Almost Ten years to the day since Alan Shearer and Blackburn Rovers had left Easter Road with their tails between their legs, another big English Premiership side headed north to play Hibs at Easter Road in a pre-season friendly. As with Blackburn ten years previously, much of the pre-match talk was about the English club’s star-man. That star man was 16-year old wonder-kid Wayne Rooney, who had travelled to the capital as part of Everton’s team, managed by Davie Moyes. The Toffees, in addition to their new ‘superkid’ had a formidable squad and were about to play in Champions League qualifiers. They had Thomas Gravesen, Thomas Radzinski, Alan Stubbs, goalkeeper Richard Wright and striker Kevin Campbell among their ranks.
In contrast, Bobby Williamson’s Hibs team had a lot to prove. Williamson had been brought in towards the end of the previous season when it began to look like the popular Franck Sauzee’s struggling side might be caught by bottom club St Johnstone and end up relegated. Relegation had been comfortably avoided but the team which began season 2002/03 was not the great team of just a year earlier who had beaten AEK Athens at Easter Road. Ulrik Laursen and the 2 Ecuadorian players were gone, as was Craig Brewster. Mixu Paatelainen was on his way back to Hibs but not in time for this match. When Everton came to visit, Hibs’ only experienced forward was Spaniard Francisco Javier Aguilera AKA Paco Luna. The other two main strikers were youngsters Garry O’Connor and Tom McManus – the latter was making his comeback after he had sustained a horrific career-threatening injury 7 months earlier in January 2002.
The match was played on Monday night of 29th July 2002, a fine summers evening for football.
The Toffees brought a decent support along to the match and this added to the atmosphere. So too did the Hibbies. In addition to curiosity about Everton’s new wonderkid, many Hibbies were no doubt eager to give a good verbal roasting to Everton’s two ex-Hearts players Gary Naysmith and David Weir.
These factors , along with many simply wanting to see Hibs play again, ensured a good crowd of around 8300.
Pre-match both managers talked the fixture down, it was a friendly, a good-natured training exercise. As so often happens, though, personalities and circumstances came to the fore after kick-off and the match soon assumed the manner and tempo of a cup tie. End to end stuff, with plenty of ‘tasty’ tackles - yet always, a mutual respect on the pitch.
Hibs fans on the East Stand constantly jeered at David Weir, calling him, to quote one journalist from Merseyside ‘A Hearts b.....d’. Naysmith received a similar ‘welcome’ when he came on in the second-half. Wayne Rooney was goaded with chants of ‘Sumo’ on account of his physique and also because of all the hype about him, but he temporarily silenced the home fans after 31 minutes. Nick Colgan had produced a brilliant double-save to deny Radzinski and Rooney, at the expense of a corner. Rooney beat everyone else to that subsequent corner and nodded the ball into Nick Colgan’s bottom left-hand corner to put Everton 1-0 up. Hibs had been in the ascendancy ; Everton’s £5m ‘keeper Wright had produced brilliant saves to deny Ian Murray and Garry O’Connor prior to Rooney opening the scoring, and Hibs were playing very fast, direct football that was clearly rattling Stubbs and Weir, Everton’s two veteran defenders.
Everton’s lead didn’t last long. On 37 minutes Garry O’Connor brilliantly gave Alan Stubbs the slip before clipping the ball past Wright to equalise for Hibs. The second half saw more of the same end-to-end passionate stuff from both sides. On 51 minutes a wonderful ball from Freddy Arpinon sent sub Tom McManus hurtling through on goal, the striker marking his comeback from that long injury lay-off by giving Hibs the lead with a wonderful finish from 16 yards. His exuberant goal celebration reflected his utter joy, both at being back in the Hibs team and at scoring against such a top side in front of his own fans. Hibs almost went 3-1 up after 75 minutes but Garry O’Connor’s clever angled shot went an inch past Richard Wright’s post. Everton had their chances too but put them all wide in the second-half. Gravesen was booked in the 2nd half for a foul. Ominously, whenever Everton did get their passing game going, they did at times look very dangerous indeed. Hibs lacked the midfield muscle to counter them.
The match had almost exploded on 62 minutes when McManus and Rooney went in for a crunching 50/50 challenge and ended up facing off to one another, with other players joining in the ‘stramash’. Thankfully, actual violence was avoided. Both McManus and Rooney were booked for that incident, and Rooney was substituted immediately after it. In fact, after that incident, the flow of the match began to be interrupted by a string of substitutions, nine in total were made throughout the match. Though Hibs were up for the match and looked dangerous on the break, you could sense that all Everton had to do, if they really wanted to, was step up a gear if they wanted to equalise. Hibs sat back in the last ten minutes looking to consolidate their lead, and they would’ve gotten away with it too, had it not been for Matt Doumbe’s pointless, nervous handball in the box with four minutes to go. The Toffees were awarded a penalty and, despite a cacophony of jeers from the home support, the ever reliable David Unsworth stepped up to stroke the ball past Nick Colgan to level the match. It finished Hibernian 2 Everton 2.
Wayne Rooney had managed what Alan Shearer hadn’t 10 years earlier – he’d scored at Easter Road against Hibs – yet like Shearer he and his team were unable to beat Hibernian. O’Connor and McManus had run a top Premiership side’s defence ragged, bagging a goal apiece. To Everton this was merely a pre-season warm-up which had become unexpectedly exciting, and they had upped their game accordingly. To Hibs, this was a great morale-booster ahead of the new season, which would begin in just five days. To have drawn against such top-class opposition, showing such passion in doing so, seemed a great omen for the coming campaign. Ultimately though, it was to be a disappointing season for Hibs, but on that roasting hot July night in 2002, as the fans, Blue and Green , mingled throughout the city and its pubs, talk wasn’t just about Wayne Rooney’s performance, fans waxed lyrical with great enthusiasm about Messrs McManus & O’Connor, too. One would go on to become a world football legend, yet that night in Leith, he and his high-earning superstar team-mates met their match in Hibernian’s two young Scottish strikers. It’s sometimes said that neither of them wholly fulfilled their true potential at Easter Road. Tom was perhaps one of those players most affected by the departure of his mentor Alex Mcleish in late 2001 – Eck had brought Tom through at a time when Hibs had great, experienced forwards for him to learn from, then all of a sudden in 2002 he found himself shouldering the responsibility of leading the line as a first-choice striker. The same could be said of O’Connor, thrown in at the deep-end. Both players had good Hibs careers regardless and are cult heroes at Easter Road, both having scored some wonderful goals for Hibernian. As for Mr Rooney, I think he did okay as well, would have to Google him to find out for sure...
Teams were :
Hibs - Colgan, Orman, Smith, Dempsie, Murray; O'Neil, Brebner, Townsley, Arpinon; Luna, O'Connor. Subs: Caig, McManus, Byle, Nicol, Hilland, Doumbe, Whittaker.
Everton - Wright; Said, Weir, Stubbs, Pistone, Alexandersson, Linderoth ,Gravesen, Unsworth; Rooney ,Radzinski . Subs: Simonsen, Hibbert, Naysmith, Loumboutis, Carsley, Pembridge, McLeod, Campbell