The pre-match footage they played at Goodison was of one of the most controversial goals in an FA Cup final – headed by Andy Gray out of the hands of Watford's Steve Sherwood to clinch the trophy for Everton, 25 years back. If it made Evertonians pine for the days when they had a fully fit bruiser of a centre-forward, then there was some evidence before the day was done, and their wonderful Cup run extended, that the club might actually not need one.
Louis Saha is not in the Gray mould. The individual they called Balsa Man in his Old Trafford days is as fragile as ever, starting yesterday afternoon on the bench after telling David Moyes his thigh strain rendered him fit for only 30 minutes' work. But Moyes had suggested after Saha's exquisite goal against West Bromwich a week ago that he might, if fit, be the man to inspire Everton towards their first silverware in 14 years and he certainly has the class Everton will need for an ominous semi-final against Manchester United, the only side to have beaten them in 17 games.
Moyes pressed the Frenchman into 45 minutes' football, introducing him after the half time in a tactical masterstroke which allowed him to draw Tim Cahill back into a midfield that had not been functioning in a first half during which an insipid, uncreative Everton fell behind.
Cahill, the man you can seemingly deploy anywhere, took just five minutes in his deeper midfield berth to hoist the cross from the right which allowed Marouane Fellaini to rise above Robert Huth and deposit a header beyond Middlesbrough's young keeper Brad Jones. Saha needed six minutes more to provide a moment which revealed why the Everton dressing room christened him "King Louis"when he arrived last summer, such was his aura. Jones ought to have moved forward a yard to challenge him as he rose to Steven Pienaar's cross from the left, but Frenchman's elevation and timing were of the highest order. "We've not had a centre-forward for a [long] period and I think that was evident today," reflected Moyes, whose side's eight goals in this FA Cup run have come from eight different players. "When Louis came on it gave us more direction up front. We just have to respect him and listen to when he says he is ready to play."
Saha, who trained without pay on Merseyside after Everton gave him the chance to resurrect his injury-blighted career, acknowleged the rehabilitation Moyes has provided. "It's a great feeling. It's amazing to have some team-mates whose great commitment helps get us through difficult times. We recovered very well."
The draw has deep resonance for Everton, who have not reached the semis since 1995, when Paul Rideout's goal saw off United in the final, but they would not be there had Moyes not shaken them out of their slumber. The Everton manager was beaten into the dressing room by his assistant Steve Round, who led what was some serious hairdryer treatment.
As Moyes later observed, the "basic principles we thought we've installed" had been hitherto non-existent. The absence of silverware at Goodison has certainly become an albatross and when the moment arrived Everton's players and fans were both subdued – too aware, perhaps of the many disappointments since Rideout's big moment. Briefly, Stewart Downing was allowed to maraud around Phil Jagielka, a makeshift right-back, and Jeremie Aliadière found himself in space after a clever cutback from Matthew Bates. He missed, but David Wheater did not when Bates crossed from the opposite flank, the centre-half rising above Joseph Yobo to deposit a header.
There was simply no vision from Everton, Jack Rodwell, Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar stuck in a rut in a midfield which cried out for Mikel Arteta. Fellaini's height offered a blunter threat, though Robert Huth was allowed to manhandle him and escape with the crime. Precisely what Moyes said in that dressing room was unclear but it revived Everton. Leighton Baines curled a free-kick against the bar and Saha, brilliant and maddening in equal measure, shot wildly over the bar after Jagielka had crossed for him.
Boro found some late belief of their own – Evertonians inhaling as Tim Howard fumbled Gary O'Neil's 20-yard free-kick and exhaling as Joleon Lescott hauled clear – but this was their season in microcosm: two moments of defensive naïvety undoing decent work. "The league is all we have left to focus on now," manager Gareth Southgate reflected. "We've seen why we are where we are. We can't see matches through when we're ahead."
Everton's mighty run past Liverpool and Aston Villa has raised hopes, and Saha's contribution may be crucial. "Louis has won us a couple of games in the last few weeks and if we are going to be successful we need this man," declared captain Phil Neville.
Goals: Wheater (44) 0-1; Fellaini (50) 1-1; Saha (56) 2-1.
Everton (4-4-1-1) Howard; Jagielka, Yobo, Lescott, Baines; Osman, Neville, Rodwell (Saha, 45), Pienaar (Gosling, 89); Fellaini; Cahill. Substitutes not used: Nash, Van der Meyde, Castillo, Jacobsen, Wallace.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2) Jones; Hoyte, Wheater, Huth, Pogatetz; O'Neil, Bates (Johnson, 73), Arca, Downing; Tuncay, Aliadière (Emnes, 68). Substitutes not used: Turnbull, Taylor, McMahon, Franks, Walker.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Man of the match: Lescott.