Well one thing’s for certain; life as an Evertonian is never dull! Almost inevitably in football, there are peaks and troughs, but when you support Everton, they are likely to oscillate even more frequently. If ever you needed a more perfect example, look no further than the last two weeks.
The away display at Bolton was without question one of the lowest points of the season. No desire, no competitive edge and a manager who looked ready to walk after what he conceded was the worst display he had seen. No surprise then, that many thought Saturday’s FA Cup replay against Chelsea was a foregone conclusion.
Not so the 6000 travelling Evertonians who made the trip to Stamford Bridge in fine voice and willing their team to victory, seemingly against the odds, despite having shaded the initial tie. The fans were deafening from the first whistle, creating an electric atmosphere reminiscent of a home tie at Goodison Park.
As always, the deep-rooted concern was that Everton would lack the necessary fire-power to overturn Chelsea, with Louis Saha again sidelined by injury, Victor Anichebe failing to live up to expectations and Jermaine Beckford desperately in need of a strike partner to perform to his optimum.
Nevertheless, hopes were high, and manager David Moyes’ decision to start with Beckford up front ahead of Anichebe was deemed a positive move, with Tim Cahill expected to provide the necessary attacking threat to support the striker. Leon Osman was selected ahead of Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, which may have come as a surprise to some, but in fact the diminutive midfielder justified his selection with perhaps his most accomplished display of the season to date.
If you wanted a game complete with a rollercoaster of emotions, this was it. Everton started the brighter of the two teams, but appeared incapable of making the breakthrough, despite dominating possession. Beckford was full of running and the team as a whole were in complete contrast to those who seemingly failed to turn up at the Reebok the week before; harrying, chasing, tackling, closing down; this was a team who meant business.
Chelsea, with all their quality, were never going to be the underdogs for long and soon enough, the chances came. Everton keeper Tim Howard pulled off a series of magnificent saves to keep his side in the match, but Chelsea were applying increasing pressure to his goal and looked the more likely team to break the deadlock.
Somewhat incredibly, when the referee blew his whistle at full-time, the scoreboard read 0-0 (after Marouane Fellaini’s 89th minute strike was disallowed for offside) and extra-time beckoned. Moyes had made two changes towards the end of the 90, swapping the apparently injured Cahill for Bilyaletdinov and Beckford for Anichebe. His third and final substitution during extra time was perhaps the most surprising, with Johnny Heitinga sent on in place of Osman, but this was later to prove a master-stroke by the manager.
The inevitable kick in the teeth for Evertonians came after 104 minutes when Frank Lampard stroked the ball home from a Didier Drogba knockdown following good work from Nicolas Anelka on the byline. It was a sucker punch for Everton and it looked like a minor miracle would be needed to claw things back.
Enter Leighton Baines. Chelsea’s Ashley Cole has rightly been lauded as England’s finest left back for years, but his title is wavering precariously as the Everton defender continues to go from strength to strength. And as they say ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. When Everton were awarded a free kick from 25 yards out after Branislav Ivanovic was adjudged to have fouled Phil Jagielka, Baines was determined to take responsibility. Assuming superiority over Mikel Arteta, Baines dispatched the free kick sweetly into the top corner, leaving Petr Cech helpless.
It was a moment of pure magic and it sent the travelling supporters into delirium. From the brink of an undeserved exit, Chelsea were on the back foot and Everton in the ascendency. It had looked beyond them, but suddenly the Blues were on the verge of an improbable victory.
When the referee’s whistle blew at the end of extra time and the prospect of penalties beckoned, Everton fans could be forgiven for thinking the worst, especially with some of their presumed penalty takers already relegated to the dugout. They needn’t have worried, this tie was destined to be theirs.
With the toss deciding the penalties were to be taken in front of the Everton faithful, the masses situated behind the goal were determined to do everything in their power to help their side through. It was as nail-biting as penalty shoot-outs get, especially when Baines’ effort was palmed clear by Cech in the early stages. Thankfully, Anelka’s tame effort was easily saved by Howard, and the pressure was on Heitinga to make a difference. He accomplished this with ease, his penalty hit home with venom, but perhaps his most telling contribution was his gamesmanship with Ashley Cole on his return to the halfway line. The Chelsea defender was up next for the spot kick and was undoubtedly rattled by the ‘innocuous’ jolt he received from the Dutchman as he prepared to set himself for the penalty. Heitinga, who is no stranger to controversy, particularly after his dismissal in the World Cup final following a foul on Spain’s Andres Iniesta, played his cards to perfection and Cole’s miss gave Everton the lifeline they needed.
Step forward Phil Neville- Everton’s ‘Captain Fantastic’. Much maligned following his move from Manchester United, Neville has established himself as an Everton favourite with his committed displays and dedication to the cause. If anyone deserved to send the Blues through with this spot-kick, it was him. There were hearts in mouths when he elected to only take a small run up to the kick, but when the ball found the back of the net, everything else was forgotten as the magnitude of what had happened took hold. Everton had eliminated the current cup holders, without their most prolific striker, and seemingly with no chance of progressing to the next round.
That is the beauty of being an Everton supporter. One minute you can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel, the next, you’re in wonderland dreaming of the ultimate prize- silverware and recognition of a campaign well fought despite adversity.
The path through to the next couple of rounds certainly seems achievable if the Everton who turned up at Chelsea make an appearance. A home tie at Reading, followed by Manchester City or Aston Villa away if victorious. A decent FA Cup run would certainly lift spirits in what has ultimately been a disappointing season all round and would go some way to keeping hold of key players in the summer.
An Everton FA Cup victory for the fans…priceless!