MATCH VERDICT: Wanderers 1-2 Everton
THE scriptwriters got this one all wrong; it is supposed to go like this: The underdogs battle back, the home-town hero returns to a standing ovation and then pops up with a goal in the last minute.
Unfortunately, as Stuart Holden emerged with 10 minutes to go and the game poised at 1-1, it was the Evertonian who sneaked on alongside him amidst the rapturous applause who ultimately had the decisive say on the game.
John Heitinga’s blast a minute into stoppage time might have torn up the fairytale, or a chance to re-enact another famous FA Cup night with a replay at Goodison, but it did not detract from what was probably Wanderers’ best performance of the season to date.
You were willing something magical to happen as Holden stepped out on to the Reebok pitch for the first time in 22 months to a deafening reception.
The Whites had recovered from a wobbly start, when they had fallen behind to a deflected effort from Steven Pienaar, and equalised through the rejuvenated Marvin Sordell’s near-post finish.
By the time Holden arrived for his cameo, the chances of an Everton winner looked quite remote.
Marcos Alonso was having the game of his life at left-back, bamboozling seasoned veterans like Leon Osman and Phil Neville with his touchline tricks and raining shots in on Tim Howard’s goal like a centre-forward.
Fiorentina may well be courting the young Spaniard, whose contract runs out in the summer, but there was no evidence at all to suggest that his head had been turned by their interest.
The stage seemed set for someone to write their name into the rich cup history books at Wanderers, when Heitinga inflicted the kind of painful kick in the shin the competition has become known for in recent years.
That the game went ahead at all was testament to the hard work of staff overnight to shift tonnes of snow from the pitch and stands, and from volunteers who heeded an early morning plea from the club to help clear pathways around the stadium.
Early on in the game, it appeared Wanderers were frozen stiff as Everton dominated possession and deservedly took the lead when Victor Anichebe turned Leighton Baines’ cross towards goal, and Pienaar’s deflection left Andy Lonergan wrong-footed, the ball dribbling over the line.
Kevin Mirallas limped off to take Everton’s wind out of their sails, leaving the Whites’ engine room to splutter into life.
On-loan Liverpool midfielder Jay Spearing had been off-form at Selhurst Park but came back with a bang here against his Mersey rivals.
Alongside him, teenager Josh Vela started to push the ball around with a cocky arrogance, showing exactly why he has been fast-tracked into the first-team plan.
But it was the more under-appreciated Darren Pratley whose energy really got Wanderers back into it. Running on to a fine ball from the reinstated Sam Ricketts down the right, he cut a good cross back for Sordell to tuck away his fifth goal of the season.
Moments later, Pratley nearly grabbed a second himself, forcing Howard into a good save with a blast from the edge of the box.
With the Whites now well on top, Alonso started to bring out the party tricks. One incisive run down the left saw him beat three men and smash a shot towards goal, tipped away well by an increasingly busy Howard.
Chris Eagles was also coming into his own by the end of the half, and he tested the Everton keeper again with a swerving shot just before the break.
The optimism continued into the second half, with Alonso, a constant outlet on the left, continuing to pepper the goal.
Everton had almost dried up as an attacking force but there was a reminder that they still had something to offer when Pienaar sent in a skidding shot on goal, tipped away by Lonergan at full stretch.
Sordell so nearly grabbed a second, narrowly failing to get on the end of a raking cross from Eagles, but as the game entered into the final 10 minutes it seemed both sides would have settled for the replay.
Holden’s entrance revived the home crowd and for a moment it looked as if anything was possible.
Every one of the American’s touches was cheered, fans willing him to shoot.
Alonso got the only clear sight of goal in the closing stages, however, side-footing a shot over the bar from the edge of the box.
Heitinga had also entered the fray for Everton, replacing striker Nikica Jelavic to a mixed reaction from the 5,000 travelling fans who perhaps saw his arrival as a concession.
The Dutchman had the last laugh, though. Pienaar’s cross was cleverly kept in play by Marouane Fellaini and cleared to the edge of the box where Heitinga drilled a low shot through the crowd to leave Lonergan with no chance.
Magaye Gueye nearly inflicted further pain, cracking a shot against the crossbar even deeper into stoppage time, although that margin of victory would have been daylight robbery.
Zat Knight and Benik Afobe had scrambled chances right at the death to force a replay but to no avail.
It says a lot that many of the fans whose long day had started with snow clearing duties or trekking across an icy Bolton to get to the stadium, stayed behind an extra few minutes to acknowledge the team’s effort.
It really isn’t often that the sting of a Wanderers defeat has been masked quite so well by the encouragement of the performance.
The question now is can that goodwill stretch into the Championship season, where disappointment has been so readily available?