Tottenham 1 // Everton 1
LONDON // At the now infamous Leaders in Football conference a fortnight ago, Danny Murphy drew the ire of half the Premier League with a reasoned critique of dangerous tackling. Alongside Murphy that afternoon, another seasoned pro offered further honest insight.
Gamesmanship, admitted Phil Neville, was a fundamental part of modern football. You use all your ability, do whatever you can get away with, to take points for you team. “To win the game sometimes you have to bend the rules a little,” said Neville.
Spin forward to this White Hart Lane draw and the 33-year-old delivered a performance that underlined those words. Through deft positioning, cleverly timed tugs and shoves, by levering his body into exactly the right place to win a free kick, he did what Harry Redknapp termed “ as good a job as anyone with Gareth [Bale] for a long time”.
Eventually Tottenham Hotspur’s marauding wideman was moved to the opposite wing, though Neville’s darkish arts did not end there. He tongue-lashed officials whenever they denied Everton a possible advantage; screamed at teammates who erred in their play. And he delivered the canniest of fouls to keep Peter Crouch from completely turning around the visitors’ early lead.
The elevated centre forward had engaged in his established routine of teeing up Rafael van der Vaart to score, when he raised himself towards an Alan Hutton cross. There was no doubt that Crouch was about to beat Phil Jagielka to a close-range head at goal until Neville placed a hindering hand into the small of his back.
Unbalanced, the striker collapsed over the innocent Jagielka, whose position obscured the shove from both referee and linesman.
A perfect tweak of the rules from a 33-year-old blessed with the experience to know exactly when to twist them. And as much a part of a professional performance as the straighter aspects of his afternoon.
Everton’s manager rightly joined in the praise.
“I don’t know if it’s a dying breed but he’s a great leader,” said David Moyes. “The team seems to function much better with him in the team. It might get to the stage where he’s not the best player but the team certainly needs his leadership qualities.
“You should hear him in the dressing room, you should see him before the game. He’s a top man. He prepares himself right and that’s why he’s had 50, 60 England caps and that’s why he’s got longevity in his career.
“He’s a terrific leader; motivating, cajoling. And he’ll always be the first one to put his hand up if he thinks he’s not been right on it.”
Leading a team undermanned by injury against one of the division’s most rounded attacks. Neville was precisely in that place. Tottenham, who have struggled to stay there for any length of time this season, again required to rouse themselves from a deficit.
Both goals came early in the game. First, after 17 minutes, the Everton left-back Leighton Baines took sent a gorgeously flighted free-kick a foot under Heurelho Gomes’s crossbar and still closer to his left-hand upright.
Three minutes later Tim Howard, Everton’s keeper, completely misjudged a Hutton centre, and Crouch redirected it back across goal and Van der Vaart scurried into claim the easiest of his five Tottenham goals with a theatrical flourish.
“You never get an easy game with Everton,” said Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham managert content with his point. No, their captain is far too canny for that.