By Luke O’Farrell
Road To Wembley
I found myself daydreaming in work, it was impossible not to. In less than 24 hours, Everton were on the road to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final and I would not be there. Despite being ticketless, never mind scheduled to work, I was unable to shake thoughts of Wembley.
Wallowing in self-pity, forlornly waiting for the shift to begin, the harsh sound of The Rolling Stones in my pocket broke the slumber. I answered the call, “What are you doing tomorrow?” said the voice on the other end. “I’m working, why?” “I’ve got a free ticket for Wembley if you can make it”.
Having foolishly given up the cherished season ticket at the start of the season, a choice born from the balancing act of working in a restaurant and university, this offer was simply too good to turn down. “Hang on a minute, I’ll ask me boss.”
Moving the phone to one side, I nervously (and hopefully) asked for the day off. Probably sensing how much a trip to Wembley meant to an Evertonian reared on the bleak 90s, he agreed. That was it; the smile remained on my face throughout the eight-hour shift.
Having turned 19 on the Friday, a Sunday trip to Wembley rounded off the birthday weekend nicely, though the result obviously had the potential to affect that. After tumbling out of bed at some ungodly hour, approximately 6am if memory serves correctly, we began the long road to Wembley.
Arriving with plenty of time to spare, food was in order. Walking in and around the shops, pockets of blue stood out and the excitement steadily built. After passing the majority of the waiting time, we made our way towards Wembley.
Doing several meandering laps of the stadium, the glorious sunshine helped ease the pre-match nerves. Barely five-years old when Everton last ventured to Wembley, this was my first visit and I arrived intent on savouring the atmosphere. That said, as I type this now, most of the finer details escape me.
Reaching Wembley for the first time in 14 years, the onus was on Everton to grasp their chance. Notwithstanding my own grievances with semi-finals at Wembley, derisory ticket allocations and obscene kick off times, it is hard not to get lost in the occasion once inside the stadium.
Squeezing through the turnstiles, the sight of ticketless fans bolting through the giant door next to the turnstiles drew a wry smile; football can make a sane person do insane things. Once inside, the search for overpriced lager began – alternatively known as the quest to quell the nerves.
Rejoining the others, the butterflies in my stomach seemingly morphed into riotous caterpillars once the match kicked off. The majority of the action flashed by in a blur of nervous excitement and crippling anxiety, though I do recall a sharp intake of breath when Phil Jagielka flattened Danny Welbeck in the area. Alex Ferguson berated the fourth official (and anyone else within earshot), but Mike Riley waved away the protests to the relief of 33,000 Evertonians.
It looked a penalty, clear as day. There were few incidents of note after this; 90 minutes nor extra time unable to separate the two sides. In all honesty, this was a largely forgettable match (as you can tell by this sketchy recollection) yet few cared.
Two hours after it began, the sides deadlocked at 0-0; the dreaded penalty shootout loomed on the horizon. First up was Tim Cahill, but the Australian blazed his spot kick into the red sea of United supporters behind the goal.
First blood to the opposition, my pessimistic nature took over; we were doomed, or so I thought. Fortunately, for those of the blue persuasion, Dimitar Berbatov attempted a penalty draped in his languid style. Tim Howard saved easily courtesy of his trailing leg. Game on.
Far removed from the Berbatov penalty, Leighton Baines blasted Everton into the lead. Rio Ferdinand stepped up for United, with a much firmer effort than Berbatov, but Howard was the hero once more. Advantage Everton and we dared to dream.
Belying his usual playing style, Phil Neville calmly sent Ben Foster the wrong way and inched Everton towards the final. Against his former club, Neville calmly retreated to halfway. Roughly 80 yards behind Neville, the scenes were altogether different. Supporters entered a state of delirium as their team edged towards victory.
After Nemanja Vidic and James Vaughan traded penalties, Anderson coolly sent Howard the wrong way to keep United in the contest. This left Phil Jagielka with the decisive kick, memories of his miss against Fiorentina surely etched in his mind.
Redeeming his Fiorentina miss, Jagielka dispatched the ball beyond Foster. Cue pandemonium, joy and emotion – name any emotion imaginable and I can guarantee somebody in the Everton end was living it the moment the Jagielka penalty hit the back of the net.
After an announcement regarding the final, Z Cars rang out over the PA and I must admit there was a tear or two. Thousands singing along, hundreds dancing on their seats, strangers hugging each other, it is a struggle to serve justice to those scenes.
Nevertheless, to paraphrase Alan Harper, when Z Cars rang out over the PA and the fans joined in, it was a moment I wanted to bottle and keep forever.
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About Luke O’Farrell