As Everton and Arsenal face each other on Sunday, this extract from Jim Keoghan’s new book Everton’s Greatest Games (The Toffees’ Fifty Finest Matches) gives an account of a head-to-head that took place back in 2002, a time when an up-and-coming young player first made a name for himself at Goodison with a winning strike that made the football world sit up and take notice…
Life as an Evertonian had been tough in the late 1990s and early 2000s, an era characterised by debt, penury and the near-constant threat of relegation.
As the four-year reign of Walter Smith ground to an end, an outcome that Evertonians willed with an almost palpable sense of desire, the Blue half of the city was in desperate need for change.
‘By the end of the Smith era, things were a mess,’ argues Lyndon Lloyd, chief writer of ToffeeWeb. ‘We had ageing players, nobody seemed to give a shit and our form was awful. And, once again, we were facing a fight for survival in the league. The new manager, David Moyes, had a huge challenge on his hands.’
Moyes arrived in March 2002 after four years with Preston North End, during which he had dramatically turned around the fortunes of the Lancashire club, taking them from the nether regions of the third tier to within a whisker of the Premier League.
Inexperienced but with a reputation of being an ‘Alex Ferguson in the making’, the Scot quickly earned respect from the Goodison faithful by steering the club to safety after his arrival. He also appeared to ‘get’ Everton, buying into the history and ethos of the club, and did himself no harm after uttering this near-immortal phrase to the local press:
‘I am joining the people’s football club. The majority of the people you meet on the street are Everton fans.’
During his first full season in charge, Moyes made few changes. Some of the deadwood, like Paul Gascoigne and David Ginola, was cleared out and a few new acquisitions brought in, like the young Nigerian centre-half Joseph Yobo, the Chinese midfielder Li Tie and the English goalkeeper Richard Wright.
‘But, perhaps more important than the limited personnel changes, was the fact that he brought with him a new approach,’ argues former Everton centre-half David Weir.
‘He was a tracksuit manager,’ continues David, ‘always out on the pitch with us. He also brought a deeper tactical awareness to our game. We drilled to a greater extent, we were better organised, more of a unit than had perhaps previously been the case. It might not necessarily have been as enjoyable to play under as the previous regime, but it was certainly more effective for a side like Everton at that time.’
Hamstrung by debt and with pretty much the same group of players he had inherited, Moyes’s Everton were a much more formidable proposition than Smith’s. They worked hard, kept their shape well and yet in Kevin Campbell and Tomasz Radzinski had enough threat going forward to worry teams.
‘The impact he had was pretty immediate,’ says Lloyd. ‘We seemed to have a new trajectory, new energy, and Everton looked like they knew what they were doing, which hadn’t been the case for such a long time. And, contrary to the “knife to a gunfight” mentality that seemed to define his later years, early on we could really play against anyone [specifically at home]. It was an interesting time to be a Blue.’
Moyes had given Evertonians confidence again, something that had been in short supply at Goodison. But, as important as that was, the fans also needed a bit of excitement, and for this they looked elsewhere.
‘Wayne Rooney had been causing a buzz around Goodison for some time,’ recalls Mark Godfrey. ‘We’d all endured false dawns before, of course, times when supposed “wonder kids” came through and amounted to very little. And we had also watched with jealousy as Liverpool’s kids, like Fowler, Owen and McManaman, lived up to their promise. But this one seemed to be different. This time everyone believed he was the real deal.’
Rooney had been with Everton since the age of nine, and his record was impeccable. He’d scored freely at youth level, played above his age group with ease and made no secret of the fact that all he wanted to do was play for Everton.
‘He was one of our own, and after years of misery and frustration it was great that we had somebody so exciting coming through the ranks,’ says Lloyd.
Aware that he had a potentially exceptional talent on his hands, Moyes was cautious with the youngster. Although included as part of the 2002/03 squad, by the middle of October the 16-year-old had made only a handful of starts and a few substitute appearances.
‘When he’d appeared, he had looked the part, though,’ argues Simon Hart. ‘I remember he came on away against Manchester United in the October. He picked up the ball at one point and just ran at them, bursting past their players like they were nothing.
‘It was exciting, the kind of thing you hadn’t really seen Everton players do for ages. And even though he was only 16, it looked like the age difference meant nothing. He was ready.’
