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Football FA Cup: Everton enticed by realistic dreams

THE FA CUP may be increasingly devalued in comparison to Premiership and European competition but there was no disguising its restorative effects at Ashton Gate on Saturday night.

They may have been fortunate to defeat a willing Bristol City 2-0 but, as Everton returned north they were not talking about the Cup's lustre being dulled by penalty shoot-outs, sponsorship or the threatened scrapping of replays - they were too busy enjoying a rare moment of hope. The Merseysiders' hitherto miserable season now has a more enticing ambition than simply avoiding relegation. A Wembley date in May, and a sixth FA Cup triumph, is the dream.

This may seem far-fetched given Everton's struggles to date, their Premiership campaign having featured a mere 13 goals in 20 games, but history is on their side. Four years ago they were in the Premiership's relegation zone when they travelled to Bristol for a fourth-round tie. A 1-0 victory on a tricky pitch set them up for a spring revival which saw Everton rise clear of the drop before defeating Manchester United at Wembley.

Still not convinced? History also tells us that Everton, at home to Ipswich in the fourth round, are one of a select band of clubs likely to be holding up the old pot in May. In the past 20 years all but four winners have come from Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Spurs. This quintet have also provided nine of the beaten finalists.

Still not convinced? You've obviously seen Everton recently. Despite heavy investment by Walter Smith, the team is still in transition, as it evolves from the long-ball dependence on the now-departed Duncan Ferguson to the passing style preferred by the former Rangers manager. They have been reasonably solid at the back, with good goalkeeping and Dave Watson continuing to defy his 37 years. The midfield is promising, though they are short of a right-flank player. The attack, however, remains a problem, as it has been for most of the decade.

Yet the least-prolific forward line in all four divisions would never get a better chance than on Saturday - City's defence is the worst in the country, having conceded 54 goals in 26 league games. Something had to give and, eventually, the dam broke on Everton's goalscoring as Ibrahima Bakayoko scored twice in the last four minutes to win a tie that should by then have been lost.

Bristol City are deep in trouble at the wrong end of the First Division and have followed the bold step of employing a former Bristol Rovers manager, John Ward, with the even bolder one of replacing him with a Swede, Benny Lennartson. Some fans regard this last move by chairman Scott Davison, the former rock musician turned newspaper entrepreneur, as not so much bold as foolhardy. Ward, who gained promotion last season, had only just finished spending pounds 2.75m on players and Lennartson has since added another pounds 1m to the bill with a series of exotic signings. He has also taken time to settle in, with "Benny a joke?" one of the most visited sites on the City supporters' website.

However, four home matches without defeat engendered hope which City's Ade Akinbiyi threatened to reward in the second period. The pounds 1.2m summer signing from Gillingham worried Everton with his strength and pace and, having first crossed for Matt Hewlett to hit the post, should have headed in after 70 minutes. A minute later he drove just over and when Don Hutchinson survived a penalty appeal for a trip on Moldova's Ion Tistemitanu, Everton began to sense it was their day.

It was confirmed with Bakayoko thumping in a free-kick from 30 yards seven minutes later. "I didn't know he could take free-kicks," said Smith, adding: "He's got himself a job now."

Bakayoko added a second from Tony Grant's pass and later eulogised about playing with passers of his quality in the team.

Better days may be ahead and David Unsworth, one of three survivors of the '95 match (with Watson and City's Mark Shail) said: "I hope this kick- starts us into mid-table. Four years ago it all clicked together about the time we came down here and we tried to re-create that by doing things like staying in the same hotel and playing `All Together Now' (their '95 FA Cup song) on the coach. We were more under the cosh in that game but this was similar and now we have to take battling performances like this into league games."

Smith also hoped a good cup run would reflect positively on league form and well he might as it is worth noting that cup success usually delays rather than dispels a crisis. Winning the trophy in 1995 did not save Joe Royle when Everton slipped back into relegation trouble two years later. Nor have last year's successful cup runs by Stevenage Borough, Newcastle United and Sheffield United kept Paul Fairclough, Kenny Dalglish or Steve Thompson in employment. The FA Cup may still glitter but it is the league that matters these days, at any level, and woe-betide a manager who forgets it.

Goals: Bakayoko (86) 0-1; Bakayoko (88) 0-2.

Bristol City (4-4-2): Phillips; Locke (Hutchings, 76), Shail, Carey, Bell; Murray, Tistemitanu, Hewlett (Goodridge, 76), S Andersen; Torpey, Akinbiyi. Substitutes not used: Dyche, Thorpe, B Andersen (gk).

Everton (3-5-2): Myhre; Bilic, Watson, Unsworth; Dunne, Dacort (Grant, h-t), Barmby (Oster, 58), Hutchinson, Ball; Cadamarteri (Branch, 81), Bakayoko. Substitutes not used: Cleland, Simonsen (gk).

Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees). Booked: Bristol City: Akinbiyi, Goodridge. Everton: Unsworth, Ball, Bilic.

Man of the match: Watson.

Attendance: 19,608.