It’s been impossible to avoid the rumours.
As Everton’s season faltered over a decidedly unfestive period, the frenzied chatter became rife.
According to various armchair insiders the Blues dressing room was fatally fractured. The manager had lost the senior players, and Everton’s woeful form had driven a wedge between all and sundry which was irreparable.
Well, the bubble on their mini-revival might have burst at Upton Park, but one thing is for sure – the Toffees are a team united.
Everton’s players gave everything in London. Then when extra was required, they tried valiantly to somehow give some more.
They may have left the FA Cup at the very bitter end – but they left it fighting tooth and nail.
Witness Joel Robles making saves to deny Kevin Nolan and James Collins. Or John Stones and Phil Jagielka throwing themselves into every block as if their lives depended on it.
The ten-men Blues were running on empty but kept going on a cocktail of determination and togethernes.
If those watching at home had any nails left after a thrilling fight-back, then a pulsating penalty shoot-out, they were doing well.
And 3,000 travelling Blues back to Merseyside at 10.30pm with voices in tatters and hearts thumping eratically.
They might not have headed home with hopes of a long overdue domestic trophy intact, but at least they had hope.
It’s usually the hope that kills you with Everton. The nearly-men, as senior players such as Leighton Baines have acknowledged they are wary of becoming.
In pics: West Ham 2 Everton 2
But even if it counted for nothing in terms of cup progress, as Roberto Martinez’s men picked themselves up off the turf they will know more than ever that they can count on each other. That their fighting spirit – back with a vengeance against Manchester City on Saturday – is back.
With their aims of a top four finish in the league effectively dead before Christmas, the struggling Blues were clinging to the FA Cup as a route to redemption.
But an Enner Valencia breakaway goal and a moment of madness from Aiden McGeady almost put paid to that during 90 minutes in East London.
That reckoned without a stirring display of courage and endeavour after the Irish winger was sent off, that should put those lingering rumours about dressing room disharmony to bed.
The script was almost destined to be about another wide man. It looked like Sam Allardyce should have been more flexible over which Belgian to fear.
When he wasn’t baiting Martinez, the forthright West Ham boss will have told his side to concentrate on stopping Romelu Lukaku as they prepared for their replay.
But he was almost left (even more) sour-faced thanks to a mercurial cameo from Kevin Mirallas; who rose from the bench to score one and create another as the battling blues hit back.
It’s traditionally Lukaku who does the damage against the Hammers. And the striker’s bravery in soldiering on as he grieved the death of best pal Junior Malanda was certainly inspirational.
But it was his compatriot who lit up East London with almost an hour of brilliance to turn a pulsating tie on its head.
As Mirallas led the charge so stridently, the Toffees back four put their bodies on the line at the other end.
It wasn’t enough. Lukaku might have given them the lead in extra time but Carlton Cole replied as the clock ticked down.
Then it came to spot-kicks and a chance for Robles to really go from zero to hero. There will be few doubting him after this; he made a fine save from Stewart Downing to force it right down to the wire.
Sadly his own decisive spot kick thumped the bar, then opposite number Adrian’s thumped the back of the net.
He slumped to his knees. A pat on the back from his teasm-mates was cold comfort as the chilly night air gathered in.
But what Robles, and the other nine Everton players who were out on their feet will have felt is the warming blast of the roar of the support from the appreciative away end.
Defeat in the third round of the cup may be an unusual turning point for the good. But that’s just what this should be.
If the Toffees show the same spirit when the Europa League resumes and onwards in their Premier League campaign, they won’t go far wrong.
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