On Saturday lunchtime, Everton played Liverpool at Anfield.
Not only is a Liverpool-Everton fixture one of the biggest games on the British sporting calendar, it’s also one of the biggest club derbies in world football. For anyone interested in sport at all, it’s a must-see event. For everyone in Liverpool, it’s a hell of a lot more than even that.
And for Everton manager Ronald Koeman, it was probably even greater still: not only was he taking on a role as one of the lead protagonists in a giant of a football game, but he was leading an Everton side in beaming form to the lair of their local rivals with an eye on Champions League qualification. It would be the first time Everton had qualified for the Champions League since 2005, when they were (very) controversially dumped out by Villarreal at the play-off stage.
This is a manager who has been touted for some of the biggest jobs in world football, but who has already tried and failed at a giant of the European game, Valencia, where he won just four games out of 22 and took his side from four points off the top, when he was appointed, to 35 points off top by the time he was sacked just six months later.
His final game was a 5-1 thumping away to Athletic Bilbao, the worst away defeat in Valencia’s history, where he suffered the ignominy of watching on as the crowd sang ‘Koeman please stay’ – though it certainly wasn’t the Valencia fans singing it. He’d lost the dressing room, the fans and the board, so not even winning the Spanish Cup could save him from the sack.
Clearly this is a man who wants a second crack at the big time (‘ambition’ is a word never far away from the Koeman entourage and uttered every time he moves away from a loyal club for a traditionally ‘bigger’ one), and if you’re an ambitious man, then a Merseyside derby is surely a game you should be putting your all into.
That’s the context. A man with big aims and big past, one of the biggest derbies in the world, and Champions League football probably hanging somewhere in the balance for both teams. Pretty big, then. And yet, 14 hours before kick-off, Koeman took to Twitter to throw a sarky, late-night jibe the way of Martin O’Neill, via the warm and loving lap of the internet.
You see, the Everton manager knows what he’s doing when he posts on Twitter late at night in the style of Donald Trump, another Twitter wit currently in the process of running a giant into the ground. Koeman is a man who posted a photograph of a Christmas tree on Twitter only to see it descend into a volley of online abuse because the decorations were red. He knows that whatever he tweets is likely to be picked apart by everyone and anyone, and yet he still felt the need to bite on the baited hook just hours before the biggest game in his managerial career.
And it was his biggest. Not just because it was a derby, and not just because Everton still had a chance – albeit an outside one – of qualifying for the Champions League. It wasn’t his biggest just because his club is trying to match the ambition of its top striker, nor because other top clubs may well be watching with interest to see how he handles the big games. It was not just the biggest game of his career because he still has something to prove.
It was not just any one of those things, but a mixture of them all, and all at the same time. That’s why it was the biggest. But Koeman’s primary thought didn’t seem to be about the game, but about his playground spat with an international manager over a player he never plays anyway.
James McCarthy has started just seven Premier League games this season, and has seen his playing time scuppered not just by injuries but also by Koeman’s opinion that Gareth Barry, Morgan Schneiderlin, Idrissa Gueye, Ross Barkley and Tom Davies are all better options than the Irish international.
After the derby on Saturday, Koeman used his press duties to get away from the distraction of the match and back to the real issue of his sabre rattling against O’Neill.
The very bluff and bluster present in Koeman’s tweets hours before kick-off was displayed by his team on the pitch. Their bark was worse than their bite, their fur coat hiding only callow, goose pimpled skin: nothing of substance lay underneath.
And so there are legitimate questions to come out of all this: just what is Ronald Koeman more interested in, winning the game or winning the argument? And if Everton ever do get into a title race, what does this say about their manager’s ability to stand up to the ‘mind games’ that top of the table clashes usually involve?
If Koeman thinks Everton can be a big European club under his watch, he’s the man who has to prove he’s a master tactician of more than just the ‘blame game’. And if it thinks that he can use Everton as a stepping stone to something bigger, like the Barcelona job, then he needs to put more effort into actually succeeding at Everton first.
But right now, Ronald Koeman looks like he’d be more comfortable on the sofa with Jeremy Kyle than on the bench at the Camp Nou.