It's now April 21 as I write this, and I still can't quite believe what happened at Wembley seven days ago.
I have seen some incredible, at times even emotional, Everton victories in recent years. I watched as Andy Johnson scored a brace in his very first Merseyside derby, stunning our neighbors 3-0 at Goodison Park. I watched as a young, unproven midfielder went absolutely berserk after his deflected shot looped gloriously out of the reach of Pepe Reina, knocking our rivals out of the FA Cup. I watched as Phil Jagielka took his spot kick with calmness and complete confidence, vaulting us past the much-favored Red Devils and into our first cup final in over a decade. Though the game ended in defeat, I watched Mikel Arteta's pinpoint shot carom off the far post and in to draw Everton level with Fiorentina on aggregate. And now, the time was here. Now this team had the chance to write their own story, and to rewrite the history books in the process; the same history books, if fact, that read that Everton had never beaten Liverpool at a stadium called Wembley in the FA Cup.
Howard Webb blew his whistle, and the match began...
... and Tim Cahill scored.
All right, it took 48 seconds, but those 48 seconds barely registered to me. All I can really remember from that minute is the opening kickoff, and then Brad Jones picking the ball out of the back of his net as Cahill headed to the corner flag. I practically could have been watching a replay of nearly three years previous, when Louis Saha scored a goal on this exact same pitch a mere 25 seconds into the FA Cup Final. Even the buildup was similar: first a question of offside after Leon Osman might have wandered a sliver ahead of the defense (though even now I can't be sure), then a cross into the box that Marouane Fellaini headed into the path of a forward. The Australian gathered the ball, turned, and unleashed an unstoppable rocket off the crossbar and in.
Even though I was watching the match from my living room 5,000 miles away, the reaction of the traveling Everton supporters still gave me goosebumps. Never, not even after that historic Saha goal, had I witnessed a scene like that. The sheer joy etched on the face of each and every Evertonian as they jumped up and down and hugged random strangers in the stands was a sight to behold.
One might have expected Liverpool to be left shell-shocked by the early strike, but in fact it was the opposite as they were seemingly awoken from their slumber. The next twenty minutes were spent almost exclusively in the vicinity of Tim Howard's goal, as a methodical approach from the Reds slowly pushed the Everton players deeper and deeper into their own half. It was with a growing feeling of foreboding that Glen Johnson shot past Leighton Baines and sent a square ball into the box that Phil Jagielka stretched to meet but could only nudge in the direction of Andy Carroll. From there it was a straightforward finish. 1-1.
The tone of the game had changed completely, as had the mood of the Everton supporters. Was it a situation where the Blues had simply scored too quickly? Were they unsure how to approach the rest of the match, considering how early they had taken the lead? In any case, it was disappointing to see the players fail to show the killer instinct you would expect from a team handed such an early advantage, and the Carroll goal didn't seem to do much to change the fabric of the game. Liverpool continued to apply the pressure; Martin Skrtel's header off a corner whizzed just wide, and soon after that Steven Gerrard came close with a low worm burner that grazed the post.
Seconds before the stroke of halftime, however, Liverpool really should have taken the lead. John Heitinga, so steady and reliable all year, inexplicably passed the ball directly to Gerrard, when all he had to do was launch the ball down field for the halftime whistle. Gerrard was instantly on the attack, threading a perfect pass for Carroll to retrieve down the right-hand side. With the Everton defense in full scramble mode, Carroll weighted his pass perfectly for Luis Suarez, leaving the Uruguayan with an open net to aim at. It was almost a more difficult feat to miss the goal than to score the goal, but miss it Suarez did, popping a woeful attempt over the bar to the glee of the Evertonians in attendance. It was bad karma for Liverpool headed into the break, and though they had played rather poorly the Everton players felt like they had been handed a lifeline.
And so it was a punch to the gut when Webb ruled that Jagielka had tugged the shirt of Suarez during an early second half corner, pointing to the spot to the disbelief of everyone associated with the Blues. Suarez had no doubt influenced Webb's decision by flailing spectacularly with both arms extended (one of his trademark dives), and perhaps Kenny Dalglish's pre-match mind games had even played a role in the call. While David Moyes seethed on the touch line, Gerrard stepped up and coolly sent Howard the wrong way to make the score 2-1 to Liverpool.
At that point, dread and gloom began to creep in. Yes, it was only a one-goal deficit, but sometimes it just doesn't seem like it's going to be your day, and that certainly seemed to be the way the match was going to me. Sans the Suarez miss, Liverpool were getting all the breaks, and the bitter truth was that they were probably playing well enough to deserve them. Everton needed a savior, and quickly.
Enter Denis Stracqualursi. The awkward-looking striker has become something of a cult hero during his time on Merseyside due to his tireless effort on the pitch, but the technical ability hasn't always been so apparent. But down a goal, Moyes was forced to role the dice, and he decided to bring on the Stracq (along with Royston Drenthe) in the 60th minute. It didn't take long for the Argentinian to make an impact, winning a free kick on the edge of the penalty area deep in the Liverpool half. Baines stepped up to deliver an inswinger, and as the ball rose high over the mass of bodies in front of the goalmouth it found an unmarked Heitinga at the far post, who volleyed his effort into the gaping net for a precious equalizer.
Heitinga celebrated wildly with his teammates while the Liverpool defenders looked at each other in bewilderment. Moyes pumped his fist, urging his players to push on. As for me, I didn't know what to expect next. I had seen too many derbies by this point to think that I had the ability to predict how one would finish, and this game in particular seemed like it could go in any number of directions from here. The only thing I knew for sure was that it would be excruciating.
Like the first minute, much of the next half hour is still a blur to me. Lucas received a yellow card for a nasty challenge on Darron Gibson that might have been a red card on another day. Stracqualursi continued to buzz around Jones's goal, creating a handful of half-chances and looking dangerous. Drenthe carelessly gave the ball away to substitute Jordan Henderson, but luckily the ensuing counterattack petered out when Carroll ballooned his cross well over Howard's goal. As the game entered the final ten minutes, I could scarcely breathe. I knew, I just knew, this match was either headed for extra time or a last-minute Liverpool winner. Hey, don't blame me. We Evertonians haven't had much to be optimistic about recently.
The fourth official indicated there would be the standard three minutes of added time, and at that moment I mentally breathed a sigh of relief. We would have the interval to catch our breath, reestablish a game plan, and figure out how to attack a rededicated Liverpool defense, or at least get the game to penalties. But it wasn't to be. In a moment of pure horror, a long goal kick from Jones landed right at the feet of Suarez, who deftly caught the ball on his boot and in one motion fired it on target.
The shot hit Howard squarely in the chest.
From there, well... you've seen the highlights. You know what happens next. Howard's brilliant distribution to Baines. Baines's two quick touches and pass ahead to Drenthe. Drenthe's little dance around Jonjo Shelvey and lightning-quick run into acres of space. The ball into the box. Denis Stracqualurisi timing his run to perfection, inches ahead of Daniel Agger. The touch. The ball nestled in the back of the goal.
In that moment, as the blue half of Wembley Stadium exploded, years of frustration were vindicated. It's moments like these that make it all worthwhile. It's why we watch football; it's why we choose to follow this team. But of course, you all know that's nonsense. This team chooses you.
But there's still work to be done.
There's still one more match to win.
Final score from Wembley: Everton 3-2 Liverpool