IT was a piffling incident, but a puzzle all the same: Norwich manager Paul Lambert missed Everton’s late equaliser at Goodison Park this afternoon after leaving his dugout, but he didn’t want to say why.
His secret to keep, I guess. In fact, the whole thing nearly didn’t come to light at all. The press room at Goodison has a couple of TV monitors on which it’s possible to watch live the interviews being conducted for that night’s Match of the Day. The BBC’s Martin Fisher was rounding up his chat with Lambert, when someone off-screen – presumably either the floor manager or the match director – instructed him to ask about the dug-out incident. It was the first those of us in the written press knew about it.
Lambert’s answer didn’t clear things up. So when the Norwich manager popped up to talk to newspaper reporters, the question was put to him again.
“No, no. It’s OK,” Lambert said. “You don’t need to ask me that. I missed the goal, and that’s what happened.”
“You say we don’t need to ask you, but we do really,” the reporter replied.
Lambert wasn’t giving ground. “Yeah, and I can give you my answer, can’t I? Which I’ve given you.”
“Which is that you don’t want to say where you were.”
Lambert, of course, doesn’t have to answer such questions. Given that he has lifted Norwich from third-tier football to ninth place in the Premier League in two-and-a-half years, he would undoubtedly prefer to talk about the progress of his team.
And the whole dug-out thing may well have been nothing. But there’s little more guaranteed to perk up a journalist’s curiosity than a sidestepped question.
Where had Lambert gone? Had he left some important tactical note in the dressing room? Was there an urgent phone call he had to make? Did he need the loo? Any of those would have been understandable reasons for leaving his post. It just seemed curious that, whatever the explanation, he should be so determined to keep such an apparent triviality to himself.
Lambert missed something of a rarity, as Everton don’t score many. There were nine minutes to go when lively substitute Royston Drenthe cut in from the right, ran at Norwich’s defence and struck a low shot that was heading straight to the keeper until Leon Osman diverted it in. It was a deserved equaliser on the balance of play, but it was starting to look as though it wouldn’t come.
Articles about Everton these days invariably fall into one of two categories: Those discussing the club’s lack of money, and those discussing the club’s lack of goals. There is a link between them.
Owner Bill Kenwright seems to have been trying to sell up forever. But then what sort of person wants to buy a football club these days? There’s only one Sheikh Mansour, but there are an awful lot of Glazers.
Kenwright doesn’t have access to the fortunes needed to run a Premier League club; certainly not one with as few lucrative corporate facilities as Everton. As a result, manager David Moyes has to sell players to balance the books. The result is a squad of declining quality.
And it’s a squad without a prolific striker. Everton’s leading scorer this season is Apostolos Vellios, a promising but raw 19-year-old pulled out of Greek football for £250,000 at the start of this year. He has scored three times. Louis Saha is inconsistent and too often injured, Tim Cahill looks a shadow of his former self and hasn’t scored a club goal for 362 days. Denis Stracqualursi has given the Goodison faithful little reason for excitement since his loan move from Argentina.
Creativity has been an issue too. Before today’s game, the statistic doing the rounds was that Everton hadn’t managed a shot on target since November 26. It was one disputed by Moyes, and by the figures in today’s match programme, which cited four shots on target against Stoke a fortnight ago, and one against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium last Saturday.
But if the ‘no shots’ stat was true, Everton quickly set about putting it right this afternoon. After the game, Moyes counted 15 efforts on target. It’s a figure that sounds about right. Norwich haven’t kept a clean sheet all season – conceding five to Manchester City, three to Blackburn and four at home to MK Dons. They’re always likely to give you a chance because they take a chance.
Standing in Everton’s way, though, was a strong Merseyside connection. Texas-born centre-back Zak Whitbread grew up in Runcorn and used to play for Liverpool, while keeper John Ruddy was chasing a second clean sheet at Goodison – nearly six years after his first.
Ruddy spent five years at Everton but only played for them once. That appearance, against Blackburn in February 2006, was something of a statistical oddity. As far as I’m aware, it’s the only time in Everton’s history that two keepers have made their competitive debut for the club in the same match. Iain Turner started in goal that day, but was sent off after nine minutes. Ruddy came on, and kept a clean sheet in a 1-0 win.
For a long time today, he looked like maintaining his perfect Goodison record. He saved bravely at the feet of Marouane Fellaini early on, then made an important clutch of second half stops to deny Osman, Saha and Drenthe among others.
“John’s done very well,” Moyes said afterwards. “He needed the games. He did great at Motherwell on loan before he left us. But we’ve got Tim Howard, who we regard really highly, and it was going to be a long haul for John to get past him. I thought he made some really good saves for Norwich today.”
Just as impressive for Norwich was Whitbread’s centre-back partner Russell Martin, who dived to head Osman’s goalbound curler round the post in the first half, then flung himself in the way of Saha’s shot in the second after Ruddy punched a cross to the striker’s feet and found himself out of position.
But somewhere amid all those Everton chances, Norwich took the lead with their only shot on target all afternoon. It came in the 28th minute, when Steve Morison hooked on a David Fox free-kick, and Grant Holt turned John Heitinga before beautifully threading a shot through a crowd and in off the far post. It was Holt’s sixth goal in eight games. For the record, Lambert saw that one. “It was a brilliant finish,” he said.
As Everton continued to tot up shots on target without scoring in the second half, Holt had a great chance for another, but headed over Kyle Naughton’s long cross from the right. Everton probably wouldn’t have had the firepower to come back from 2-0 down.
A single goal deficit is another matter. For although Everton have only scored 16 league goals this season, 10 of those have come in the final 15 minutes of matches. So perhaps Osman’s late equaliser, which denied Ruddy his clean sheet, was to be expected. That only makes more baffling the fact that Lambert missed it.