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COLUMNIST JOE JENNINGS

The Enemy's Lair...

By Joe Jennings :  06/04/2009 :  Comments (0) :

After cursing Aston’s Villa’s somewhat fortuitous passage into the fourth round at Gillingham thanks to a late and largely undeserved James Milner winner via the penalty spot, I prepared for the draw with the excitement of a young child after seeing his first whale.

The draw itself, it’s a strange thing. You tend to find yourself in total silence as the balls whirl around at The FA’s aristocratic headquarters. I usually don’t watch when they provide you with the preview numbers, I’ve always felt it ruins the suspense and excitement of it all.

But not this time, through bad luck as much as anything. I walked into my room and caught a glimpse of our name and number. Maybe it was an omen.

MK Dons boss, Roberto Di Matteo, who’s own FA Cup moment was a stunning strike in the 2-0 Chelsea FA Cup final win over Middlesbrough in 1997, would draw the home teams. Remarkably, the Italian netted after just 43 seconds on that day. Dave Beasant, known for his penalty save against the Liverpool back in 1988 to ensure the Crazy Gang lifted the cup, would draw the away sides.

The balls had barely stopped swirling when Di Matteo pulled out Liverpool. I suspected they’d get some sort of routine home tie, a safe passage into the fifth-round. How wrong I was.

“And they will play….” “Number 16”... “EVERTON”

I looked on in stonewall amazement and it probably took me a few minutes to register what had actually transpired. My phone went mad, my fingers typed away on the laptop viciously and I paced around the house — my actions resembled that of a madman, but it was much more simple than that; everything I did encapsulated FA Cup fever. I had insisted for years that I’d love to get Liverpool in a cup, probably borne out of a perennial struggle against the bastards in the league games — but the prospect now, if anything, seemed a very daunting one.

Evertonians invaded the online forums and cursed our luck at what was, ultimately, a massive blow to our aspirations of winning the only piece of silverware left available to us following the abysmal exits from the others. Just when the FA Cup hoodoo seemed to be coming to some sort of an end, just as our side gained a bit of confidence from a dedicated and committed Third Round display, we go and draw fucking Liverpool, of all teams.

I have to admit, though, I did feel excitement and fear in equal measure at the prospect of a sea of shifting blue and white invading the enemy’s lair. There would be, of course, a scramble for tickets, but my away credits meant that I was going to be there, taking it all in, and hopefully picking up a piece of Everton FA Cup history. Without sounding small-time and Johnny-come-lately, I felt, if anything, it would be an incredible spectacle.

Hull may have been the Goodison visitors come the following Saturday, but there was only one game Evertonians now focussed on, as the pre-derby banter in schools and offices across Merseyside intensified. I come from a school that is roughly 70/30 in terms of support in Liverpool’s favour, so understandably, we have to stick together and endure the tantalising taunts from our uneducated, sporadic match-going mates. It’s not hard to identify one of those Reds in all fairness, whose vocabulary only seems to span seven or eight words regarding their club, and usually it’s “5 times” or “European Cup” that we are hit with most. No great surprise there then.

What made it even more appetising was the fact Everton would face off against their oldest rivals twice in the space of a week, with the league clash coming on the Monday night. I pondered to myself which one I’d prefer to win and, as much as I obviously wanted us to win both, I had my heart and mind set on an FA Cup triumph. I’d never seen Wembley. And besides, the sheer mind-boggling prospect that we’d actually beat them twice was just too much to contemplate!

What we would give to beat Liverpool at Anfield.

It was thought the league game at Anfield would serve as a decent indication as to how far we had progressed during the season, considering the truly awful start we had enjoyed. After Torres fluffed a golden-opportunity in the first-half, it looked as if a well-welcomed stalemate would ensue, something we would have gleefully lapped up right there and then.

That was, of course, until Steven Gerrard stepped up to the plate. Undoubtedly, as always, determined to ram the corrosive words of abuse down our Bluenose throats, the Reds skipper powered home in a typical Steven Gerrard way from all of thirty-yards, an admittedly magnificent strike and this only brought Liverpool‘s largely foreign following to life. We survived the inevitable post-goal adrenalin rush from our arch-rivals and with only five or so minutes left, it was the Anfield crowd, despite being ahead, that would be exhausting nervous energy as Everton pressed on for the equaliser.

