Everton v Tamworth
Everton squeezed their way past plucky Tamworth at Goodison Park as the non-league outfit did themselves proud in the third round of the FA Cup.
John Heitinga’s fifth-minute header and a late, and somewhat soft, Leighton Baines' penalty separated the teams, but the floodgates were never in danger of bursting open.
The gargantuan upset that a Tamworth victory would have provided at no point really looked on, but for the vast majority of the contest the Conference side played their part in an evenly-contested match-up.
The visitors performed at a level above and beyond their place in the footballing hierarchy and were a credit to the 6,000-strong army of fans who consumed more than half of the Bullens Road stand.
Some 95 places in the league ladder sat beyond the sides at the outset, but Lambs boss Marcus Law and his players did fantastically well to push their Premier League hosts all the way and make Everton work for their spot in the hat for the fourth round draw.
Before the game Blues fans paid a superb tribute to Gary Ablett, whose sad passing the previous week had united Merseryside in mourning.
Ablett’s wife and five children were joined by some of his former teammates and managers as Goodison rose in unison to salute the popular former defender.
And given Ablett’s status as the only man to have won the FA Cup with both Liverpool and Everton, it was perhaps fitting that the tribute came ahead of a third round tie in the competition.
The Tamworth fans played their part and were in boisterous mood as the game kicked off - yet it took a mere five minutes for their hopes of an upset to suffer an early hammer blow.
Landon Donovan’s corner swirled towards the back post where Heitinga rose to thump home a header via the cranium of Lambs centre-half Francino Francis, who vainly attempted to block on the line.
The visiting horde sucked it up and then raised the volume again – yet by the time the half reached the midway point the game could, and probably should, have been all over.
Victor Anichebe saw a cross deflected inches wide before a far more deliberate effort – a typically bullish take, turn and shot – forced Lambs keeper Joe Collister to save with his legs.
Minutes later James McFadden – starting his first game since re-signing for the club – nodded a Magaye Gueye cross just wide.
And on 22 minutes the Scot prodded agonisingly past the post after Diniyar Bilyaletdinov had grown eyes in the back of his head to find him with an audacious backheel.
Yet for all their superiority it remained 1-0 and the visitors soon blew apart the hosts’ monopoly on chances as Kyle Patterson drove at the heart of the Blues defence and fired a shot beyond the far stick.
Emboldened by the chance Patterson let fly again, this time warming the palms of the previously redundant Tim Howard.
The visitors were well and truly reminding everyone there were two teams in the tie and, after Marouane Fellaini had twice recklessly thrown away possession, Phil Neville was forced to nervously head Scott Barrow’s cross over his own bar.
Such was the new-found belief among the visiting fans they jeered when full-back Sam Habergam opted to pass back to his keeper to retain possession.
Everton’s bright start had evaporated and the non-leaguers thrived on their reticence, heading into the break bolstered by an impressive 20-minute spell.
It didn’t really get much easier for the hosts after the interval and while they weren’t stretched – a Keiron St Aime snapshot aside – the Lambs continued to punch well above their weight.
Baines replaced the hobbling Seamus Coleman and Royston Drenthe came on for McFadden – his arrival eventually proving decisive in earning the second goal the hosts craved.
The Dutchman surged into the box and went down under pressure from Habergam.
The referee had little doubt but the Tamworth players could well feel aggrieved as they watched Baines pulverise the ball into the net at the Gwladys end.
Bilyaletdinov and Donovan both went close to adding further goals – the American even rattling the woodwork – but for Everton it was a case of job done.
Tamworth, meanwhile, left with their heads held high and their reputation mightily enhanced.