Dan Brigham chats with writer and Everton fan Chris Smith about Mike Walker being a folk devil, why Everton aren’t higher in the table, a defender who almost killed a man over £100, RVW, Steven Naismith and how to beat the free-flowing Toffees
Dan: Hi Chris. So, let's get the most important question out of the way: Mike Walker. Norwich hero, Bayern-conquerer, innovator, terrific mullet-wearer. He was just great, wasn't he. Introduced high-pressing, attacking full-backs to the Premier League about 20 years before it became fashionable, used a sweeper when no one else in England was and got Norwich playing some of the best football in Europe, let alone in England.
I imagine Everton fans hold a similar view, right? Right?
Chris: Ha! Not quite. I was six when Mike Walker was at Everton, so I don't really know his tactics/ management style, but I can give you an idea of his reputation on Merseyside. Evertonians discuss Mike Walker like economists do the Great Depression: an historic low which must never be repeated. As his short spell was so relentlessly relegation-centric, he's a kind of folk devil of failure at Goodison, though in fairness, he did sign Duncan Ferguson on loan which I suppose we're all grateful for.
Dan: So essentially you're too young to know Norwich as anything other than a Championship side who occasionally pop up to the Premier League to say hello for a bit before buggering off again. Depressing.
Still, I suppose that also means you won't remember hardman Pat Van Den Hauwe – who once admitted to almost killing a man for £100 – scoring the winner at Carrow Road in 1987 to secure the Division One title for Everton? You haven't been in the top three since so – and this is a nice and easy, general question for you – WHY?
Chris: Everton's recent failure to challenge for the league relates to the aftermath of that 1987 title. Denied European football through the Heysel ban, our most successful manager, Howard Kendall, left for Athletic Bilbao. Shortly after, keys players also departed. We hadn't recovered by the time Sky moved the goal posts in 1992, and changed ownership in 1993. If there was a time not to be rubbish in English football, it was the 1990s, but sadly we were.
Since then, we've been playing catch-up so unsuccessfully that we've fallen further behind despite climbing the table. The external investment and stadium development that seem prerequisites for success these days continue to elude us. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.
Dan: You look at Everton's side this season, and how they can tear some teams apart, and then you look at the table and see they're 9th in a division in which none of the top sides are dominating, and it sort of doesn't make sense. You should be higher, shouldn't you – even pushing for Champions League?
A quick scan of the results shows you're struggling to turn draws into wins – is that down to the defence or attack? Or a bit of everything?
Chris: We played all of last year’s top eight in the first 10 games, which is tough by anyone’s standards, and have also been unable to name our regular back four at any point. All of them have been injured at some stage with Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka both missing long periods.
But, having firmly set out those excuses, the truth is we've not been ruthless enough. As you say, far too many draws. Swansea, Liverpool, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace are four games we’ve dominated but drawn; eight points we’ve dropped that would have us level with Arsenal. We’ve been wasteful in front of goal but Ross Barkley, Gerard Deulofeu and Romelu Lukaku's recent form has addressed that. Everton look full of goals at the moment.
Another slightly cruel but no less relevant factor is Tim Howard. He’s just not a very good goalkeeper. He regularly gives away goals and transmits insecurity to a defence that’s error-prone anyway. A top-class keeper can secure you Champions League football – Everton don’t have one.
Dan: We know how you feel. John Ruddy – once of your parish – was dropped last week after a really poor start of the season. Don't worry though, our replacement ’keeper is called Declan Rudd, so you don't have to make too much of an adjustment.
That is a terrifying front three you mention, and even more terrifying given the state of the Norwich defence. On a slightly different note, how's Gareth Barry getting on? In 2013-14 he was hailed as a wonderful signing, last season he was past it and this season... well, somewhere in the middle? Where do you think he ranks alongside some of the excuses for a holding midfield player England have used since Owen Hargreaves' enforced retirement? Slightly above Scott Parker, slightly below Steven Gerrard? I still have nightmares about the Barry and Gerrard pairing against Germany at the 2010 World Cup...
Chris: I remember Rudd from our Capital One Cup win over you in October, where I think we were fortunate to go through. Don't worry about Ruddy – just a slump, he'll get through it I'm sure.
Barry is Everton's most important player. When he’s on form, we generally win. Though we have loads of defensive midfielders, he’s the only one who can fulfil both aspects of the role comfortably, slotting between the centre-halves when we're in possession and dictating the game from deep. It's not uncommon to see Barry at the top of Everton's distance covered charts, which is some going for a slow 34-year-old.
His England career will always be marked by his Bloemfontein quicksand 'running' of course, but I sympathise. He only mastered the defensive midfield role in 2010 and received just 11 of his 53 caps after that. Bearing in mind he was mastering it at Man City, it's tough to think of anyone who was outperforming him. Ultimately however, Barry lacked the pace that the likes of Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes badly needed alongside them. England managers have bodged this area of the field for years.
Dan: Rudd made some top saves that night at Goodison – was a really good game, that.
So where can Norwich get at Everton? Is there a pattern to how teams have had success against you this season? You mentioned injury problems at the back – are they resolved yet?
Chris: Teams have success against Everton by remaining compact and attacking on the counter. John Stones, Ramiro Funes Mori and Barry all lack pace, so that's an area for the likes of Nathan Redmond, Cameron Jerome and Martin Olsson to exploit. I thought it was interesting to see that Norwich have had much less possession as the defence has slightly tightened up over the last four or five matches, so this approach may well arrive naturally.