When Yossi Benayoun needlessly tripped Victor Anichebe right in front of the Evertonian gathering on the corner of the 18-yard box, that apprehension only intensified. I and five other Evertonians — already squashed into a Childwall living room turned into Odeon cinema complex — edged closer to the television in hope rather than expectation. Nerves tightened.

We certainly didn’t deserve to be behind in the game and, if there was any justice, Everton would score with minutes to spare to smear the impending Anfield party that awaited. Mikel Arteta smashed in a delicious free-kick and Tim Cahill shirked Slovakian Skirtel — a player who had been troubling him throughout the game —- to divert a header beyond the flailing dive of Pepe Reina. The Anfield Road end erupted with jubilant Evertonians as doom and despondency engulfed the tin-mine. Just rewards for our Herculean Everton players.

Our heads almost hit the ceiling in our L16 sanctuary, and while most of us had A-Level modular exams come the following day, we simply had to celebrate what was a deserved equaliser and ensuing Premier League point. This team just didn’t know when they were beat. They displayed an assiduous belief in themselves and each other, all for one, and one for all. A tight-knit band of Goodison brothers, if you like.

The result could quite rightly instil a belief into our players ahead of the Sunday cup-clash. I mean, here we were, really holding our own against the side that sat top of the tree in the best league in the world. Liverpool have the capital, the “world-class manager” (errr, hold on), the “global support” and the “world-class” players, but sadly for them, what they didn’t have, was pride. A pride that runs rich through everything quintessentially Everton FC.

The day of the FA Cup game arrives and then — and only then — does it really hit you. I hate Merseyside derbies at the best of times, I wouldn’t wish the feeling of impending dread, dejection and physical sickness on my worst enemy. My feeling of dismay only heightened when news swept through the Blue population that Mikel Arteta had picked up some sort of back-injury in the league game and would subsequently sit this one out, with Segundo Castillo set to replace the silky Spaniard.

They say that half a loaf is better than none, but we didn’t even a half-fit Arteta. What made it so infuriating was the fact that Mikel was in the form of his life, and he had really dictated the game in the middle of midfield against our nemesis — something he hadn’t done against them ever before.

Liverpool and their band of fickle followers must have been thinking carpe diem, I just hoped our supporters wouldn’t give up the ship. Just half-an-hour before kick off, as I was heading towards the ground, more whispers engulfed Stanley Park that Leon Osman had failed a fitness test. Our rough and ready side was being tested to the limit. I don’t think we could have handled another loss to what was an already seriously depleted rank.

Thankfully, upon entry into the ground and a swift surge towards my seat, the diminutive Leon was taking part in the warm-up. To say I was relieved is an understatement of massive proportion. Leon Osman offers us ingenuity. Supporters are quick to allude to his deficiencies; lack of pace, lack of strength and lack of height, but ultimately, he’s an Evertonian, and a very underrated footballer.

I bought a hot-dog and bottle of Coke. I immediately regretted my actions and cursed my own foolishness. Not only did the hot-dog taste like shite, but I had been silly enough to give money to the club I despise most! As I had already bought a £35 ticket, most Blues tend to resist the chance to purchase anything at all whilst in Liverpool’s hell-hole of a stadium. I felt like I’d let down the side in a way.

Blue and white balloons were shared out among the Anfield Road housed Blues, as we raised the roof as the players exited for the final words of wisdom from manager Moyes. Hopefully he’d deliver an inspirational speech to our players of Winston Churchill magnitude, he’d really have to if we were to stand a decent chance.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” started to play, the red and white scarves began to make an appearance and the red legions began to find their voice. This seemed to act as some sort of transformative signal for our supporters, though. Almost like waving a red-rag in front of a bull, Evertonians, united, all-as-one, sang our own version of “We Shall Not Be Moved…” from the bottom of our big blue hearts that, perhaps surprisingly to everyone across the country, drowned out the sickening chorus of the Reds’ famous anthem.

The balloons were flung high into the air and the Anfield Road end was a sea of shifting blue and white as the players arrived on the turf — a real captivating image. Each Everton player was cheered to the maximum. Usually there would have been groans surrounding the inclusion of some and the exclusion of others, but not this time. It was like we were on a missionary assignment, and only unstinting endeavour, enormous effort and unrelenting belief would see us through.

Our neighbours started the game the brighter, and began keen to achieve revenge for what was, for them, a disappointing draw days before, snapping into early challenges to satisfy the desire of the Kopite crowd.

