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FROM nervous murmurs at the occasional misplaced pass to panic-stricken howls when Matt Smith briefly threatened to torment Everton again, the Goodison faithful never quite allowed themselves to relax until the final whistle of this FA Cup replay.
Even at 3-1 up with just three minutes of added time, there was nobody of a royal blue persuasion with their feet up dreaming of Wembley.
Instead the home supporters were counting down the seconds, urging their team to hold out, and wondering whether they might once again be subjected to some late trauma – even when an Oldham comeback seemed unlikely, lately bitter experience has suggested otherwise.
They took little notice of David Moyes, who used his programme notes to call for them to show patience with his side – but who can blame them?
Granted, at times last night Everton’s players actually looked like applying a gloss to the tie which the gulf in class between these sides merited.
But Evertonians have seen too many late debacles recently to give them pause for thought before taking anything for granted, not least at Boundary Park, and in the end it was a collective sigh which greeted Michael Oliver’s final whistle. It was a sigh which said good riddance to Oldham Athletic and the month of February.
Both have left their scars on Everton’s hopes of a successful season; the Latics by forcing an energy-sapping replay of a cup tie which really should have been settled at the first time of asking, and February by heralding a rotten spell which has cast a shadow over the previously buoyant campaign.
“We came out of the busy Christmas and January period in good shape but we have found February to be a tough month for us,” wrote Moyes. He wasn’t kidding.
This victory, in the final fixture of a month which had seen them go winless and stumbling prior to last night, came just in time.
Now would be a perfect time for Everton to reprise their annual late surge. If they do it might just propel them to Wembley twice.
Moyes has consistently underlined his determination to go all the way in this competition by sending out almost full-strength teams – and he duly made just two changes from the side which lost at Norwich; skipper Phil Neville returning along with Kevin Mirallas, as the injured Marouane Fellaini and Steven Naismith – who was benched – made way.
Everton started with steely intent, moving the ball purposefully and stretching their visitors defence, although the nerves in the home crowd were palpable.
An early goal was essential to settle those justified anxiety pangs, and the Blues duly delivered. Patient build-up play around the Oldham area saw Darron Gibson deliver an inviting cross towards the six yard box and Mirallas darted ahead of his marker to finish sharply.
It wasn’t time to sit back and prepare for the rout though. The Latics burst up the field and when Lee Barnard’s shot was blocked by Phil Jagielka, Jose Baxter nearly ensured a dream return to Goodison as his long-range follow up struck the post with Tim Howard beaten.
Then Jagielka’s clearance struck Gibson’s hand. Thankfully Michael Oliver judged it accidental, and the panic subsided.
Next it was the League One side’s turn to ride their luck. Nikica Jelavic had been throwing his weight about and pressuring Oldham’s central defensive pair of Jean Mvoto and James Tarkowsi from the onset, and he looked primed to latch onto Seamus Coleman’s cross into the area until Tarkowski dragged his shirt and forced him to tumble. Oliver was lenient again, but it didn’t stop Everton banging on the door.
Next Leighton Baines forced Dean Bouzanis into a smart low save with a fizzing 20 yard pile driver, but the left back soon had his say. Coleman again sent over a smart delivery, and as Jelavic lingered the ball bounced and struck Connor Brown’s arm. Oliver had a good view of the incident and pointed straight to the spot. Baines’ strike was weak by his usually emphatic standards but although Bouzanis got a glove to the ball it squeezed inside his left hand post.
Beforehand Everton’s manager had spoken of his frustration at Oldham’s stifling tactics in their opponent’s area, particularly leading up to the equaliser at Boundary Park when Smith and Bouzanis leapt at Howard with their arms aloft. His words may well have reached their intended target, as the referee was quick to blow his whistle for a dubious foul by Mvoto on the Blues’ goalkeeper towards the interval.
It wasn’t long after the break that Tony Philliskirk decided to unleash the scourge of Merseyside. Smith had been a surprise exclusion from the starting line-up, especially with the ineffective Chris Iwelumo getting the nod ahead of him, but the Latics caretaker boss made amends on 55 minutes. The change did give his side a burst of menace, but it was Lee Croft, the real player of the tie for Oldham at Boundary Park, who initially gave the Toffees a scare with a flashing effort from outside the area which was too close for comfort.
Leon Osman looked to have eased any lingering nerves decisively when he scored with a flicked header from Steven Pienaar’s cross, as Jelavic’s presence distracted Bouzanis.
