I am a fully grown man. Yet, I am not afraid to admit: every time I watch Damarai Gray’s 92nd minute Michelangelo sculpture of a wonder goal, I pee in my pants just a little bit.
Last night, in “Pinch me, I am dreaming fashion,” Everton won their first game in nine. Against Arsenal. The team who have beaten us 34 times – more than any other team in Premier League history. In the process, we stared at the edge of the Moon Door. We glimpsed the freefall that awaited. We survived not one, but two offside calls. (Also, one, arguably two, red card offenses.) We sat down and played chess with Death. And we survived. More than survived to meet the final whistle, soaked in beer, amidst scenes of astonished jubilation.
What a 90 minutes. In which fans of both teams experienced every shade of emotion known to humankind. From delirium to excruciating agony. Yet emerged physically unscathed and able to go again. A clash between two teams who quickly discovered they were playing themselves. An opponent maimed by years of doom, self-sabotage and shattered hope. Which meant they had nothing to fear, if only they could shuck their own sense of self-loathing.
Richarlison scored a hattrick. Which included two VAR’d off own goals. The first felt all the crueler as Arsenal snapped to life and fleetingly played the kind of flowing football they are capable of, with Odegaard delivering the dagger. That passage of play felt so Sisyphean to me as an Everton fan, I could only wonder out loud why we actually watch the team we love play, as opposed to punching ourselves in the face before kick-off and getting it over and done with.
Watching Everton toil in the Second Half against Arsenal reminded me initially of a scene from Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, where the traumatically bullied Dawn Wiener sees another kid being beaten up and goes to his aid after his aggressors exit. With empathy, she reaches tenderly to help him up off the floor, only for the weakling to recoil in disgust and bellow, “Get away from me, Wiener Dog.” The prospect of experiencing Everton being beaten by this Arsenal echoed that. Even the most beta beings think we are below them.
The second Richarlison offside goal was taking the piss. JUST TAKING THE PISS. What on earth was obvious about that? Calls like this make me hate football. A goal like that – the emotions you go through: Screaming joyful obscenities at the television as Ricky wheels away with wonder. Pouring beer on top of my own head. Only for the camera to cut to a close-up of Mike Dean. The ultimate buzzkill. And for you to be left suddenly like Natalie Imbruglia, cold and shamed, lying naked on the floor. The helplessness, impotence and frustration of those moments is an agony.
Yet, the fact Arsenal, Mighty Arsenal, started to time-waste in the 65th minute, was a reminder that this team too have their own demons to deal with. A truth compounded by the texts that started to pour in from my Gooner friends. One of them, Michael Cohen, is essentially Arsenal Rog. A man who has known glory in his youth, and only doom as a grown man. He chirped in after Richarlison’s VAR’d off second goal to tell me that even he felt sorry for Everton fans. An undermining moment of empathy.
Around the time André Gomes came on and started to influence the game in ways that must have surprised even him, he pinged me that "this has 2-1 Everton written all over it." My first reaction was to tell him “You can't kid a kidder,” but, the more I watched, the more I realized his WhatsApps were deep insights into another parallel mindset. I may have been glimpsing every echo of layered Everton self-destruction, but Cohen was simultaneously witnessing all the well-worn tropes of Arsenal doom: Inability to create chances. Fragility along the backline. Partey’s inexplicable self-erasure. Just before Richarlison scored for real, it dawned on me that every Arsenal fan’s control panel was flashing “danger” in a tessellating yet identical pattern to mine.
Then Richarlison rose up like a Beautiful Bastard to nod home a goal even Mike Dean could not chalk off.
A goal which, oddly, led to an instant draining of Everton confidence and a sudden surge in Arsenal’s. Psychologists, explain that to me. Both teams suddenly reeling under the weight of the knowledge they had something to lose. In that moment I felt only immense torment. Rarely have two teams with fanbases so familiar with doom gone head to head and both had something precious to mislay. So cruel. A human agony.
Nketiah missed with the goal at his mercy. The weight of history too heavy on his young tender shoulders. Liverpool get to bring on King Origi. Everton sully the field with Iwobi. Arsenal with Auba.
Then the moment. Demarai Gray. Too new to know we are meant to be doomed. Bless Him. Demarai unleashed The Shot, accompanied by an orgasmic moan from Martin Tyler. A feat accompanied by me unleashing a scream of primal joy. Like a cry straight out of the womb. A jaw-dropping, mouth open, paint-me-Edvard-Munch bellow that echoes through time to young Rog watching Graham Sharpe or Sheedy or not so young Rog revelling in Jagielka’s moment of inspired poetry.
After that? Just exhaustion. I had spent 90 minutes in agony wondering why I watch Everton. Then one ecstatic moment of transcendent wonder that gave me the answer. I love football so very bloody much, but my god, it is shattering. I sat down, breathless. Too tired to even analyze details that usually consume me (like how every Everton player, especially Richarlison, blanked Rafa as he attempted to give them post-match hugs). A reeling Michael Cohen pinged me with a sad, tormented “Told you.” His pain made me realize I was merely experiencing the kind of relief one would feel successfully crossing the line playing “Red Light, Green Light” in Squid Games. You were still alive. Yet, there has been so much death and carnage around you, you are well aware that you remain a desperate human being in dire straits, and the odds of surviving are very, very slim. So, the question remains: Did we really win? Or did we merely postpone Darkness for another couple of days?
The truth is this: Arsenal and Everton fans are essentially cut from the same cloth. We are all trapped in a Prison of Forever Agony. A Phantom Zone from which there is no escape. All that remains is to wonder why we do it. Why we freely volunteer for this Voyage of the Damned. It was incredible then, to receive a raven from GFOP Gregory Michaelidis, who sent a quote Salman Rushdie, an immense Spurs fan, had written a couple of decades ago in the New Yorker:
“This is what it means to be a fan: to wait, enduring decades of disillusion, and yet to have no choice in the matter of allegiance. Each weekend, I turn to the sports page, and my eye automatically seeks out the Spurs result. If the team has won, the weekend feels richer. If the team has lost, a black cloud settles. It’s pathetic. It’s an addiction. It’s monogamous, till-death-do-us-part love.”
BRING ON THE WEEKEND. AND UP THE F**ING TOFFEES.
Last word: Lovely video of 1980s goalkeepers just thumping goal kicks straight into their opponent’s penalty area back in the days when the football we used to watch was primitive long ball insanity.