Everton start out on the road to Wembley on Monday evening when they tackle Cheltenham Town for the first ever time in a competitive fixture.
To help preview the FA Cup third round tie, evertonfc.com spoke to Jon Palmer, Robins reporter for the Gloucestershire Echo.
Jon has highlighted Cheltenham’s key performers this season and offered an insight into what Everton can expect at Whaddon Road.
How is the mood in Cheltenham ahead of Monday’s game. Has everybody been looking forward to the tie since the replay win over Hereford?
There has definitely been a buzz since that game. That was a brilliant result in itself because Cheltenham had a terrible record against Hereford until then. They are local rivals and everyone was worried that the club would slip up at the last minute and miss out on playing Everton, but they got through in extra time.
There has been excitement ever since then and it didn’t take long for tickets to go. This will be the first sell-out since 2006, and I’d say this is going to be the best team that Cheltenham have ever played at Whaddon Road in terms of quality of players and place in the Premier League.
Cheltenham went to Tottenham last year and it was a great day out but Spurs fielded a reserve side. They were 2-0 up at half-time and that killed the game off. This time everyone thinks there is a chance of an upset, largely because Cheltenham have got the best home record in League Two.
There is real excitement about what is going on at the club in general. Three years ago Mark Yates came in as manager when they were struggling in League Two but he has since rebuilt the squad. The club has sorted itself out off the pitch too – the cup run last year and reaching the play-offs helped financially.
A lot of the fans think the current Cheltenham team is the best since they came into the Football League. They are good to watch and Yates is popular because he was a player at the club. He is a bit of hero and he played in Cheltenham’s best ever cup run when they reached the fifth round in 2002.
Cheltenham are currently placed fourth in League Two. Was such a lofty position expected at the beginning of the season?
After missing out in the play-offs last year everyone was hoping they could go one better and get into the top three automatic promotion places. The general feeling is that there is a very talented squad, although they aren’t quite playing as well as they were last season.
In 2011/12 they fell away quite badly in March and a terrible run cost them automatic promotion, so everybody is hoping this time they can kick on at the right time. It has been attractive to watch this year but it hasn’t quite been as attractive as it was last season. They haven’t quite reached those heights yet.
Who has been the standout player for Cheltenham this season and who have Everton got to watch closely?
Shaun Harrad started the season in blistering form after joining on loan from Bury but he hasn’t been starting too many games lately. Darren Carter is an injury doubt after picking up an ankle knock at Oxford on New Year’s Day, so we will have to see if he plays or not.
The best player this season has been goalkeeper Scott Brown – he has been absolutely brilliant. He had to sit on the bench for a lot of last season because Jack Butland was on loan from Birmingham City, but he has reclaimed his place and been outstanding.
Steve Elliott, who played in the Premier League for Derby, has been solid all season and another player who always catches the eye is Jermaine McGlashan. He was signed for £50,000 from Aldershot on the back of last year’s cup run, which was a joint club record. He is a really skilful attacker who always seems to play well in the big games. When he was at Aldershot he played against Manchester United in the Carling Cup and won the man of the match award.
You have spoken to Cheltenham’s manager and a couple of their players. How optimistic are they of achieving a result?
There are normally just a handful of people at the pre-match press conferences but this morning there were about 30 people down there. It all added to the excitement and everyone who I have spoken to feels like they have got a chance. All the players are loving the little bit of limelight they’re receiving.
Cheltenham are going to have a go at Everton and not sit back and approach it as damage limitation. With a tight pitch, packed ground and good atmosphere, they are going to try and see if Everton can stand up to what they throw at them. Some of the Cheltenham players have been involved in upsets before, so they know what it is all about.
Equally, the Cheltenham players all know that David Moyes isn’t going to take the tie lightly. They understand that Everton have got a genuine chance of winning the competition, so they aren’t expecting them to just turn up and take things easy.
What can the travelling Everton fans expect at Whaddon Road? There are going to be just over 1,000 at the game on Monday…
Everton fans will have the whole of the Whaddon Road end of the ground, which is called the Hazlewoods Stand. They will have a good view of the game with plenty of legroom.
I don’t know if any Everton supporters came to the friendly in 1990, but if they did the ground will now be unrecognisable because three sides have been completely rebuilt.
It’s a small ground – it can only hold 7,000 – but it is fairly modern with a good pitch.
What are your opinions of the standard of football in League Two?
I think there is not as much long ball and thudding monsters that kick lumps out of each other as there was 15 to 20 years ago. The way top teams play and the emphasis to coach good football is now filtering down.
You tend to get a lot of good players who have been let go by big clubs. They have been taught how to play the right way and have had to restart their careers at League Two clubs. Cheltenham have got one or two of those, players who are technically good but have not been able to cut it at Championship or Premier League clubs and have been given another chance.
There are some big direct teams but there are also some good technicians in that division. It’s nothing like it used to be.
Finally, if you were to make a call on the game, what would you predict?
I don’t think Cheltenham will show any fear and if they can keep it tight for the first half an hour or so, they have got players, like McGlashan, who can cause any defender problems. It will be tough but Cheltenham are well organised at home and I think there is a chance they could force a replay.