It’s ten to three on a decidedly grey January afternoon and Bullens Road has dissolved into human soup. Swathes of supporters, many of whom won’t make it into Goodison Park by kick-off, plod along in labyrinthine queues snaking back as far as the eye can see. The hubbub of turnstiles clanging, the away contingent’s boisterous bellowing, and programme sellers making a final ear-splitting pitch, makes for quite the assault on the senses. In a good way.
This is the kind of pre-match din Goodison only really drums up for its hottest tickets nowadays, for when Liverpool cross Stanley Park and onto enemy territory, or when success of any sort starts to feel that little bit more tangible. So, what grand occasion does the Grand Old Lady have in store for us today? What latest chapter of history is 90 minutes away from being engraved into the pages of Everton folklore?
Er, well, League Two leaders Lincoln City are here with a 5,500-strong following for an FA Cup third round tie against Marco Silva’s middling Everton. The game hasn’t quite sold out, but an attendance of 37,900 is Goodison’s best at this stage of football’s oldest competition for 41 years. Everton bank a nondescript 2-1 win, but the real pleasure is derived from the hustle and bustle before and afterwards, from the vociferous Imps serenading Goodison with a setlist of their greatest hits, saluting their gallant, defeated heroes for a noble effort as the full-time whistle sounds.
And, indeed, from just how many Evertonians make the effort to turn up, too. This shouldn’t be worthy of applause, of course, even if victory over a side three divisions below them felt a formality, even if Silva’s side were in the throes of a dismal run of one win in eight at the time. But these days, so shrouded in nostalgia it has become, the FA Cup’s magic seems to be wearing off.
That season, 2018-19, the average attendance in what was formerly English football’s showpiece fell below 12,000, its lowest for more than a decade. The following year, Jurgen Klopp ceded control of Liverpool’s 1-0 fourth round replay win over Shrewsbury to under-23s boss Neil Critchley, who fielded a team whose average age is 19. Speaking of replays, once the competition’s USP, they’re scrapped from the fifth round onwards. And speaking of the fifth round, that’s now shunted to midweek in March.
If the FA Cup is becoming an obstacle or a necessary evil to many, try telling that to the squadron of Imps who planted their flag firmly in the Goodison away end and made themselves heard from the get-go, or the Evertonians allured by the scent of silverware that day after nearly a quarter of a century of cold turkey. Managers and authorities may chip away at its integrity with scratch teams and constant facelifts. But though it feels like death by a thousand cuts for this old silver pot, it still carries a great deal of kudos to the Goodison faithful.
Which is why it’s so disheartening to see this fervour not transmit to the players who can actually lead Everton out of their ignominious trophy drought. Since falling at the penultimate hurdle under Roberto Martinez in 2016, Everton have played six FA Cup games and won two of them - both careless, hairy 2-1 scrapes, first over Lincoln and then Rotherham United on Saturday. There have been two third-round defeats to Liverpool in that time, one of which saw a full-strength Everton fall to another of Klopp’s assortment of youngsters, and a gutless 3-2 loss at Championship strugglers Millwall.
Indeed, to watch Everton compete (a term used loosely) in the FA Cup recently has become an exercise in patience, and ultimately in futility. At Millwall, whether via a misplaced superiority complex or simply rank-bad defending - all three goals Everton conceded stemmed from set-pieces - Silva’s side conspired to lose a game they twice led. At Anfield last year, 8,000 Evertonians left with their tail between their legs as the newly-appointed Carlo Ancelotti found himself desperately let down by senior players who should know better. Even in victory against Rotherham, this barely felt any different.
Admittedly, Ancelotti did not go full-strength against the side second-bottom of the second tier, but to apportion any blame to him for such an inept performance feels misguided. He dangled a carrot in front of the likes of André Gomes, Tom Davies and Cenk Tosun from the start, and Gylfi Sigurdsson and Bernard from the bench. All of these players have, to greater and lesser extents, failed to staple themselves to Ancelotti’s team-sheet in the Premier League. This should have been their chance, albeit against ostensibly inferior opposition, to stake a claim.
Yet Gomes again bore the wearied look of a man suffering through every second of the morning after the night before, having awoken from a gruelling bender on the Goodison turf with no recollection as to how he got there. Davies and Sigurdsson, alongside him in midfield, offered little food for thought. Bernard hit the post with a tap-in. Even Tosun, despite scoring, felt peripheral.
They were not alone in underwhelming, in fairness. Michael Keane telegraphed an early pass straight to a Rotherham player. Lucas Digne, perhaps brought back prematurely from his ankle ligament injury, was tormented throughout by Rotherham’s scorer, Matthew Olosunde. Alex Iwobi’s renaissance stalled with a performance which felt way too late-era Silva for anyone’s liking. James Rodriguez provided a sumptuous assist for Abdoulaye Doucoure’s extra-time winner but appeared to trip over thin air at one point.
It all smacked of the same lethargy which has proved terminal in many an Everton quest for glory, and which should point Ancelotti away from the same repeat offenders and towards his unrefined if unblemished youngsters. Anthony Gordon faded, but carved Rotherham open wonderfully in assisting Tosun’s goal. Likewise, Niels Nkounkou came out of exile to reaffirm his potential with an impressive extra-time cameo. These kind of precocious talents are where Ancelotti should place more trust for games like this now.
The Premier League will always be Everton’s bread and butter, and a greater barometer of more wide-scale progress. But even if a cup run proves deleterious on their league form, many fans would surely take this if it meant seeing Ancelotti’s band of blue brothers climb the hallowed Wembley steps before Seamus Coleman lifts that elusive next trophy in May.
Yet such a fortuitous win over Rotherham felt the latest example of apathy among Everton’s players - at least the fringe ones, anyway - to the FA Cup, as the same tropes which reared their ugly head at the Den, at Anfield, even against Lincoln, returned here. For Ancelotti, it should serve as a galling wake-up call. For some on the pitch, it should serve as the death knell in their Goodison careers.