Everton on scenic route
STOCKPORT County and now Port Vale. If Everton are going to retain the English FA Cup this season they are going about it the hard way. As Joe Royle, their manager, put it: "We're doing the scenic route this year."
As to why is curious. At the moment there are few teams in the Premiership who are playing better, yet when it comes to the cup Everton have all the airs of betters about to take a nasty fall - jaded and complacent would be the appropriate words if this team was not built on tireless enthusiasm.
On Saturday Everton could easily have come a cropper, just as they almost did in the third round against Stockport. Those with glasses tinted blue might point to the lateness of Port Vale's equaliser - 17 seconds before the end of normal time - as evidence that Everton played reasonably well, but they would be deluding themselves. They were fortunate to be in the fifth-round draw.
"Dave Watson was terrific," Royle said. "He has a level of performance that he rarely falls below. John Ebbrell was okay, too, but after that too many players were off colour. We weren't good enough to win.
"All credit to Port Vale. They played well, they came here with two wingers and stretched us. They gave our full backs problems and got crosses, in. They deserved their replay.
After the fraught nerves against Stockport, when only Ebbrell's 89th minute goal prevented extra time in the replay, Royle had said the team had received their fright and had learned from it. "We'll treat Port Vale like we are playing Newcastle," Royle had said.
You can only imagine what David Ginola and Keith Gillespie would have done in the space available on the flanks. As it was Jon McCarthy and Steve Guppy caused havoc to Everton's 3-5-2 formation, dragging Barry Horne and Joe Parkinson from midfield, so Royle had to change tactics by bringing on Andy Hinchcliffe and Anders Limpar.
It was McCarthy who caused the initial damage, and Port Vale could have been two goals ahead after five minutes. Tony Naylor's shot was deflected just wide by Dave Watson and then McCarthy beat Neville Southall with a volley after a delightful flick had put him beyond Watson. Ebbrell just got back on the line in time, however, to clear.
If either shot had gone in Everton would almost certainly have, been out because there was little in the rest of their game to suggest any great pool of invention to swamp a First Division team who look far better than their 19th place suggests. The home tactic was to hoof the ball towards Duncan Ferguson and hope for a good bounce off his head.
The fact that there were very few was credit to Gareth Griffiths who could epitomise what makes the competition special. An Everton supporter as a boy, he cost Port Vale £1,000 when he was bought from Rhyl three years ago, yet he all but suppressed an opponent who cost 4,000 times more.
Griffiths, as much as anyone, would not have deserved the defeat that appeared to be Port Vale's lot when Ferguson profited from Paul Musselwhite's mistake with two minutes remaining.