Before kick-off on Saturday, when it was confirmed Sir Alex Ferguson had left Wayne Rooney out of the Manchester United squad to play Everton, fans and pundits alike wondered aloud if the wily old Scot would regret his decision. In the end, Rooney’s absence had little effect on United’s performance, but Ferguson may instead have been ruing letting Tim Howard move to Merseyside after the American’s two stunning first-half saves kept the Toffees in touch.
Howard, who came to Goodison Park in 2006, originally on loan, drew memories of Neville Southall with the first stop, when he somehow blocked a deflected Paul Scholes drive with an outstretched leg. The second, a reflex save from Ryan Giggs was perhaps more routine but equally vital and, with the game goalless when Howard rose to the occasion, the 31-year-old’s fine work was the base Everton leapt from to take a 38th minute lead. A third save, this time from Nani in the second-half shortly after United went 2-1 up, received less acclaim but as Everton’s defence fell apart, Howard stood firm. The goalkeeper’s contribution was doomed to be forgotten even before Mikel Arteta levelled the scores in the 92nd minute as United casually strolled to victory, and Everton’s late comeback guaranteed almost all that came before would be left as a footnote, but Howard’s string of excellent saves was telling of his four years as the Blues’ first-choice goalkeeper.
The eight years between Southall’s departure in 1998 and Howard’s arrival were punctuated by a series of Everton relegation struggles on the pitch, mirrored by an inability to properly replace the eccentric Welsh legend. Paul Gerrard, Thomas Myhre, Steve Simonson and Richard Wright were amongst the names who wore the gloves after Southall and each failed to truly convince, with a number of errors and injuries blighting their attempts at claiming the No 1 jersey. Nigel Martyn joined in 2003 but, already 37 when he arrived from Leeds United, was only ever a short-term solution to a long standing problem. That said, Martyn excelled at Goodison, being named Player of the Year in his first season and then helping the side to fourth place in his second. A stress fracture to his ankle eventually caused the former England international’s retirement and David Moyes had to begin the search all over again.
Unlike his predecessors, however, Moyes’ first attempt at replacing a legendary goalkeeper – for, even with just three years at Everton, that is the level Martyn ascended to – was successful. In Howard, Moyes found a goalkeeper with something to prove after United signed Edwin van der Sar while the ex-New York/New Jersey Metrostars player was still on the books, and one who had fallen victim to the same pressure of replacing an iconic figure as some of his Everton forerunners – for Howard, it was Peter Schmeichel. Howard battled for supremacy with Ricardo and Roy Carroll, but mistakes such as the fumble that allowed Jose Mourinho’s Porto to equalise in a 2004 Champions League tie, a goal that gave the eventual winners an aggregate victory, meant he could never fully rise above his competitors. When van der Sar was brought to Old Trafford, Moyes pounced for Howard’s signature.
Now with over 100 appearances to his name, Howard’s status as Everton’s first choice goalkeeper has never been in question – he even captained the side against Chelsea in December 2009, leading Everton to a 3-3 draw in the absence of Phil Neville, Joseph Yobo and Tim Cahill. Howard has become a record breaker too, with a total of 16 clean sheets in a season one more than the mark set by – who else? – Southall, as well as playing an integral part in Everton’s run to the 2009 FA Cup Final, after saving two Manchester United penalties in the semi-final shootout. Those two saves, from Rio Ferdinand and Dimitar Berbatov were, like his saves on Saturday, eclipsed by later events – this time Phil Jagielka’s winning penalty – but speak of his fine reflexes and cool head in a pressure-cooker environment.
The Scholes, Giggs and Nani saves were described in passing as “fantastic” by his manager and “terrific” by Arteta, but the man himself preferred to deflect the attention, modestly saying he “did his bit”, far removed from the idiosyncratic nature of Southall. But as different as their respective personalities may be, Everton have finally got a goalkeeper to live up to Southall’s high standards, and, with time on his side, raise the bar a little further too.