But it was the boys in Blue who threatened first when the lovable, deep-voiced Steven Pienaar burst into the area and went down under contact from Alvaro Arbeloa. Nothing doing from whistle-blower Steve Bennett and you could appreciate why; there was minimal contact and it would have taken a courageous man to award Everton a penalty in front of the Kop.

They say that lightning doesn’t strike twice, but predictably for us, we took the lead through a set piece. Valuable lessons had not been learned from Liverpool. Tim Cahill had escaped the clutches of two Liverpool defenders in the league stalemate for his goal, but they paid no attention to our Jonny-on-the-spot who escaped Alonso and headed Pienaar’s captivating corner towards goal. It could have been heading in, but Joleon Lescott — a player who had scored 10 the season before and was always a danger in these situations — simply had to make sure and nodded the ball into the Kop goal.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. A trip to Anfield and we go and take the lead? This was not the Everton affliction I had become accustomed to, this was unrestrained joy. My best mate mauled me as we surged up and down the stairs to hug/kiss/beat anyone who landed in our path. A roar signalling all the pride, belief and total determination that supporting Everton supplies engulfed a shell-shocked Anfield. The ecstasy that had greeted Cahill’s equaliser only days before now seemed insignificant in comparison.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many happy faces in 18 years of match-going and that was only underlined further at half-time. The place was bouncing. We began to believe. Truth was, certainly, stranger than fiction.

As happy and optimistic as I was, I still considered the prospect of bringing them back to Goodison as a job well done, particularly as Liverpool — or dare I say Steven Gerrard — have a nauseating ability to claw away from these sort of unenviable situations. Still, with 45 minutes still to play, the facts stated that Everton held the lead, and who was to say we couldn’t maintain that advantage?

Within seconds of the second-half beginning, the feelings ingrained in the pit of my stomach that Liverpool would come out as a wounded bear became all the more obvious on the turf. They, it’s got to be said, hunted, harassed and chased down our Blue heroes at every given opportunity and some of our players seemed ready to succumb under Anfield’s unforgiving glare.

Castillo regressed further and was being toppled by the likes of Alonso and Gerrard all too often, while Cahill — despite working his socks off — became anonymous up top as support from his team-mates eluded him. The worm was turning.

Liverpool pressed on and the goal arrived on 55 minutes, although the way in which it did was really hard to stomach. Torres and Gerrard played a neat give-and-go and the Reds’ skipper proceeded in driving the ball home with his left foot from the corner of the box. Suffice to say, Tim Howard would be utterly devastated that it somehow managed to squirm through his hands. I said right away to my mate that he should have saved it, and the replays after the game only verified my hasty assessment. To concede a goal of that magnitude was an absolute knife blow to our aspirations.

But, with a tough job now in hand, it was important to remember that you couldn’t unscramble an egg. We simply had to hang in there. Losing now was little short of unthinkable.

Howard made some sort of amends moments later when Gerrard powered at him from point-blank range. Our conceited red rivals were now totally in the ascendancy and could seemingly scent blood from a retreating and tiring Everton side. It would have been easy to cave in and surrender, but that’s just not in this Everton side’s make up.

Maybe under Mike Walker or Walter Smith at that, but very rarely under David Moyes. Bragging rights are a valuable currency on Derby day and the players showed incredible levels of staying-power to ensure it would belong to our champion supporters come the final whistle.

The final minutes and moments were little short of agony, but somewhere plunged deep inside me was a trust that my side wouldn’t disappoint. There was something very renaissance about this Everton side, and I loved it. The back four refused to be breached, the midfield ran non-stop and Tim Cahill played with the heart of a lion. As David Moyes had already insisted, if games, trophies and accolades were based on spirit and camaraderie, Everton would be monopolising everything.

The final whistle blew and the Liverpool legions were, pleasantly, rushing for the exits whilst offering an endless amount of V gestures in our direction, which told you all you needed to know about which band of supporters had gained the bragging rights. Our side just seemed to respond to every obstacle thrown in their direction, and they responded with first-class exactitude nearly every time.

Everton Football Club are a team, a philosophy, and a family — much greater and much stronger than anything our ignorant neighbours will ever manufacture. Evertonians not only support the side, but we also support each other. There is no sense of smugness at Goodison Park, and it really did show.

It was only half-time in the tie, but there was a real feeling that Liverpool had been rattled by us, and that would only become all the more obvious come the second half of a mouth-watering cup clash. A forthcoming game that we would never, ever forget.

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