But Oldham’s totemic striker was not to be denied yet another FA Cup goal against a Merseyside team. He was inexplicably allowed too much space by Sylvain Distin from a corner, and climbed above Phil Neville to give the visitors a ray of hope with his thumping header.
Cue the jitters again. The crowd’s torment was understandable after recent last-gasp heart-breaks, but their fears can spread damagingly to the pitch and so it seemed as Everton’s previously assured attacking play started to falter. Mirallas looked to have done all the hard work to tee-up Gibson for the fourth but the midfielder leaned back and scooped a chance to seal the contest for good high into the Park End.
Fortunately there was to be no punishing epilogue this time, and Everton revived the art of defending robustly until the end. Better late than never – the Blues are just one game away from Wembley.
SEAMUS COLEMAN believes Everton’s return to winning ways in the FA Cup could be the springboard they need to re-ignite their hopes of success this season.
The Blues finally dispatched Oldham Athletic in the replay of their fifth round clash courtesy of a 3-1 victory last night, and set-up a quarter final showdown with Wigan at Goodison on March 9.
Now Coleman, who started his second consecutive game after returning from injury, hopes the result can draw a line under a difficult month which had previously seen the club go four games without victory.
He said: “We were disappointed at the weekend against Norwich.
“I thought we played some good football at times but didn’t see the game through, and after a result like that you want a game as quickly as possible and thankfully we had one.
“It’s a win and we can go into the game against Reading (on Saturday) a bit more confident now.
“When we got the draw for the quarter-final and it was a home tie we knew it was a good incentive, but we had to beat Oldham first which we knew wasn’t going to be easy.
“We know Wigan will be hard but being in front of our home fans is always going to give us an advantage.
“We would like to get back to Wembley but every team is looking for the same thing, so we can’t think too far ahead.
“Wigan got a good result last week and we just hope we can do a professional job and get there the end of the season.
“We were disappointed at the weekend against Norwich.
“I thought we played some good football at times but didn’t see the game through, and after a result like that you want a game as quickly as possible and thankfully we had one.
“It’s a win and we can go to Reading a bit more confident now.”
Coleman was in lively form against the Latics, helping to create his side’s crucial second goal, and he said he is determined to play a part in the remainder of Everton’s campaign.
“I’ve had a good run in the team this year in my favoured position so it was disappointing to be out with an injury,” he said.
“I’ve been working hard with the fitness coaches and felt good so hopefully I can go strong until the end of the season now.”
LEIGHTON BAINES has set his sights on going all the way in the FA Cup after Everton finally saw off Oldham in last night’s fifth-round replay.
Baines’ penalty was sandwiched in between goals from Kevin Mirallas and Leon Osman as Everton won 3-1 at Goodison Park to set up a quarter-final against Baines’ former club Wigan.
And the full-back said: “We’ve been close a couple of times and that whets your appetite. We want to go further but we’ve got a tough tie next.
“We’re at home so we’ll be favourites, but we’ve had tough games against them the last couple of seasons and they’re coming off the back of a good win at the weekend so they’ll be confident.”
Oldham appeared unlucky not to have a penalty of their own when Phil Jagielka’s clearance struck Darron Gibson on the hand.
And Baines added: “I haven’t seen it but (if so) we’ll take our bit of luck, you need it if you’re going to get through in the cup.”
Osman said: “We knew it was going to be tough, they’re very physical and good in the final third.”
And he hailed fellow goalscorer Mirallas, saying: “He’s been in a good bit of form over the season and he popped up with an important goal tonight to get the ball rolling.”
Substitute Matt Smith scored Oldham's consolation goal, the giant striker's fourth goal in the last two rounds of the cup against Liverpool and Everton.
Reflecting on last night’s result, he said: “It’s disappointing, it’s been a good FA Cup run for the club. We played very well and we’re not going to go up against a stronger opposition all season so we can take some credit from the performance.”
Smith was left on the bench for both games against the Toffees and said: “You want to start every game, especially as a forward to get a run and breed confidence in front of goal. But I’m not one to my throw toys out of the pram.”
Everton continued their march toward Wembley with goalscorer Leighton Baines insisting: "We have unfinished business there."
The Blues finally brushed aside courageous Oldham to book their place in the FA Cup quarter-final for the third time in five years.
And with Baines relishing the prospect of a home tie with his former club Wigan for a trip to the twin towers, he said: "We have unfinished business with the FA Cup."We have gone close a couple of times and getting to Wembley has whetted our appetite - we want to go that bit further now and win something.
