FOR most fans the cost of a Wednesday Carling Cup tie was too much, for David Moyes the cost of defeat could have been even higher, but fortunately for both, Phil Neville is priceless.
From kicking his heels in frustration as an unused substitute against Wigan on Saturday, the club captain saved Everton from slumping to another torrid early cup exit.
Neville’s extra time winner prevented the Toffees from kissing goodbye to their most realistic route to silverware, and reminded everyone of his inestimable value at Goodison.
At times last night it was easy to wonder if Moyes had been wise to rotate his team, even if the replacements were of suitable quality.
But ultimately those changes yielded the goods, when young Greek substitute Apostolos Vellios, a hero on Saturday against Wigan Athletic helped to craft the opening for Marouane Fellaini to drag the tie into extra time.
Then the Dutchman, on his full debut, showed the skill and trickery to tee-up Neville for his last-ditch curler.
Jan Mucha, Everton’s reserve goalkeeper, probably bought all of them a drink last night. The dramatic rally means this tie won’t be remembered for his error of judgement in conceding a 57th minute penalty which gifted West Brom the lead.
The hardy few who braved a rainy evening received meagre reward in a first half when two teams deploying a solitary striker and five in midfield largely cancelled each other out.
The Blues hogged possession, but struggled to overcome two banks of well-drilled bodies which made it tough for them to find a way through.
And when there chinks of light in the defensive wall facing them, they suffered from a distinct lack of fluidity.
Ross Barkley attempted an overhead kick from Royston Drenthe’s laser-guided free kick, but his effort rebounded off Joe Mattock.
Then Denis Stracqualursi tried his luck but his shot in turn cannoned off Barkley.
For their part, West Brom might have resembled Bayern Munich in their red change strip, but the similarities stopped there.
They failed to fashion much on the counter-attack, but could have led when Phil Jagielka made a hash of stopping Somen Tchoyi, only for the powerful striker to blaze over the bar.
In response, Drenthe highlighted his abundance of confidence with a free kick from 25 yards, after Barkley had been bundled over, that was not far off.
Then at the other end Peter Odemwingie slalomed past Heitinga and skewed his effort off target.
Next Everton flattered to deceive, when Fellaini got on the end of Leighton Baines’ pin-point cross only to head well wide.
A thriller it most certainly was not. But Drenthe looked most likely to produce some much needed inspiration, and forced Marton Fulop into a save at his near post just before the break. And at least there had been a Barkley play-ground nut-meg to savour too.
Coleman tried to enliven things after the re-start, twice bursting through on goal and testing Fulop.
Then Stracqualursi’s hooked side-footer forced the Baggies keeper into a smart stop from Drenthe’s free kick.
Suddenly the game was opening up. George Thorne missed a clear chance to convert at the far post from Chris Brunt’s corner, and Odemwingie flicked wide from Choyi’s cross.
Then the same pair combined to calamitous consequences for the Blues. Choyi’s pass dissected Everton’s defence and the pacy Odemwingie got there first ahead of Jan Mucha, who promptly upended him. Chris Brunt converted from the spot, and the Slovakian keeper was lucky to escape with a caution, while probably wishing his camouflaged jersey could let him slip away into the night.
Moyes had seen enough, and promptly replaced the fleetingly effective Stracqualursi and Barkley with Apostolos Vellios and Tim Cahill. They failed to change the pattern of play, though, which was increasingly in the visitor’s favour, as Graham Dorrans tried his luck from range and Odemwingie went close again.
A depressing exit loomed. But then Heitinga crossed, Vellios did enough to unnerve the Baggies defence, and as the ball dropped Fellaini swivelled and found the bottom corner of the net with a crisp shot.
Injury time saw Tchoyi flash his shot over from a tight angle after surging past Heitinga, and Fellaini made a further nuisance of himself up front.
Drenthe looked set to poke the Blues in front but for some desperate defending, and then did superbly to tee-up Phil Neville for his immaculate winner.
Job done eventually, maybe this will be the start of something special.
After all, every successful cup run needs its nerve-shredding near-miss doesn’t it?