In mid-October, Arsenal rolled into town. Champions, FA Cup holders and on the back of a long unbeaten run in the league (over two seasons), there was talk that the Gunners could go the whole campaign without being defeated.
Despite Everton’s improvement, which had been tangible under Moyes, few Evertonians expected a win or even a draw against such an accomplished team. And, not long after the sides had kicked off, it was a prediction that seemed prescient.
‘It had all looked so bleak and predictable,’ wrote Jonathan McEvoy in the Liverpool Daily Post, ‘when Freddie Ljungberg delivered the inevitable Gunners goal by preying on Everton’s defensive frailties to take to 49 the number of consecutive games Wenger’s men have now scored in. David Weir slipped as he tried to defuse Thierry Henry’s deep cross and the ball squirted around the area before falling invitingly to Ljungberg, who swept home from six yards.’
Had this been a Smith side, Evertonians would have been justified in expecting a capitulation following that opening goal.
‘But Moyes brought something different to Everton,’ says Lloyd, ‘certainly in those early days: if not quite fearlessness, then possibly a sense of determination. The side was certainly willing to have a go at teams, and you never really saw heads drop. As time passed, you stopped expecting us to just give in when losing and instead started to believe that we could fight back.’
In response to going one down, Everton came back strongly. Arsenal were snapped at and chased. This was a physical Everton, one more redolent of the old ‘Dogs of War’, a sight that had been disappointingly absent from Goodison for too long. But there was more than just bite and snarl to this dog. There was intelligence too, intelligence that brought threat with it. Within minutes, the Blues were level:
‘The equaliser came from a powerful and positive run by Gravesen which took him across the edge of the Arsenal penalty area,’ wrote Dave Prentice in the Liverpool Echo. ‘He looked to have run out of runway when he looked up and slipped a pass to Carsley. His drive cannoned back off the post but was collected by Radzinski on the edge of the area and he drifted inside before clipping a rising shot into the Gwladys Street net.’
Chances were limited after that, and the sides went in at half-time level. In the second period, although Arsenal continued to have their rhythm unsettled, opportunities still arrived for the visitors. Ljungberg came close twice, and Henry uncharacteristically scuffed a shot wide. The away side’s wayward finishing and a dissipating amount of guile on Everton’s part suggested a draw was the most likely of outcomes.
And then, on came Rooney. ‘Looking back now on the career of David Moyes,’ says Simon Magner, chair of the Everton Supporters Trust, ‘this was an uncharacteristically bold substitution, considering the age and relative inexperience of Rooney, and the fact that we were holding the best team in England at bay and they didn’t really look like breaking through. Secretly we all wished for something special to happen, but I don’t think anyone in their wildest dreams could have predicted how the game ended up.’
Rooney’s ten-minute cameo would ultimately be the only thing anyone talked about after that game. There might have been big performances throughout the Everton team, specifically the full-backs, Hibbert and Unsworth, and the front line of Campbell and Radzinski, but it was the teenager who would be making all the headlines the next day.
There was barely any time left when Wright launched a goal kick downfield. Campbell headed it back to the half-way line. A touch from Stubbs gave the ball to Gravesen, who punted it forward.
Forty yards out, Rooney killed it and turned, his back to goal. ‘The Arsenal centre-halves dropped back,’ continues Simon. ‘In response, Rooney pushed the ball forward. We all knew what was coming. He exquisitely wrapped his foot around the ball and hit it from 25–30 yards to beat a flailing David Seaman. We were on our feet celebrating almost before it had hit the back of the net. I’ve heard some loud noises at Goodison before in my time, but that was easily one of the loudest.’
The teenager, still a few days shy of his 17th birthday, still on £75 per week, had announced himself to the world. As Everton took the 2–1 victory, it felt as though those present had witnessed something monumental.
‘For so long we as Blues had suffered the feeling that we were becoming increasingly irrelevant in the Premier League era,’ says Simon Hart. ‘I recall a woman I worked with saying that she hated Everton because we were so boring. And she had a point (even if “hated” was a bit strong). Yet, from 2002 onwards, we became relevant again, reborn almost. And Rooney was part of that. He was young and exciting, and, perhaps more importantly, he was something other clubs did not have. For the first time in a long time, other fans were looking at us with envy.’
This is an extract from Everton’s Greatest Games, written by Jim Keoghan and published by Pitch Publishing.