Everton 2 (Pienaar ‘5, Stracqualursi ’71) Chelsea 0
11th February 2012, Goodison Park
David Moyes’ natural expression is scarcely joyful. He could intimidate with his glare. Sometimes post-match press conferences at Everton consisted of awkward silences between one-sentence answers. A demanding character had a natural aversion to excessive praise. It made it all the rarer when his features lit up, when a smile broke out.
Rewind to February 2012 and Moyes grinned readily when asked a simple question: was he pleased Denis Stracqualursi got a goal? “Fantastic,” came the reply. “If anyone deserves it.” Moyes’ ethos, the theory that underpinned his 11 years at Everton, was that hard work brought reward. He brought a blue-collar attitude to a working-class club. The way out of every slump was to work harder. In his own way, Stracqualursi, a big lump of a forward, became the embodiment of Moyes’ philosophy.
The rest of his tribute was telling. “When I played there were lots of that type of centre forward, a little bit huff and puff and not pleasing to the eye but by the end he wore them down,” he added. “He’s got an iron lung.” It could seem a backhanded compliment. It was not meant as such. Stracqualursi had not merely beaten Chelsea. He had conquered his own limitations. A lack of talent was no impediment the night he ran Manchester City ragged. Nor on the afternoon he condemned Chelsea to defeat. It was why Moyes was literally jumping for joy when Stracqualursi scored.
He was a product of austerity-era Everton, a point when they were short of strikers and time alike, where Moyes dithered in recruitment as summers of scant transfer activity would be followed by rashes of late, and usually cheap, signings. Stracqualursi was a case a point. Memory suggests, though sadly a search has not supported, that Moyes’ explanation for his arrival was that “we needed to get another body in”. It may be apocryphal but, long before Roberto Martinez was reaching for the superlatives to describe nondescript players, Moyes was a master of sounding underwhelmed.
Stracqualursi was an unlikely arrival. He joined with Royston Drenthe on deadline day, contrasting loan signings’ differences epitomised by their employers: Real Madrid and Tigre. Stracqualursi was the anti-Drenthe, lacking the Dutchman’s gifts but with a more admirable attitude. Stracqualursi, as far as is known, never built a nightclub in his basement. He did come closer to realising his rather lesser potential, albeit after a slow start.
Stracqualursi was the anti-Drenthe, lacking the Dutchman’s gifts but with a more admirable attitude.
In a recent interview with Simon Hart in the Independent, he spoke of the culture shock of living in England; he had never even been outside Argentina before. Somehow, however, he had been the top scorer in his homeland. Goals were scarcer in England.
Yet his Everton career was defined, and his signing validated, by two home games in 12 days. Goodison Park can be at its most vocal when Everton are underdogs and at its loudest on evenings. Title-chasing, big-spending Manchester City visited one night. Darron Gibson got the sole goal, but Stracqualursi was outstanding. He was only starting by default, picked because of a striker shortage. He harnessed his huge frame in a display of relentless running, willingly taking on a defence single-handed by galloping at them. All of them. He seemed a force of nature.
It was as though hugely accomplished Premier League footballers were confronted with a runaway horse; little wonder they did not know what to do. Nor did Chelsea the following Saturday. It was a game of two non-scoring strikers. The £50 million forward Fernando Torres made it a 19th consecutive game without a goal. Moyes reprised his 4-4-1-runaway-horse formation. In another an astonishing example of how effort can trump ability, Stracqualursi repeated his performance against City, with one exception: he scored.
An altogether classier player, Steven Pienaar, had already put Everton ahead. Then Phil Neville snapped into a challenge with Ashley Cole to regain possession. Landon Donovan raced forward and supplied a deft pass for the on-rushing Stracqualursi. Petr Cech tried to second guess him, perhaps assuming a superior striker would aim for the far corner of his net. But Stracqualursi was not that superior striker. He went for the near side. Cech, having taken a step in the wrong direction, nevertheless got a hand to an effort that was at a saveable height. It still went in. Five months and 12 days after joining Everton, Stracqualursi had scored a league goal. It was his first and last. Nikica Jelavic’s arrival had signalled that his days as a starter were numbered.
But his display was an indictment of one manager and an endorsement of another. The Chelsea fans chorused that Andre Villas-Boas did not know what he was doing. The Portuguese only lasted another three weeks before being sacked. The ignominy of conceding to Stracqualursi was presumably too much for Chelsea to accept.