might want to consider bringing over to England in the current transfer window.

Jackson Martinez: target for West Ham?

Last summer, West Ham’s pursuit of a striker in the “£30m” and upwards bracket was well-documented after they failed in their attempts to recruit Michy Batshuayi – who later signed for London rivals Chelsea – and Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette.

The Hammers eventually managed to land Simone Zaza from Juventus in a loan deal that would become permanent after the Italian had made a certain amount of appearances, but the 25-year-old utterly failed to adapt to life in the Premier League, and is now set to return to Juventus before he is offloaded to another club.

jackson-martinez
©Jack Martinez’s official Twitter account

Their next target was former Hammer Jermain Defoe, but given his huge importance in their bid to avoid relegation, Sunderland have rejected the east London club’s £6m offer and made it clear they have no intention of selling.

Manager Slaven Bilic is now likely to look elsewhere, and having so far this season paid the price for his failure to recruit a decent striker last summer,  Guangzhou Evergrande’s Jackson Martinez would be well worth a look.

Martinez moved to China last January after a short and unsuccessful stint at Atletico Madrid, where he only managed to score two goals in 15 La Liga appearances. However, the 30-year-old Colombian’s prolific goalscoring record for Porto, which saw him finish as the Primeira Liga’s top-scorer in all three of his seasons in Portugal, proves how good he can be.

He can also boast Champions League experience and 10 goals in 40 appearances for his country, including appearances at both the Copa America and World Cup.

Whether Guangzhou would be willing to let him go remains to be seen, but he is the type of player many West Ham supporters would have hoped to see come in last summer to build on a successful final season at Upton Park before the move to the London Stadium.

Ezequiel Lavezzi: target for Everton?

©Wikimedia Commons

Everton appear to be in the market for a new winger, and Hebei China Fortune’s Ezequiel Lavezzi would be a superb option.

At 31, the Argentina international probably has a couple of good seasons left in him and remains a big name.

With Yannick Bolasie sidelined for a year and Gerard Deulofeu set to leave the Merseyside club on loan, manager Ronald Koeman is looking to add to that area of the squad, having already snapped up 19-year-old Ademola Lookman from Charlton for £11m.

“I know what we need to change and if everyone opens their eyes today maybe we will get further on our improvement as a team. Because that’s really what we need and that’s all about what happens this month,” Koeman told the Liverpool Echo regarding the club’s lack of transfer activity.

Manchester United’s Memphis Depay is rumoured to be Koeman’s top target; however, it is believed that the Red Devils will only consider letting the 22-year-old leave on a permanent deal, while Everton are reportedly insisting on a loan – so if Koeman cannot get his number one choice, Lavezzi could serve as an excellent alternative.

Like Depay, former PSG and Napoli star Lavezzi’s preference is to operate on the left-hand side where he can cut in and cause damage with his right foot. But he is just as capable of playing on the left or behind the striker, making him both a skilful and versatile asset.

A proven top-level success in Europe, he could be just the spark a club like Everton need to give propel themselves upwards.

Graziano Pelle: target for Watford?

©Graziano Pelle’s official Twitter account

Graziano Pelle and Watford could potentially be a match made in heaven.

With strikers Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo having failed to reproduce last term’s form this season, the Hornets are in serious need of reinforcements up front, ailing to reproduce the goalscoring from they showed during the 2015/16 campaign, the Hornets could really do with some fresh impetus up front.

Given his aerial threat and impressive hold-up play, the former Southampton striker could fit the bill ideally.

Watford boss Walter Mazzarri likes to deploy Watford in a 3-5-2 formation, a set-up Pelle excelled in for Italy at Euro 2016, playing under current Chelsea boss Antonio Conte.

The Shandong Luneng forward netted twice against Belgium and Spain to add to the 14 goals he scored in all competitions for Southampton that season before his move to China. At 31, Pelle could still have a couple of years of top-flight football in him.

Paulinho: target for West Brom?

©Wikimedia Commons

West Brom manager Tony Pulis is looking for a central midfielder and has already had a £13m bid for Morgan Schneiderlin rejected by Manchester United. 

Earlier this month, Pulis told the Birmingham Mail: “Morgan is just one of two or three we’re looking at.

“The most important thing is that you do your business with other clubs. It’s respectful to other clubs and then you move on from there. If we get the deals done, you get them done.”

The Red Devils want to recoup the £24m they paid Southampton for Schneiderlin in 2015, whilst the player’s preference to be reunited with his former Saints boss Ronald Koeman at Everton suggests he is out of the Baggies’ reach.

In that case, a decent alternative option might be Guangzhou Evergrande’s Paulinho. 

The 28-year-old Brazilian international did not have the best of times during his previous stint in England with Tottenham, but has all the right attributes to fit into a Pulis team. 

His strength, energy, defensive capabilities and physical presence in set-piece situations, makes him an ideal alternative to Schneiderlin and, ultimately, a good midfield option for West Brom to have.

Currently eighth in the table, he could be just the man to push them on for a Europa League spot.

Papiss Cisse: target for Hull City?

Barring miracles, Hull look destined for the drop this season.

©Wikimedia Commons

New boss Marcos Silva has spoken of the need to strengthen his squad if he is to save them, and one area he will have to address is their attacking options.

“I have confidence in our players, but it’s clear we need to improve our roster,” Silva said in his unveiling as Hull manager and as quoted on BBC Sport.

Joint lowest scorers in the Premier League so far this season, with just 17 goals in 20 games, Hull need a proven Premier League forward, and Senegal international Papiss Cisse is just that.

The 31-year-old made an instant impact in English football’s top flight when he joined Newcastle from Bundesliga outfit Freiburg in January 2012, scoring 13 goals in 14 league appearances that season – including an incredible strike against Chelsea – but struggled to follow up that dazzling debut. 

Since last summer, Cisse has been playing for Shandong Luneng. Anything would be an improvement on Hull’s current striking options, so the main issue could be if the player wants to join a relegation fight.