The other main area to exploit is aerial deliveries. Everton are poor at defending crosses and often concede in this way. Sébastian Bassong, Grant Holt and even Ricky van bloody Wolfswinkel have had some joy against us in this department recently. Plus, during Everton's Capital One Cup win in October, Norwich had a whopping 16 corners, yet scored from just one, and even then indirectly. I think you let us off the hook in that regard, but with headed goals costing Everton four points in the last two league matches, there's a chance for Norwich to put that right on Saturday.
Dan: Wolfswinkel's goal against Everton may have been the most misleading sign of things to come in Premier League history. Was a beautiful header, too. Instinctive, great technique. Brings a tear to the eye.
You're right though, we've had some success in the air against you. And we absolutely bloody love a corner – we've actually been good from setpieces this season (defending them is another matter).
Not sure we'll be seeing Norwich conceding possession for too much longer - the tweak to a more defensive style hasn't really helped, and we don't have the pace to play on the counter (Redmond's quick over 15 yards but not at carrying the ball further). Neil has hinted we may go back to our early-season attacking, possession football, so there could be goals on Saturday...
How do you expect Everton to line up against Norwich? Oh, and is Stones that slow? He’s always looked just quick enough when I've seen him play.
Chris: Stones isn't troublingly slow, he's just not particularly quick for a 21-year-old. His massive legs come in handy in making recovery challenges. Sometimes, he can be turned easily but if you're saying Norwich lack pace, perhaps I'm worrying unnecessarily.
Leighton Baines has two sub appearances under his belt but Broberto Martínez is likely to stick with Brendan Galloway at left-back and possibly name an unchanged side after Tom Cleverley stepped up well in James McCarthy’s absence against Palace. A few Evertonians would like to see Kevin Mirallas ,who's been a bit starved of game time, but with the attack functioning well recently, I can see Martínez sticking with Arouna Koné.
Dan: Stones’ legs are unnatural. It'll be like the Elgin Marbles going up against a play-doh set with Wes Hoolahan.
Is Martínez sticking to 4-2-3-1, which seems to be going out of fashion in Europe just after most of England starts playing it...
Chris: Martínez is very much sticking with 4-2-3-1 – it's only in desperate situations we see that tweaked. But it's worked a lot better this year. The good partnerships between Lukaku and Deulofeu, and Lukaku and Koné, have freed Barkley up to drop back or get forward as he pleases. Has Alex Neil altered his formation this season?
Dan: It's really great to see Barkley really developing this season. Could be a big player for England at the Euros next year (as long as he keeps those metatarsals in cotton wool).
Neil essentially keeps the shape either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-4-1, but he did play three at the back at Man City and it very nearly worked but for a Ruddy howler in the last 10 minutes. So he's adaptable, but I imagine we'll see 4-1-4-1 against Everton – although it's nigh on impossible to guess which of our three non-goalscoring goalscorers he'll pick up top. Do you remember Dieumerci Mbokani? He scored against Everton for Standard Liège when they knocked you out of the Ueafa Cup in 2008, and is our most poweful option but if you're lacking a bit of pace at the back we may well see Cameron Jerome.
Right, let's wrap this up. Where do you think Everton and Norwich will finish this season, and what's your score prediction for Saturday?
Chris: I remember Mbokani. He scored nine minutes into my first European game at Goodison, the absolute swine. He’d need a bit of support if he plays on Saturday, because Stones and Funes Mori both enjoy a physical battle, but he's dangerous from crosses, so we'd have to watch that.
I’m unsure about Everton. We have the potential to finish in the top four, particularly in such a poor season for the top clubs, but we’d need to improve defensively and stop being so wasteful. I'd expect us to make the Europa League if the attack continues to flourish.
As for Norwich, hmmm. I really liked Alex Neil at Hamilton, was impressed that Norwich appointed him, and was delighted to see him craft such an exciting, successful side last season, but I have a horrible fear that any failure to sort out the defence could give rise to Tim Sherwood takeover rumours. (Apologies for that suggestion).
As for Saturday, I reckon Everton will win 2-1 and just manage to avoid another last-minute equaliser.
Dan: Oh, crap. Forgot to ask about Steven Naismith, who is keen on a move in January apparently, and was pretty close to joining Norwich in the summer before Martínez blocked it. How do you rate him, and do you think he has it in him to be a proven goalscorer at a lower-table team like Norwich? (please say yes, please say yes, please say yes).
Chris: Martínez was slightly unfair to block that move for Naismith. It seemed like it would leave us short, but as Naismith’s hardly been used, £8m would have made an excellent profit for us and given him a great opportunity. As for the player himself, I can’t speak highly enough of him. Not only does Naismith work his socks off every minute he's on the pitch wherever he's asked to play, he's an excellent finisher and he's great in the air. He is terrible at passing mind and sometimes hilariously slow, but is one of those players who gets the crowd going with his commitment to the cause.
I'm sure you've read about his charity work too. He helps out all sorts of people, not just with his money but volunteering his time and effort. It genuinely feels like a badge of honour having Naismith at Everton for all that he does for those in need, so if he wants to leave, good luck to him. His goals alone wouldn't keep Norwich up, but his infectious work rate would be real asset to any side.
Dan: Think I’d be happy to have Naismith but, as you say, I'm not convinced he's the kind of striker who'll keep us up as we’re already such a slow team (apart from Brady, whose little legs are extraordinary).
I think it'll be a good, fun game on Saturday. I'm going 2-2 (another last-minute equaliser. Probably a header. Hopefully from the shortest man on the pitch, Hoolahan).