"We are on the right track now. We have a tough game coming up and have to focus on that.
"We will be favourites against Wigan, but we have had some tough games with them. We are at home and we will be buzzing for it, it's going to be some game."
Baines was on target in the first half along with a rejuvenated Kevin Mirallas to ease Everton's passage, but they were never comfortable against the League One side, who fought to the end and gave the home side a massive fright.
Even when Leon Osman had given the Blues a three-goal cushion, Oldham's FA Cup hero Matt Smith scored another towering goal in the competition to make the finale interesting, and afterwards, their stand-in manager Tony Philliskirk admitted their was a mixture of pride and disappointment from his team.
"I am really proud of these players, they kept battling and never looked out of it, and really there was a sense of disappointment in the dressing room, because of the way we played and what we have achieved," he said.
"While we are disappointed with the goals we have conceded, at 3-0 we didn't fold, we still had impetus, and if we'd got another it would have been very interesting.
"But listen, they are players of top quality, some of them have world class qualities and so we have to put things into perspective."
Everton fielded an almost full strength team with only Marouane Fellaini missing with a thigh injury, and afterwards assistant Steve Round explained it was merely precautionary with the midfielder likely to play the weekend.
One fairytale ends, one shot at redemption continues. Oldham’s romantic FA Cup journey may have run its course but Everton’s crusade to right a painful wrong is gathering pace.
For all the progress Everton have made this year, stamping themselves as surprise contenders for a Champions League spot, there has been an underlying suffering. Losing 2-1 to Liverpool in last season’s FA Cup semi-final, having been in a position of authority, has been impossible to forget.
But having won this fifth-round replay 3-1 against plucky League One opponents — the goals were scored by Kevin Mirallas, Leighton Baines and Leon Osman, with Matt Smith grabbing Oldham’s consolation — Everton are a step closer to exorcising their demons.
A home date against Wigan in the last eight now beckons and it is not an opportunity Everton will spurn lightly. David Moyes suggested this could be a defining night for his team and there is no doubting their appetite to succeed.
Left back Baines said: ‘We have got unfinished business with the FA Cup. We have gone close a couple of times and that has whetted our appetite. We want to go further and win something now. We are on the right track but we have another difficult game in the next round.
‘We will be favourites against Wigan but we have had tough games against them over the years but, hopefully, we will get the right result and keep the run going.’
To do that, they will need to improve. The final score gives the impression this was comfortable but, in reality, Everton were made to work to the last whistle by opponents who maintained a relentless work rate and refused to be cowed.
Having overcome Nottingham Forest and Liverpool previously, Oldham, who had won on their last visit to Goodison Park in January 2008, had shown their spirit in the 2-2 draw at Boundary Park and, had Everton shown the slightest weakness, it would have been punished.
A sequence of four games without a win had caused jitters among some Everton fans and that was reflected in the reactions from the stands during the opening 10 minutes; every stray pass was greeted with groans, every contentious refereeing decision was contested.
What they needed was a goal to settle those nerves and, much to the home crowd’s relief, it arrived in the 15th minute when Darron Gibson, having received possession from Phil Neville, bent a beautiful cross into the six-yard box and Mirallas confidently did the rest.
It was the 10th time they had found the net in the FA Cup this season and it proved to be a record-breaking one, as Mirallas became Everton’s 10th different scorer.
‘We needed that,’ Osman succinctly said.
Yet the lead was almost short-lived. In the next attack, Oldham charged upfield and the ball arrived at the feet of Jose Baxter via a ricochet from Phil Jagielka. Baxter, back on familiar territory, curled a precise shot past Tim Howard but it hit the post and bounced to safety.
Had Baxter equalised, Oldham might have given Everton more to think about but, as it was, that lucky break gave Everton a platform and they started to show the class that has kept them towards the top end of the Barclays Premier League all season.
Baines nearly doubled Everton’s lead with a thumping drive in the 28th minute but Oldham keeper Dean Bouzanis beat his shot away while Nikica Jelavic should have been awarded a penalty when he was dragged down by James Tarkowski.
Tarkowski had difficulties containing Jelavic and referee Michael Oliver failed to notice another altercation between the two in the 33rd minute but, as the Croat was still appealing, Oliver corrected his wrong by pointing to the spot after Connor Brown handled Seamus Coleman’s cross.
This was the opportunity Everton craved to place a stranglehold on the contest and they took it, as Baines swept his effort into the net despite Bouzanis diving the right way and getting a hand to his kick. It was Baines’ 13th successful conversion from 14 penalties.
