Walking in a winter wonderland

A February visit to Norway is no one’s idea of a good time. For Everton and its traveling supporters, though, participating in European soccer in February is treat enough, whether the venue is Bergen or Lisbon. Moreover, yesterday’s 2-0 victory in Norway means that, barring a meltdown in the home-leg (a result other than a win, draw, or one-goal loss), Everton will be playing European football in March!
Everton appears to have dominated the match, especially the second half when Leon Osman and young-gun super-sub Victor Anichebe scored. Osman is a good story. The one bright spot during Everton’s dark days of the very late 1990s (the days of relegation struggles, huge finanical debt, and a Liverpool fan owner) was the club’s youth teams. Not only did Everton win the Youth Cup in 1998, but it produced a series of starlets — e.g., Michael Ball, Danny Cadamarteri, Francis Jeffers, Richard Dunne, Jamie Milligan, and (a bit later) Wayne Rooney.
Today, these players have either faded badly or (in the case of Rooney and Dunne) are starring for other clubs. The only two young players of that era still with Everton are Tony Hibbert (a reserve fullback) and Osman.
Osman’s success is not exactly a shock. His skill on the ball has always been outstanding. But given his slight frame and the injuries he suffered early on, I never expected him to be the one member of the class of 1998 to be a major contributor for the club ten years later.
Yet Osman has combined his great skills with a goal-poacher’s instinct and a willingness to play hard at both ends of the pitch, to become a solid attacking midfielder on a side that’s good enough, well, to be playing European football in February. Indeed, if Osman were a bit stronger he might rate consideration for the national squad.
UPDATE: Phil Jagielka would have been in the Everton youth sides of that era too, but the club released him early on. He then moved through the youth ranks at Sheffield United and eventually became a star for the Blades. Now he’s back at Everton, filling in well at center back and the defensive midfield position.

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