All and Nothing

FA Cup, Quarter-Final (Proper?) – Everton FC v Sunderland AFC
Saturday, 17th March 2012, 12.45pm
Goodison Park
Distance 230 miles, Attendance 38875
Having distractedly wasted literally hours this week wondering, without any discernible outcome, whether the FA Cup Quarter Final also qualifies as a “Proper Round” (it’s a VERY long story), my attention then turned to the components that make a great cup tie. I’m not talking about the games that the media instruct their dutiful public they should fawn over, but instead the games that leave you floating out the gates at final whistle; win, lose or draw. So what are these vital components? And what is the equation?
With questions of such life-changing importance an Olevel in Maths (yes Americans, plurality), even an A grade, really doesn’t do it justice so I had a shufty through some eminent scholars… Lived after 1863? Check. Knowledge of the beautiful game? Check. Won medals? Check. Understands the offside rule without the aid of a fifty pence piece? Check. Forget Socrates, if one wants to obtain knowledge of a great cup tie equation, Harald Bohr really must be your man. In 1903, Harald debuted at the age of 16 for Danish club side, Akademisk Boldklub. Two years later the Københavns Universitet Maths undergraduate was joined in the 1st team by his brother Niels (I’d say, imagine the Allens or the Holdsworths, but I’m not sure you’ll get the right image). Then at 21, two years before finishing his doctorate, at the peak of his playing career, his country came calling. At the 1908 Olympics in London football featured for the first time ever, and the Danish team made it to the final. Harald played in every game including the Olympic Record win of 17-1 in the Semi-Final against France. He even bagged a brace coring against the French “B” side in an earlier round. After a 2-1 defeat in the final to Great Britain Harald was awarded his silver medal. Later, as an eminent mathematician, he sadly never stretched his learning far enough to aid us football fans. Had he done so I’m sure; action, atmosphere, crowd, fouls, goals, intensity, and passion would’ve all made it into his calculations for the No-Bohr Draw.
That aside the teams and supporters of both Everton and Sunderland served up a game yesterday that fulfilled every possible requirement of a great cup tie. It really had it all. Goodison Park is a fantastic ground, oozing nostalgia, where the sound bounces around under the roofs of the old stands. It was packed to the rafters with passionate blue and red fans chanting and yelling, in equal intensity, to create an atmosphere which no concrete bowl has yet managed to replicate. On the pitch was an intense, blood and thunder, contact sport, demonstrating both sublime skills and futile error. This game was, and is, the beauty of the FA Cup. It wasn’t pretty in a Barca v Arsenal tippy-tappy kind of way, but it meant everything to everyone there. This game really was perfect.

It seemed to take no time at all; starting early on a beautiful Surrey morning accompanied by birds and blossom as I made my way to the station. The intensity built up at Euston as the supporters of both teams rushed for the train as the platform was announced. Then sitting in first class, passing stunning countryside, it was clear the days of the “Football Specials” are long gone. Entering the outskirts of Liverpool, I found my eyes being pulled by the hypnotic sight huge monolithic churches rising from the swathes of terrace houses huddled around them; a trance only to be broken as darkness fell in the cave-like entrance of Lime Street station. Moments later, at the end of Goodison Road, the cab driver was handing over my change. Like market day in Asian cities, the streets about “The People’s Club” were buzzing; merchandise and programme sellers loudly promoted their wares, whilst the scent of fast food fought for airspace with the laughter and conversations of optimistic fans.

At my seat (or “Terry’s seat” to be precise) I heard that The Toffees are unlikely to make fifth place so this was “our best chance”, and of a desire for a Merseyside semi. Approaching kick-off, with the pitch being watered between them, the noise was intensifying from both sides. The soundtrack to the day begun to build up with Forever Everton, If You Know Your History and Can’t Help Falling In Love. It was already the noisiest cup crowd I’d sat in by far. On this Cup run they have been some great games (Leatherhead v Sutton springs to mind) but the roar of the crowd at Goodison was incredible; driving the players on throughout the game. Sunderland got the early chances, before Everton took over going close a couple of times, and then back to The Black Cats. Ebbing and flowing like a turbulent river. Corners and headers, and shots just wide, and saves and tackles flying in. Just up from me a woman continued to rub her “lucky coin” whilst on the pitch Everton eventually gained control, leading to Drenthe being clearly cut down on the edge of the Sunderland box. Nothing given!!! The crowd rose in unison; a minority to cheer the ref, but most to hound him off the park. Straight up the other end The Black Cats got a free kick on the right. It was taken quickly to Bardsley, who shaped and hit a fierce low drive through a crowded box and beyond Howard. The red section erupted as The Everton players looked cheated, but the home crowd trumpeted their encouragement to get back in the game.


With The Toffees looking laboured, Moyes joined O’Neill on the touchline, barking instructions. Sunderland initially had the upper hand but could not seem to capitalise further. Fellaini looked laboured but Everton chances begin to increase in spite of this. Every time they approached the Gwladys Street end the supporters there rose as one; surging forward at the front, willing their heroes onwards. Twenty-three minutes in and the home side are awarded a free kick on the left. Baines swept the ball over to Jelavic who headed wide, but the defence stood still as Cahill instinctively steered the ball home. The ground erupted. There followed wave after wave of Blues attack whilst Sunderland stuck to their guns, defending manfully, and breaking to create enough chances to get the lead. Off the pitch fans sang of their teams being “by far the greatest team the world has ever seen…” but remarkably the score stayed put. The woodwork was rattled, side netting brushed, and headers sailed over. When shots were on target both Howard and Mignolet were equal to them. In between, all over the pitch, challenges flew in, and yellow cards flew up response. With minutes remaining the best openings of the lot emerged, first for Heitinga then for Jelavic, but Mignolet thwarted both with a class double save. “E-ver-ton” and “Sun-der-land” songs continued to fill the air as supporters cheered the twenty-two to the end. At the final whistle the away fans realising their luck celebrated getting a second chance, and the home fans grumbled in frustration; the pitch, the ref, the shirt design of the opposition, it all came out. It was a truly well fought encounter where both sides deserved their plaudits, and in a really good way I was totally drained. As I walked back thoughts drifted to the intensity of the game, the warmth and comfort of the wooden seats, Howard’s camouflage kit, big Neville at half time, of 1984, and how Moyes (like Sean Dyche) also gets everyone back to defend at corners, and more than anything to the immense roar of the crowd.

Waking in my first class “Quiet Zone” seat an hour or so later I was still warm from the experience. Thirty minutes on my football bliss had been shattered. From Twitter I wasn’t sure what I was reading so asked Gabriel Clarke, who happened to be sitting opposite, if he’d heard what was going on at White Hart Lane. As cordial as he was, his update on Fabrice Muamba was devastating. Once the numbness had subsided, all I could think of was that scene in Fever Pitch when the news of Hillsborough broke and Sarah tells Paul “Well, that’s it, then.” “That’s what?” “You can’t go back now, can you?” “Course we will…”
Fortunately enough, I’ve never experienced any football tragedies first hand, and I’ve also never had to use my first aid training for an incident so serious, but it still affects me.  Yesterday I went to a wonderful Cup match; a game that had it all, but when I got home it meant nothing. In the coming days my thoughts will be with Fabrice, his family, and those that care for him, but life is a reason to carry on, and my life includes football.
This week I know I’ll be back at football, soaking up the atmosphere somewhere. I just sincerely hope that Fabrice Muamba can soon share that joy again too.
This entry was posted in 2011-2012, FA Cup and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to All and Nothing

  1. Nice report, and a particularly poignant last few paragraphs.
    Thoughts go out to FM’s family and friends.

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