Everton FC 1, Birmingham City 2: Lack of hard graft means no foundations for another FA Cup run
IN his programme notes, Everton skipper Phil Neville called for patience and stressed that good performances are not as important in the FA Cup as simply winning.
He was right. But unfortunately Everton managed neither on a dispiriting afternoon, which saw them slump out of a competition which gave everyone so much to smile about last year.
The Blues' display, especially in the first half, was the polar opposite of the pulse-quickening, expressive football which put Manchester City to the sword last weekend.
Everton failed to heed a fundamental truth. Teams must earn the right to play the flair football which brought the Toffees so much acclaim against Roberto Mancini's side.
From the outset of this fourth round tie, Everton seemed unwilling or unable to earn that right through graft. They seemed to expect everything to click into place instantly, without laying down foundations based on hard work.
Instead it was Birmingham City, unbeaten for so long, who showed all the toil and endeavour.
Just as Everton stopped Manchester City from playing by harassing them in the midfield, Birmingham put the brakes on Everton.
They refused to let the Toffees settle or find any kind of tempo. Alex McLeish's team worked ferociously and showed more desire in the early stages.
For Everton, too many crosses were frustratingly misjudged, too many passes carelessly astray. It was a start as poor as it was unexpected.
Birmingham did the hard part of any away team's task early by quietening the Goodison crowd which had been so deafening only seen days earlier.
Then, with Everton sluggish they struck.
Keith Fahey whipped in a cross which evaded Leighton Baines and Christian Benitez pounced to head home.
Elsewhere Everton's passing from the back was poor. Sylvain Distin is a fearsome and commanding centre-half, but his distribution can be haphazard.
He was far from the sole offender when it came to wasting possession though, and instead of the chants of 'ole' as passes were strung together against City, Goodison echoed with groans.
It was enough to dismay the watching pass-masters of Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey.
Credit must go to Birmingham. Everton's movement in midfield was stilted, but it was partly due to the stifling pressure of Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer.
If the Goodison faithful didn't know better they could have been forgiven for thinking Everton had played in midweek, such was their apparent lethargy.
Steven Pienaar's display lacked the magic of recent weeks but his effort levels were still consistent, and with five minutes left of the half he sent a curling left-footed effort over Joe Hart's bar to offer some hope of a revival.
Then it got worse. With the Blues still dozing, Sebastian Larsson broke down the right and fired a dangerous cross into the box. The impressive Ferguson stepped over the ball and James McFadden cutely backheeled it to the Birmingham skipper who continued his run and stroked it past Howard.
It was a fine goal, and particularly sapping on the brink of the break.
Everton's first half was summed up in one agonising move. Pienaar slipped a pass through to Baines who looked ready to whip a low ball into the area. Instead his usually excellent left foot failed him, and he sliced his cross into the Gwladys Street.
The Blues at least started the second half with purpose. David Moyes replaced the anonymous Bilyaletdinov with fit gain Leon Osman, and sent his charges out, presumably with their ears ringing.
But Birmingham probably should have sealed the result moments later when Larsson played in Benitez. The Ecuadorian beat John Heitinga for pace but fired tamely at Howard.
The let-off seemed finally to spark Everton to life. Fellaini imposed himself on the edge of the Birmingham box, won back possession and fed Baines who swung a cross into the box only for Osman, who was well placed, to get his header wrong.
The little midfielder atoned in style though. Baines worked tirelessly to break down the left and give it to Pienaar on the edge of the box. Then the South African passed short to Osman, who curled a delicate effort past Hart.
Just as the Everton veteran had plucked his team-mates out of the mire with the winning goal against Macclesfield in last year's third round tie, his goal suddenly signalled cause for hope.
Next Osman won a free-kick which Baines curled into the box to present a good opportunity for Fellaini. Then Saha fired over the bar as the Blues began to play more at the level they are capable of.
By now it was the men in royal blue doing all the harrying and pressing. They had started to regain some slickness too, with Landon Donovan and Pienaar giving Birmingham cause for concern.
James Vaughan replaced a tiring Saha with 20 minutes left and flashed a header over the bar with one of his first touches.
Then Moyes played a hand very few expected. Mikel Arteta was a surprise inclusion on the bench after only completing a week of full contact training.
Although his presence was a huge lift for morale, few expected the Everton talisman to get onto the pitch.
But sure enough, Moyes took the brave step of bringing him on to a standing ovation and rousing rendition of his personal anthem.
The Best Little Spaniard We Know received one of the loudest cheers of the afternoon - although there were 30,000 hearts in mouths every time he was tackled.
The symbolic lift which Arteta's return will have cannot be underestimated, even in the gloom of defeat. Simply seeing him in the latest Everton strip for the first time was a boost.
James Vaughan as ever was providing a lively cameo, and did well to swivel in the box and fire a volley narrowly over.
At the other end Distin had to get it right with a wonderful sliding tackle in the box to stem a Birmingham counter attack.
But Everton looked certain to equalise when Fellaini tricked his way into the box and found himself one on one with Hart only to shoot directly at the young keeper.
During his brief cameo Arteta, without being nearly match fit, proved his class has not been diminished by those 11 hellish months wondering when, and even if, he would ever play again.
He exchanged snappy passes with Pienaar and arrowed a fierce long range effort narrowly wide.
But while Arteta's return was heartening, Everton were still on the brink of losing another chance of silverware.
In added time Fellaini, one of few Everton players whose performance level had not dipped since last week, almost equalised again when Neville found him in the area and he shaved Hart's post.
But it wasn't to be. Everyone was expecting a free-kick when Pienaar was dragged down, but Howard Webb's whistle instead signalled only the end.
Everton were out of the Cup thanks to an uncharacteristically bleak first half which undermined their hopes of progression.
Having defeated so many top sides on the way to Wembley last season, showing such spirit and resilience, Everton bowed out before the scent of Wembley was even in their nostrils.
Birmingham was undoubtedly a tough draw - even at home - and their first win at Goodison since 1957 means there will be no sunny days in the capital this year.
But with injured heroes returning, and the Europa League still a going concern, Everton's season is far from over.
This team are fully capable of surging further up the Premier League and beating the likes of Sporting Lisbon and Galatasaray.
They must simply heed the lesson from this failure and remember that hard work is the foundation for any fine-flowing football.
Everton: Howard, Neville, Heitinga, Distin, Baines, Fellaini, Cahill, Bilyaletdinov (Osman), Pienaar, Donovan (Arteta), Saha (Vaughan).
Subs: Nash, Duffy, Coleman, Baxter.
Birmingham: Hart, Carr, Dann, Johnson, Ridgewell, Larsson, Ferguson, Fahey, Bowyer, McFadden (McSheffrey 90), Benitez (Jarvis 79). Subs: Taylor, Michel,Queudrue, Johnson, Vignal.
Referee: Howard Webb.