Monday, 9 March 2009
David Moyes may have a point when he says that the FA Cup semi-finals should be at a neutral venue, reserving Wembley for the showpiece final itself. But if you like me, are of a certain age where by the closest you have got to Wembley with Everton is on Championship Manager, you can join me in forgeting my principles and revelling in our first trip to the famous ground since the 1995 Cup Final, where my young age and the lack of a season ticket had prevented me from getting a ticket.
There was a real togetherness after the final whistle yesterday, the players immediately formed a huddle before cheering and clapping the fans behind the Gwladys Street goal. It has been a remarkable cup run so far (no one can accuse us of stumbling our way through past sub-standard opponents) and ever since THAT goal from Gosling, there has been a feeling amongst the fans that this could be our year.
Even after inevitably drawing United in the next round, if the players can show as much passion and commitment as they did in the second half on Sunday, we are in with a chance.
It all looked so far away at half time. Whether it was nerves I don't know, but the dis-jointed performance harked back to the early stages of the season when the side struggled so badly. Boro dserved their half time lead and although the booing of the players seemed a little harsh, it merely reflected the fans frustrations and fear that another golden opportunity had been spurned because the side were failing to perform when it really mattered.
In fact the atmosphere in general in the first 45 was more muted than I expected, again I think because of nerves. I spent the half-time break desperately tying to come to terms with the fact we might miss out again, just when I thought It was our time.
It was the players turn to lift the crowd on this occasion and after Roundy's rocket at the break they came roaring back in the second half. Fellaini's header woke the crowd from it's slumber and all of a sudden those Wembley dreams - that were falling away from us a few minutes earlier - came flooding back.
The crowd seemed to sense the change in momentum and roared the team on. Before we knew it we were ahead again through 'king' Louis Saha. I have to admit I was a bit sceptical when we signed the injury-prone Frenchman, but when he is fit he is a quality player. Considering we only pay him when he plays the contibution he has made when he has pulled on a blue shirt has made the investment worthwhile.
By this point we should have finished the game off, Baines was unlucky with a free-kick that thumped off the top of the bar, while Osman, Saha and Fellaini all had chances to ensure a calm finish. But in true Everton style we were made to hang on with the players themselves doing their best to shoot themsleves in the foot.
Firstly a clearance hit the back of Osman and fell straight to Tuncay. I could almost hear the sharp intake of breath by every fan around me as the Boro striker shaped to shoot, but thankfully some excellent defending from Lescott ensured it was blocked. I also have to pay special mention to Lescott again when he was on hand to clear after Howard inexplicably dropped O'Neills injury time free-kick. By now my nerves were shot and the prospect of a Boro corner after four minutes of stoppage time were up was not what I needed. Thankfully referee Halsey did the best thing he did all afternoon by blowing for full time and confirming Everton's place on a stage they have been away from far too long.
The players and coaches have already come out and stated that a semi-final isn't enough. They are all focused on reaching the final and it is encouraging to hear the club has the ambition to mix it with the best. But after so many barren years the impact of just making it this far shouldn't be understated. This is the day out the fans have been craving and further proof that Everton are one of the country's top teams again.
Moyes has remained patient during his seven years at the helm, making steady progress year on year and building on the previous campaign's success. Even if we don't book a quick return to Wembley at the end of May, I have a sneaking feeling it won't another 14 years before we do make it back there.