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Skipper Phil Neville believes Everton have breathed new life into a season he frankly admits has been “disgraceful”.
And the optimism is all down to the Toffees’ remarkable FA Cup exploits at Chelsea on Saturday.
Neville, who demonstrated nerves of steel to score the winning penalty, even reckons the threat of relegation can now give way to dreams of a Europa League spot.
“A lot was written and said about us before the Chelsea game that it was make or break for our season – and even though we played that down, it probably was make or break,” Neville confessed.
“It was our last chance of getting success this season. And even though we had a disastrous game against Bolton, confidence was really high we could go out and salvage something.
“We hit rock bottom at Bolton, and after that performance there was only one way and that was up.
“That game was a watershed for us, and it’s now time to kick on.
“The players we’ve got, the manager we’ve got... it’s been disgraceful the season we’ve had so far, and we know we have to move forward.”
Neville, 34, revealed that boss David Moyes’ brutal assessment brought it crashing home to the players just how woeful their campaign has been.
And after having their eyes opened to the reality of their plight in a frank and emotional team meeting in midweek, the Everton skipper believes the season can yet be salvaged.
Next up in the FA Cup is Reading at home and victory would send Everton to Manchester City or Aston Villa to contest a place in the semi-final.
Neville revealed: “I don’t think any of the players realised how poor we were against Bolton when we lost 2-0. It really was poor.
“The manager let us stew for a couple of days and then showed us the video, and we were embarrassed by what we saw. He wanted a reaction, he needed a reaction from himself and from the team – and he got that at Chelsea.
“I think it has breathed life into the club.
“I think the fans were beginning to lose a little bit of faith and there was a lot of negativity surrounding the club, partly because of the financial reports that came out in the week.
“We can’t do anything about that, we could only go out on the field and perform. The manager was so disappointed after Bolton that he had to question our effort levels and our spirit.
“That is something ingrained in this club, and that is what he wanted us to show on Saturday – and that is something we did.
“Too many times we have had a false dawn. We beat Manchester City brilliantly, and lost the game after.
“But there’s still a long way to go in the season, and we can still get up that league, still believe we can get to the Europa League qualifying stages.”
Neville has been praised for his courage in asking to be the fifth penalty-taker at Stamford Bridge – but he revealed he felt supremely confident because he had prepared for the moment.
“We’d had two draws with Chelsea and I felt I might need to take responsibility for taking a penalty.
“So I went in on my day off and I was nailing them in practice into the top corner and that gave me all the confidence I needed.”
JACK RODWELL has paid tribute to Everton’s medical staff as he eyes a swift return to action against Sunderland at Goodison this Saturday.
The 19-year-old was expected to be out for four to six weeks when he suffered a groin injury playing for England Under-21s against Italy a fortnight ago.
However, Rodwell has made impressive progress at Finch Farm and boss David Moyes hopes he will be available for the visit of the Black Cats – particularly as Tim Cahill could be a doubt after the ankle knock that forced him out of the FA Cup win at Chelsea on Saturday after 70 minutes.
It’s the second time this season Rodwell has shown his powers of recovery as he returned ahead of schedule after damaging ankle ligaments last August.
“The medical staff here are really good,” Rodwell said. “I have full faith in them and hopefully I can shave off a few weeks.
“My last injury I was told it would be three months but I was back in two, maybe even less.”
Rodwell is desperate to play some part in the game against Sunderland as Everton look to build on the triumph over Chelsea.
With the Blues just three points above the Premier League drop zone, Rodwell is under no illusions about the importance of the clash with Steve Bruce’s side.
“Sunderland is a massive game for us,” he added. “We need to pick up as many points as we can – especially at home.
“There is still so much to play for. We are still in the Cup and if we had beaten Bolton last week we would have gone eighth and been just outside the European places.
“The league is still tight and the places are there for the taking.”
Meanwhile, John Heitinga has revealed he had to control his anger at being left out of the side to face Chelsea to help the Blues progress to the last 16.
The Dutchman, who was dropped in favour of Phil Jagielka, replaced Leon Osman in extra time and held his nerve to score in the shootout.
“It started with me getting dropped which I didn’t agree with,” he said. “I don’t know (why), the manager chose a different team and then I came on and we had a penalty shootout and I could cool my anger.”
After scoring his penalty Heitinga clashed with Ashley Cole on his walk back to the centre circle. The England left-back looked less than impressed and promptly blasted his effort over the bar.
Heitinga added: “He didn’t budge, and neither did I, so we bumped into each other.
“I tried everything I could to disrupt his concentration."
FA CUP hero Phil Neville admits eliminating Chelsea has salvaged Everton’s “disgraceful” season – and can help kick-start a charge for European qualification.
Neville’s winning penalty in the shoot-out success at Stamford Bridge on Saturday has kept alive hopes of a silver lining to a difficult campaign for the Goodison outfit.
Everton went into the game on the back of their shocking defeat at Bolton Wanderers that has left them just three points above the relegation zone.
And the skipper accepts that, despite declarations to the contrary beforehand, victory over Chelsea could be a defining moment in the campaign for David Moyes’s side.
“A lot was written and said about us before the Chelsea game that it was make or break for our season, and even though we played that down, it probably was make or break,” said Neville.
“It was our last chance of getting success this season. And even though we had a disastrous game against Bolton we were so confident because we have played well against Chelsea twice. Confidence was really high.
“Last Saturday was a watershed for us, and it’s now time to kick forward. The players we’ve got, the manager we’ve got, it’s been disgraceful the season we’ve had so far.
“I definitely think a good cup run can be a catalyst for our form in the league. The confidence we gained from beating Chelsea, we have got to take that into the game against Sunderland this weekend.”
Everton host npower Championship side Reading in the fifth round next Tuesday, where victory will earn a trip to either Manchester City or Aston Villa in the last eight.
A rollercoaster season means Neville and his team-mates are refusing to get carried away by their memorable weekend achievement.
But the captain has not given up hope of a Europa League berth with a strong finish to the campaign.
“Too many times this season we have had a false dawn,” he said. “We beat Manchester City brilliantly, and lost the game after, and we’ve slipped up too many times.
“But there’s still a long way to go in the season, and we can still get up that league, we still believe we can get to the Europa League qualifying stages.
“To do that we have got to perform, and now it’s time to stop the talking and go out and perform.
“Maybe we have been a little bit cautious this season, and it’s time to go out there and take the Blackpool route and just go for it.”
Meanwhile, Jack Rodwell is hopeful of bolstering Everton’s end-of-season charge with an early return to fitness.
Moyes revealed last week that the midfielder could return in time for Saturday’s Premier League visit of Sunderland, despite Rodwell having expected to be out for at least a month after suffering a groin injury playing for England under-21s on February 8.
And the 19-year-old said: “The medical staff here are really good, I have full faith in them and hopefully I can shave off a few weeks. My last injury I was told it would be three months but I was back in two, maybe even less.
“Sunderland is a massive game for us. All the league games are massive now. We need to pick up as many points as we can – especially at home – so Sunderland is huge. There was never any chance of us writing the season off, there is still so much to play for. We are still in the Cup, and if we had beaten Bolton last week we would have gone eighth and been just outside the European places – we will do our best now to make the season the best we can.”