Royle set to bang the underdog drum

FA CUP SEMI-FINALS: Everton and Palace look to recent history for inspiration on hard road out of the shadows
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Football Correspondent

This, traditionally, is the weekend when two teams disappear into the shadows never to be remembered again. No one remembers losing FA Cup semi- finalists, just ask, errm, whoever it was last year.

Actually, it was Luton and Oldham, and one man who remembers it clearly is Joe Royle. He was manager of an Oldham side a minute from their first final when Mark Hughes struck that stunning volleyed equaliser for Manchester United at Wembley last April.

Now he is stewarding an Everton team regarded almost as much of an underdog as Oldham were. Beset by injury, illness and suspension - not to mention poor league form - they face a Tottenham side convinved they have been destined for Wembley ever since Alan Sugar's courtroom winner against the Football Association.

The other semi-final seems even more of a mis-match. Crystal Palace, one of only four teams below Everton in the Premiership, face the holders, Manchester United. This tie kicks off at Villa Park three hours after the Elland Road game and Palace are looking for a repeat of their dramatic 1990 triumph against Liverpool on the same ground.

Historically, Everton are the worst semi-finalists around, having lost 11 times. But they have improved recently, winning four in the last 11 years. Their problem these days is winning once they get to Wembley (once in those four), but that is another story. Neville Southall and Dave Watson both know what it is like to win a semi, but only Anders Limpar knows what it is to lose one - with Arsenal in 1991, the year of Gazza's free- kick.

Thus, however much Royle drums in the ghastliness of semi-final defeat - he was twice a managerial loser with Oldham and twice a playing loser with Everton - it is only in the opposition dressing-room that he would really be appreciated.

Five of Tottenham's likely line-up were beaten by Arsenal at Wembley two seasons ago and Darren Anderton also went out the previous year - on penalties - as a Portsmouth player.

Anderton will have a fitness test on a knee ligament injury and is doubtful. David Howells also has a knee problem but the big problem is at left-back, where Justin Edinburgh is suspended and David Kerslake injured. Gerry Francis, Tottenham's manager, experiencing his first semi after a quarter of a century in the game, hopes Sol Campbell will have recovered from his hamstring injury. Stuart Nethercott and Jason Cundy are on standby.

Everton have Duncan Ferguson, Vinny Samways and John Ebbrell suspended, Earl Barrett cup-tied and Stuart Barlow nursing an injured ankle. More seriously Watson, their key performer this season, has spent the last 48 hours in bed with a virus.

On the plus side, Paul Rideout, who has missed seven matches with a knee ligament injury, played for the reserves on Thursday and announced himself fit. If Anderton plays, Royle may switch David Unsworth to left-back after his quarter-final marking job on Keith Gillespie.

The other semi-final features two players beaten in an FA Cup semi-final five years ago by their current teams. Denis Irwin was in the Oldham side who lost to Manchester United and Ray Houghton was in the Liverpool side defeated by Palace.

Both have since gone on to win the Cup, and Palace are hoping for more parallels with 1990. They pick from a full squad with John Salako, Chris Coleman and Eric Young fit after injury. United, already without Steve Bruce, Eric Cantona (both suspended) and Andy Cole (cup-tied), may also lose Andrei Kanchelskis (stomach).

However, sympathy can be withheld given the the replacements - Mark Hughes, Lee Sharpe and, in the back four, Roy Keane. If Kanchelskis is fit Giggs may play down the middle; if not Paul Scholes stands by. United have lost two of their last 28 FA Cup matches, but they have been goalless in three of their last four League matches.

These days Cup semis go to form. Only Palace, and Sunderland, who beat Norwich in 1992, have upset the odds in the last decade. It is hard to see either underdog slipping his leash, but Tottenham may need a replay.