Almost to rival the series of end-of-season reviews just begun – and to which others are free to contribute – Luke Harvey, having described the impact of our signing of the season, James McClean, gives special attention to another specific aspect of the football he saw at the Stadium of Light. Step forward Everton, Luke’s opponents of the season …
It seems a slighthly bizarre notion to want to celebrate an away team’s performance at the Stadium of Light. In fact it is not so much a celebration of a performance but more an acknowledgement that losing will always be part of the game, certainly ours, and that sometimes we just have to hold our hands up and admit we were second best.
I do not suggest we should simply accept that a team can come to our ground and beat us comprehensively. Nor am I implying that we should just sit back and watch it happen or get emotional because someone like Thierry Henry scores a goal for Arsenal in the last match of his return to the club.
However it is the mark of a strong willed fan to grit teeth in the face of defeat and recoognise that you can’t win them all.
Even Brazil, even Barcelona, even Manchester United – all are fallible; they have lost before and they will lose again. We manage it more often, of course, and there was no denying that when the blue half of Merseyside came up for an FA Cup 5th Round Replay, we were well and truly beaten.
Claims have been made that we didn’t show up to the match, that we bottled it, and in some regards this could well be true – part of me definitely thinks there was a nervous disposition among our team before and during the match. Why wouldn’t there be? It is a big night for us as fans and it’s also a big night for the players in our colours down on the pitch.
They may not lose sleep over the defeat; they may all still pick up handsome pay cheques at the end of the week and live lives of luxury. But they are where they are today because of their competitive instinct and some of the players who succumbed to Everton that night will have been as torn up as many of us. On top of the pressure and nerves, some knowledge of our long standing tradition of not being able to beat this perpetually annoying opponent will have lingered, too.
Our performance in the match will have led to much disappointment having battled so bravely for a 1-1 draw in the initial match at Goodison Park. A Phil Bardsley special was cancelled out by an either very fluky or very skilful header from Tim Cahill, a man who is no stranger to causing us misery; of course it was Cahill who scored the Millwall goal against us in the FA Cup Semi Final in 2004.
In the replay, however, things never really got started for us, and not for the first – or last – time, Marouane Fellaini cut an imposing figure in the centre of the field for Everton. Seemingly as adept in his defensive duties as he is capable in his attacking ones, Fellaini requires close attention from every opponent whose zone he enters, but the presence of Cahill and Osman, two very talented players in their own right, makes this easier said than done.
The towering Belgian‘s performance also highlighted a problem with our team’s ability, or lack of it, to deal efficiently with powerful yet skilful central midfielders. Later, Stephen N’Zonzi of Blackburn similarly dominated the centre for Rovers’ 2-0 win at Ewood Park.
Back to the cup replay. There was no real surprise that Nikica Jelavic opened the scoring for the opponents and even less that he did it with just the one touch of the ball. Jelavic is fast establishing himself as the most lethal fox-in-the-box in the Premier League and on his day the Croat can be unplayable. And Jelavic has the added physicality and presence in the air that perhaps Phillips and Bent did not have in abundance.
Everton were even able to double the lead. When David Vaughan inadvertently, and rather comically, managed to put the ball in his own net the 6,000 travelling Evertonians knew they were on their way to the semi finals, and they certainly let us all know.
It was a deserved trip to Wembley whether it is right or wrong that the penultimate matches of the tournament should be held there.
At least we can look back on a fun FA Cup ride and know that one day our Everton hoodoo will end – although the 4-0 drubbing in the league, with the pain of the replay defeat still gnawing at us, gave little reason to hope that day will come soon.