Everton look ugly on the scenic route

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Everton 2 Port Vale 2

Stockport County and now Port Vale. If Everton are going to retain the FA Cup this season they are going about it the hard way. As Joe Royle, their manager, put it: "We're doing the scenic route this year."

As to why is curious. At the moment there are few teams in the Premiership who are playing better, yet when it comes to the Cup Everton have all the airs of betters about to take a nasty fall (jaded and complacent would be the appropriate words if this team was not built on tireless enthusiasm). Like the nation, which seems to prefer its lottery in roll-over form, they are inclined to extend the excitement.

On Saturday they could easily have come a cropper, just as they almost did in the third round against Stockport. Those with glasses tinted blue might point to the lateness of Vale's equaliser - 17 seconds before the end of normal time - as evidence that Everton played reasonably well, but they would be deluding themselves. The holders were fortunate to be in last night's fifth-round draw.

"Dave Watson was terrific," Royle said. "He has a level of performance that he rarely falls below. John Ebbrell was okay, too, but after that too many players were off colour. We weren't good enough to win.

"All credit to Port Vale. They played well, they came here with two wingers and stretched us. They gave our full-backs problems and got crosses in. They deserved their replay."

After the fraught nerves against Stockport, when only Ebbrell's 89th- minute goal prevented extra time in the replay, Royle had said the team had received their fright and had learned from it. "We'll treat Port Vale like we are playing Newcastle," Royle had said which, given the home team's start, ought to have the Premiership leaders consulting their solicitors with a view to suing for gross defamation.

You can only imagine what David Ginola and Keith Gillespie would have done in the hectares of space available on the flanks. As it was Jon McCarthy and Steve Guppy caused havoc to Everton's 3-5-2 formation, dragging Barry Horne and Joe Parkinson from midfield, so Royle had to change tactics altogether by bringing on Andy Hinchcliffe and Anders Limpar.

It was McCarthy who caused the initial damage, and Vale could have been two goals ahead after five minutes. Tony Naylor's shot was deflected just wide by Dave Watson and then McCarthy beat Neville Southall with a volley after a delightful flick had put him beyond Watson's massive presence. Ebbrell just got back on the line in time, however, to clear.

If either shot had gone in Everton would almost certainly have been out because there was little in the rest of their game to suggest any great pool of invention to swamp a First Division team who look far better than their 19th place suggests. The home tactic was to hoof the ball towards Duncan Ferguson and hope for a good bounce off his head.

The fact that there were very few was credit to Gareth Griffiths who could epitomise what makes the competition special. An Everton supporter as a boy, he cost Vale pounds 1,000 when he was bought from Rhyl three years ago, yet he all but suppressed an opponent who cost 4,000 times more.

"If that's Duncan Ferguson when he'd not fully fit," the 25-year-old centre-back said modestly afterwards, "then I wouldn't like to face him when he's fit." Ferguson was probably thinking something on the lines of "If that's Gareth Griffiths when he's inexperienced...."

Griffiths, as much as anyone, would not have deserved the defeat that appeared to be Vale's lot when Ferguson profited from Paul Musselwhite's horrible mistake with two minutes remaining. But if any competition was the role model for every coach's maxim, "it's not over until it's over", it is the FA Cup and there remained a final twist.

Paradoxically, having eschewed the normal underdog's modus operandi of kick and run for 89 minutes, it was a reversion to the old hit-it-and- hope tactic beloved of Davids everywhere that did it for Vale. Ian Bogie tried a speculative shot from 25 yards, the ball took a deflection and the Potteries could look forward to a replay.

"We'll give it a go," John Rudge, the Port Vale manager, said. "At least it will keep the chairman happy with a a few more pennies in the bank." If Vale and Everton play like they did at Goodison, the chairman can look forward to being ecstatic.

Goals: Amokachi (39) 1-0; Foyle (58) 1-1; Ferguson (88) 2-1; Bogie (89) 2-2.

Everton (3-5-2): Southall; Watson, Short, Ablett (Hinchcliffe, 61); Kanchelskis, Horne, Parkinson, Ebbrell, Stuart; Ferguson, Amokachi (Limpar, 61). Substitute not used: Kearton (gk).

Port Vale (4-4-2): Musselwhite; Hill (Bogie, h-t), Griffiths, Aspin, Tankard; McCarthy, Porter, Walker, Guppy; Naylor, Foyle. Substitutes not used: Mills, Van Heusden.

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Bookings: Everton: Short, Ebbrell; Port Vale: Griffiths, Bogie.

Man of the match: McCarthy.

Attendance: 33,168.