Ferguson in blue heaven again
For an uphill hike, whistle for the old warhorse. Just when Goodison seemed about to implode on itself yesterday, Duncan Ferguson puffed out that huge chest of his and breathed the belief back into Everton. Champions' League? They're having the last laugh again.
Liverpool made sure of that with their latest calamity to extend the gap in the race for fourth to a cosy-looking four points, although that glorious eventuality appeared on the Camelot side of unlikely for much of yesterday lunchtime. Indeed, many here were saying that Emile Heskey had never scored a more important goal for the red half of Merseyside as his fifth-minute strike sent panic hurtling into every blue corner. But then arrived Big Dunc. And soon after him Crystal Palace.
If the veteran's winner against Manchester United in midweek made the blue heart soar towards heaven then this crucial equaliser stopped its descent to the bowels. For 80 minutes, the old place had become increasingly aghast as Birmingham went through the entire textbook of frustration. As early as the 20th minute David Moyes was complaining about time-wasting, although, in truth, he should have been relieved the visitors weren't after a quick kill. Because Everton were there for the taking.
They were simply not Champions' League material as the threadbare squad struggled gallantly but laboriously to shake off the after-effects of Wednesday's monumental encounter. Steve Bruce was aggrieved to be leaving with anything less than the maximum return but admitted to there being a distinctly "After The Lord Mayor's Show" air to proceedings (or in Sir Alex Ferguson's case, should that be "After The Lord's Mare Show"?). Bruce wore the pained look of a chief who realised yet another chance of a big scalp had been squandered. "There's a bitter feeling in our dressing room," he said. "We've come within three minutes of beating Everton, a few weeks after we did likewise with Chelsea. We were the better team and if we had gone two up like we should have done the game would have been out of reach."
Indeed, it would have and should have after an opening half-hour when Jermaine Pennant's doubtless talent shone like several beacons through a smog of mediocrity as end-of-season legs cast true light on ability. A few weeks ago the 22-year-old was in prison for drink-driving offences, but whatever curfews his parole officer has put the Arsenal loanee under, they obviously do not include wandering wherever he pleases at Goodison Park.
Pennant's first ball across was an absolute beauty as he picked up at halfway before finding Heskey in a whole Mersey of space, before an ultra-cool finish inside Nigel Martyn's right-hand post. Three minutes later Pennant was at it again, whipping in a vicious centre that narrowly evaded Midlander heads, and again, and again, and again in a performance that reminded Bruce of a certain fresh-faced boy he once played with at Old Trafford. "The way he delivers those crosses makes me think of a young David Beckham," Bruce said, barely able to believe the reported £2m Birmingham are about to sign Pennant from Highbury for. "He and Mario Melchiot were the best players by a million miles out there."
Not to say that Everton didn't have chances, despite Melchiot's heroics in defence. James Beattie, making his first start since his dismissal against Chelsea here in early February, somehow missed an unmarked header in the six-yard box as the flag stayed down in the 14th minute, but that was nothing to the gaffe made of another Leon Osman velvet-trayed cross by Tim Cahill 15 minutes later.
In the meantime, however, Birmingham fired out a series of ominous warnings, mainly through the boot of Pennant. There was another opening for Heskey, too, although by now Birmingham were erroneously in the opinion that they could sit back and contain the home side at will.
Never a good idea, not with Ferguson loitering, Lurch-like after his half-time introduction for Lee Carsley. Another skyscraper in Marcus Bent joined him on the hour mark as Moyes tired of Beattie's ineffectiveness. "When they sent the He-Men on, there was always a danger that they'd get a ricochet or something," said Bruce, and fate was indeed true to the Birmingham manager's word when Ferguson popped up in the 86th minute to poke home a rebound after Maik Taylor had palmed away Mikel Arteta's shot.
They might even have won it, too, had the local lad Tony Hibbert not snatched at his effort with the goalmouth gaping deep into injury time. But that would have been more than even this bunch of honest triers deserved. "In the end a point was good and might be precious," confessed Moyes afterwards. Exactly how precious was about to be revealed.