To Oldham’s credit, they refused to give up and they forced Everton to endure some uncomfortable moments before the break, pumping in a succession of corners and free-kicks that tested Tim Howard.
Oldham, typically, came out fighting after the break but that meant they were always going to be vulnerable at the back and so it proved on 62 minutes when Osman’s glancing header squirted past Bouzanis. It was his 50th goal for Everton.
Oldham caretaker boss Tony Philliskirk said: ‘We are disappointed because we gifted them three goals. We were saying at half-time that if we got the next goal it might make them a bit edgy. You could see by the way they celebrated they knew how important it was.’
Smith, on as a substitute, caused a few flutters when he pulled one back when diverting Jonathan Grounds’ corner but, ultimately, Everton had enough in reserve to finish the job. Now the challenge is for them to go all the way for the first time since 1995.
‘Wigan are always a tough prospect,’ said Everton assistant boss Steve Round. ‘But when the Goodison roar comes on with the crowd behind you, this is a difficult place for other teams to come. We will be pumped up for the quarter-final. There is no doubt about that.’
Oldham’s Matt Smith, a centre-forward so old school you expect him to be wearing a woolly jersey and hobnail boots, leapt higher than the Everton defenders and ensured illustrious opponents were sweating on their place in the competition.
Unlike Smith’s previous Cup interventions, this proved no more than a consolation. At the time, Everton were 3-0 up and on their way to a quarter final with Wigan, but it was to the credit of Tony Philliskirk’s League One side that the hosts were never allowed to feel comfortable.
The applause for plucky, defeated underdogs can often be interpreted as patronising. In this case, there was genuine admiration for the manner Oldham had pushed David Moyes’s side – and no doubt plenty of belated thanks for beating Everton’s neighbours in the previous round.
It was closer than the score suggested. Former Everton midfielder Jose Baxter hit the post immediately after Oldham conceded the first, but Premier League quality prevailed.
Goodison is still showing all the symptoms of a venue on edge, where even the superiority established by goals from Kevin Mirallas, Leighton Baines and Leon Osman could not immediately diminish the anxiety.
Moyes admitted his side were entering a defining period, not just for the club but for his own position, and even suggested he expected to be asked about the repercussions of losing to Oldham prior to kick-off. The toxin of negativity can create a combustible atmosphere that hinders as much as helps and it underlined the precariousness of a season’s hopes.
Moyes seems to spend every spring with a tent pitched at a crossroads, Everton so often finding themselves a trophy win away from achieving as much as they can realistically expect in a season, and a cup exit from a sense of unrest because they are not meeting those requirements. Moyes retains sympathy when he falls tantalisingly short because of the financial power of the top four.
If he was still reeling after the defeat by Norwich last weekend, the Everton manager was comforted by his team’s start here. Mirallas gave Everton a 15th-minute lead. Darron Gibson’s whipped cross from the right needed a clever intervention from the Belgian winger and he made the finish look easier than it was.
Game over already? Not quite. After Baxter’s beautifully executed chip over Tim Howard hit the woodwork, Phil Jagielka’s clearance struck Gibson on the arm. Referee Michael Oliver deemed it accidental enough to ignore penalty claims.
The official’s decision to penalise Oldham for a similar offence in the 34th minute smacked of inconsistency. A cynic may suggest the difference was that Connor Brown had 35,000 people appealing when he handled Seamus Coleman’s cross, although Oliver was correct to point to the spot. Baines stepped up and doubled Everton’s advantage, Dean Bouzanis appearing to dive over the ball having guessed right.
It needed a third goal from Osman in the 63rd minute to keep Oldham at bay. The midfielder flicked on Steven Pienaar’s cross to bewilder Bouzanis, the goalkeeper seemingly taking his eye off the ball and flapping at it.
“We are disappointed with the goals,” said Philliskirk. “You could see how important it was for how they celebrated but I was really proud of the players. At 3-0 we could have crumbled, but instead we got the goal and could have nicked another.”
Smith’s headed goal from Jonathan Grounds’s corner turned out to be little more than an echo of what had happened in their previous Cup adventures.
Moyes did not appear for a post-match interview, probably (correctly) sensing every question is angled at what these results mean for him as much as the team. Instead, it was Baines who summed up why Wembley success is long overdue. “We have unfinished business with the FA Cup,” he said. “We have gone close a couple of times. We want to win something.”