There was an air of disappointment that seeped through the cold surroundings of Upton Park on Tuesday, where Everton were concerned.
It wasn’t a disappointment born from an insipid display from the Toffees, however, but one solely from the resulting penalty shoot out defeat that ended the Blues’ 2015 FA Cup run at the proverbial first hurdle.
After performing heroically for over an hour with ten men, following the second half dismissal of Aiden McGeady for two bookable offences, and after coming from a goal down to turn the third round replay on its head thanks to strikes from Belgian duo Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku, the sadness that emenated from the Sir Trevor Brooking stand that housed the 3,500 strong Everton away contingent, following Carlton Cole’s equaliser and the subsequent shoot out, was paired with another emotion: pride.
Pride in the way that the Blues battled their way back into the match. Pride that those players out on the pitch never gave an inch throughout the 120 minutes. Pride over the fact that, result aside, this was an Everton performance that Evertonians have become accustomed to, and one that alludes to a potential turn around in fortunes after an extremely stick spell since the 3-1 victory over Queens Park Rangers back in December.
Roberto Martinez and his first team squad will undoubtedly be the first to question how Everton’s promising season came to a shuddering halt, particularly over the festive period when the Blues lost four successive league matches to slip to 13th in the Barclays Premier League table, with sections of Evertonians querying whether the Spaniard was the right man to mount a change in fortunes in the second half of the 2014/15 season to haul Everton back into the upper echelons of the league.
There have been signs of recuperation in recent matches that lend credence to the possibility that the Toffees are starting to find their form, fight and confidence once more – and this was no more in evidence than Tuesday night’s FA Cup third round replay against West Ham United.
Whilst not in possession the Blues harried and pressed the home outfit with intent, embodied by the likes of Steven Naismith who gave no quarters throughout another tireless display, held their defensive shape with greater focus than in recent weeks and never shirked the physical challenges that the Hammers posed throughout a pulsating encounter.
In possession the Blues looked much more comfortable too. Their passing was fluid and had purpose, there was greater movement off the ball and more notable chances were created, with Lukaku in particular looking more at ease whether the striker was working with his back to goal, running the channels or powering through the centre with the ball at his feet.
Of course, there are still elements of the Toffees’ game plan that need to be rectified. The Blues looked vulnerable on the counter attack once more and, whilst on this particular occasion it can be argued that being down to 10 men and chasing the game leads to more space for opposing sides to exploit, it is a suspectibility that needs to be remedied.
Martinez would do well to arrest Everton’s amount of goals conceded, with goals from set pieces and high crosses a notable concern for the Spaniard. Since beating QPR on 15th December, over half of the goals Everton have conceded have come directly from set plays or high balls into the box. The Blues looked more comfortable in dealing with this threat against the East London outfit on Tuesday evening, Cole’s goal aside, however, which goes some way to showing that the 41 year old is attempting to solve this issue.
If these hindrances can be overcome in the following matches against West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace and Liverpool, the immediate future for Martinez, his players and Evertonians will begin to look a little brighter than the one predicted by many over recent weeks.
The shoots of recovery have started to emerge over the past week, and it will take some careful nurturing, belief and confidence to see those shoots bear fruit over the coming weeks. If nursed correctly, those pangs of disappointment will certainly be replaced by proud cheers once more.