It was a game that he shouldn’t have been playing.
Hell, it was a game his team shouldn’t have been playing. But Matt Smith’s 95th-minute equalizer for Oldham Athletic in its fifth-round FA Cup tie last month versus Everton meant that Tim Howard and the Toffees would have to meet the League One side in a replay at Goodison Park.
Though Everton would go on to win the replay 10 days later, their loss that day was even greater: Howard, their U.S. international goalkeeper, broke two bones in his back and faces a month on the sidelines. Had Everton not fallen asleep at the wheel and handed Oldham, a club flirting with relegation two divisions below, a lifeline, the talismanic Howard would likely still be patrolling the Everton net as the team attempts to secure a European place.
While there is no time for “What ifs?” at this point in the season, Howard’s injury couldn’t come at a worse point in the campaign for a team stuck in a logjam towards the top of the Premiership table. With question marks swirling around the long-term futures of both manager David Moyes and Belgian star Marouane Fellaini, Everton can ill-afford to lose focus on their ultimate goal of a Champions League spot and risk losing out on European football altogether next season.
With Howard out, Everton has handed the number-one shirt to former Slovakian international Jan Mucha. He held his own in a 3-1 victory over lowly Reading last weekend, but Howard’s absence was felt on Saturday when Everton suffered a surprise 3-0 FA Cup quarterfinal loss to Wigan Athletic, who reached the FA semis for the first time in their 91-year history.
Late in the first half, Wigan poured in three goals in just under four minutes from Maynor Figueroa, Callum McManaman and Jordi Gomez to silence an incredulous Goodison Park.
To be fair to Mucha, there wasn’t much he could have done to keep any one of the goals out of his net and the effort put forth by the team in front of him wasn’t exactly inspired, but the figure Howard cuts for Everton isn’t that of a regular goalkeeper. He is a defensive general, constantly shouting out instructions to his backline in front of him and helping to ensure that the team maintains its proper formation. Having Tim Howard in his goal is like having a player-coach on the pitch for Moyes.
Due to Mucha’s lack of playing time, it’s impossible for him to have the same kind of rapport with his defenders that Howard has and it was obvious, especially on Figueroa’s opener in the 30th.
After Mucha made a fine save on James McCarthy, the subsequent corner ended up in the Slovakian’s net from Figueroa’s head. The Honduran international found himself completely unmolested in the box, thanks to horrific marking by Everton, and made no mistake with a free header. Again, no fault of Mucha’s, but if it were Howard in the Everton goal, it’s hard to believe that he would have allowed such shambolic marking in front of him on a set piece without his players getting an earful from him to reorganize.
Everton never recovered after that first goal and the match was over by the time the two teams headed to the dressing rooms at the half. The cacophony of boos that met the team as they left the pitch at the game’s conclusion was well deserved and a stark reminder of what’s still at stake for this club moving forward.
While Everton was in FA Cup action, Liverpool beat Spurs 3-2 in Premiership play to leapfrog their Merseyside rivals on goal difference and move into sixth place in the table. With only 10 games remaining, Everton is currently on the outside looking in for a European place, seven points behind Chelsea for the final Champions League spot and two behind Arsenal for a Europa League berth.
Because things are as tight as they are right now, movement from third-place on down is still likely as the season winds down. Everton must steel itself and make sure it begins to trend upwards for not only European qualification, but to ensure that it keeps its manager and key players in place.
The third most tenured gaffer in the league, behind only Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, David Moyes has yet to clarify his long-term plans. The Scotsman’s name is often brought up in the conversation about who will succeed Ferguson at Manchester United. If Moyes intends to leave Goodison Park at the end of this season, there will be no shortage of suitors from within England for his services.
Considering what he’s put in place at Everton in his 11 seasons at the club, including a 2005 Champions League appearance, with modest means, replacing Moyes would be both a difficult and unwanted task for club chairman Bill Kenwright.
If the Moyes headache weren’t enough, key players might look elsewhere if there’s no European football next season. While Fellaini has been linked with a host of clubs from the beginning of the season, including Chelsea and the Manchester sides, other experienced players such as England internationals Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka and Leon Osman could emerge as transfer candidates. Without the revenue brought in by European competitions, Everton could be tempted to sell as a means to keep the wage bill down.
Before the sky comes crashing down for Everton, though, there is the whole matter of the rest of this season. The Toffees still have head-to-heads against five of the six teams ahead of them in the table, starting with this Saturday’s home encounter with Manchester City and finishing with a date at Chelsea to conclude the season.
Accumulating points in these ties also keeps points away from rivals, which leaves the Toffees still in control of their own destiny. Much work will need to be done to weather the storm without Howard, but the rude awakening at the hands of Wigan on the weekend should raise the ire of the Toffees and appeal to the squad’s professional pride to soldier on without their inspirational leader.
With the stakes at an all-time high at Goodison Park, Everton has 10 matches to decide whether it intends to go all-in or fold.