There was a moment, seconds before Demarai Gray’s equaliser which jolted Everton to life in this dramatic FA Cup tie, when Rafa Benítez may have begun to wonder if the size of the task facing him was greater than even he had envisaged.
His side were being firmly tested by Hull City, were already a goal behind and looked in real danger of falling further adrift. The pressure was intensifying, underlined by chants and banners from the travelling supporters aimed towards the club’s Spanish manager.
Benítez’s last visit to Hull was in May 2010, when a 0-0 draw proved to be his final match in charge of Liverpool. Anything other than victory here and talk of the same outcome in his spell as Everton manager would have intensified. In the end, while his side made hard work of this and were rescued by a long-range strike from Andros Townsend in extra time, it was job done, with Everton progressing to the fourth round of the FA Cup.
However there is little doubt that the frailties that have haunted Benítez and his side so often this season remain. They were laid bare here against a Hull team who deserved to take the tie to extra time at the very least. Everton eventually hauled themselves over the line though, and avoided joining the list of sides on the wrong end of Cup shocks on Saturday.
“We could have scored three or four and finished the game but we didn’t, and we had to suffer until the end,” Benítez said. “We put ourselves in a difficult position for a while but they showed character. A team that reacts is a team that cares. We made things difficult for ourselves but you could see the reaction was good, and the players care.”
That it took extra time to finally end a spirited challenge from Grant McCann’s side underlines Everton’s issues, given the number of chances they had to end the tie inside 90 minutes. The drama had started early, with Hull going ahead after less than a minute when George Honeyman’s free-kick was converted by Tyler Smith. If there was pressure on Benítez pre-match, there was even more when Hull went ahead.
But he and his side reacted, with goals from Gray – so often Everton’s go-to player this season – and André Gomes putting them ahead by half‑time. Gray and Anthony Gordon combined to impressive effect several times either side of the break and had Everton had a touch more composure in the final third, the tie could have been over long before it actually was.
However, as a litany of chances for Gray, Gordon and Michael Keane came and went, it felt as though Hull’s efforts would always create at least one more opportunity. That chance arrived with the game heading into its final quarter, when the ball fell to the feet of Ryan Longman. Everton could not clear their lines and Longman curled past Asmir Begovic and into the top corner to make it 2-2. It was no less than the Championship side deserved.
“We’ve gone toe-to-toe with a Premier League team and pushed them right until the end,” McCann said. “I’ve told them they’ve got to be proud of themselves.”
Longman’s equaliser not only took the tie to extra time but also piled the pressure firmly back on to the shoulders of Benítez and Everton. The onus was now on the visitors to see if they could avoid a result that would have turned the heat up on the manager to an intensity perhaps not yet seen in his time in charge.
There were nervy moments even before extra time. Keane Lewis-Potter hit the post, and at one stage Everton looked to be hanging on for another 30 minutes instead of going in search of a winner in normal time.
But just as Gray had changed things earlier in the contest, when Benítez introduced his other go-to option on numerous occasions this season, you felt he had a moment in him that could define the contest.
That proved to be the case, with Townsend’s strike from distance packing enough bend and dip to beat Nathan Baxter and spare Everton’s blushes. The goal would prove to be enough for Everton to progress to the fourth round, but the performance will have done little to assuage the discontent towards Benítez from the travelling supporters.