Everton are safe by the tips of their fingers; Leicester and Leeds are down. Perhaps this time the alarm bells ringing around Goodison Park will be heard.
1) Much is made of the last-ditch drama of the football season, but the events that lead us to such points take place over significantly longer time-spans. For Everton, being in their precarious position wasn’t a matter of accident. The warning sirens had gone off this time last year, only for them to haul themselves to safety with a game to spare. But they didn’t seem to have been heard.
And for Everton supporters that record of seven decades unbroken in the top division of English football means something. Many of those years haven’t been especially happy, but when you’ve spent so often fighting these fires, that sort of record is comforting. It’s worth protecting. For that reason alone, Everton supporters should be celebrating survival. They’ve worked hard for it, and not just this season.
2) But this is also why the players, the manager and the ownership of the club should be treating all of this with a little more circumspection. Because the fact that Everton, the Grand Old Team, keep finding themselves here in the first place says far more about the condition of the club and the way in which it has been run than the events of the last match of the 2022/23 season ever could.
Everton captain Conor Coady and manager Sean Dyche acknowledged this in their post-match interviews, saying that this has to be considered a “line in the sand”. And the odds were still in Everton’s favour before kick-off. Of the three clubs still fighting for Premier League oxygen, they were the one in control of their own destiny.
3) If relegation could be spared by pre-kick-off noise alone, then Everton wouldn’t have found themselves staring into this abyss in the first place. The scenes around Goodison Park were a familiarly chaotic hue of blue smoke and desperation, while inside when the teams took to the pitch and the theme tune to Z-Cars played, the noise was such that it might well have raised Stratford Johns from the grave.
Watching the Everton players in the cramped tunnel that emerges from what looks like the underworld by the halfway line at Goodison Park while 40,000-odd petrified yet exhilarated Liverpudlians belt out “IT’S A GRAND OLD TEAM TO PLAY FOR, IT’S A GRAND OLD TEAM TO SUPPORT” as an air raid siren goes off, you start to wonder whether the club screens potential new players for agoraphobia and noise anxiety before signing them.
Such support can be a double-edged sword. All the time that Everton failed to score their fate was in the hands of others, and all that nervous energy could easily have turned sour should things have started to go seriously wrong. They almost did after the final whistle, and that was after they won.
4) Leeds did the obliging thing and conceded in two minutes. Pow! Maximum Big Sam. Didn’t you hear? He saves teams from relegation, you know.
But as the first half progressed Leicester stubbornly refused to do the decent thing, Goodison Park got louder and shriller, declaiming every failure on the part of the officials to give them penalties, free-kicks, throw-ins – please for the love of God will somebody give us something.
And then Leicester scored, and Goodison Park fell silent. With 55 minutes of the season left to play, they were back in the bottom three.
5) The issue for Everton was obvious, just as it has been pretty much all season: where was a goal going to come from? This has been a recurring issue, and right back to the very start of the campaign it felt like a gamble bordering on reckless to sell Richarlison without replacing him and leaving the leading of the front line to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who is a very gifted forward, but also one with the injury record of Wile E. Coyote.
6) The answer to this question came 11 minutes into the second half – and from quite out of the blue. The second half had started fairly slowly – it would be an outright lie to say that it had started “quietly” – when from out of nowhere Abdoulaye Doucoure hit a first-time strike of the ball which felt like a bolt of lightning striking Goodison Park. And it actually come from nowhere, a hope-over-expectation long ball forward which was headed clear and just happened to fall perfectly for Doucoure.
The stadium exploded with noise, and the match restarted to a completely transformed atmosphere. Somewhere up behind Goodison Park, somebody with no evident concept of the phrase “pride comes before a fall” let off some fireworks. It’s at times like this that you just want to sit down with the guy who let these off and just say: “Could you not at least have waited until after the final whistle? Would that really have been too much to ask?”
7) But credit where it’s due to Bournemouth. Having already secured their place in the Premier League for next season, they could have just turned up at Goodison Park with one eye on just getting this match over and done with. But they were full-throated throughout, a reflection of the improved discipline exhibited since Gary O’Neil took over. It’s worthwhile asking how easy or difficult it might be to get motivated again after falling behind, but they did keep coming.
Indeed, throughout the middle of the second half the game went through a distinctly bad-tempered phase, including a tete-a-tete involving the tempestuous Yerry Mina and Dominic Solanke in which Mina might have… bitten his opponent? It was nowhere near clear enough to be certain, but it was closer than one person’s mouth should be to another’s body during a football match. But while they didn’t create that many chances, Bournemouth offered greater resistance than West Ham seemed to at Leicester.
8) As if to prolong the agony, 10 minutes of stoppage time was added. What happened with Leeds had long since ceased to be of much relevance – they had already succumbed to the final indignation of being comprehensively beaten at home by Chaos Hotspur – but Leicester had kept their end of the bargain with a 2-1 win against West Ham, and those only in it for the schadenfreude could flick over to the King Power Stadium to watch the reaction of their fans and players as the final few minutes played out at Goodison. And there was one final chance for Bournemouth, a fine volley from Matias Vina that was pushed away by Jordan Pickford, left Everton supporters’ hearts in mouths before the final whistle finally blew.
9) If there was an explosion at Goodison Park when that whistle came, it was most definitely one of relief rather than outright happiness.
It only took a few minutes before the celebrations turned somewhat, with the attention of the collective voice of the crowd quickly switching focus to “SACK THE BOARD. SACK THE BOARD, SACK THE BOARD”. Relegation may have been spared, but it doesn’t feel as though an increasingly angry fanbase will be pacified for long.
10) Dyche has done the bare minimum, and judging by his post-match interview with Sky Sports, he is already aware of this. Everton have survived relegation again by the skin of their teeth, and by an even tighter margin than they managed last season. Few would argue that Frank Lampard and Everton hadn’t run their course by the time that came to an end, and Dyche was hired in the presumable belief that he was the best man to keep the club in the Premier League.
And when a manager arrives under such circumstances, they initially have something of a free swing. Had Bournemouth scored the one goal that would have relegated Everton, few would have blamed Dyche – at least certainly not him alone. Everton’s relegation would have taken place against a far broader background of mismanagement which goes back years.
But presuming Farhad Moshiri doesn’t sack him during the close season – and with Farhad Moshiri that can never be considered far from possible – Dyche’s free swing has passed. He may well not have much money to spend. That isn’t his fault, but he will have been aware of it when he accepted the job. But Dyche has complained before about being misrepresented as a manager, and now is his chance to finally show himself at a big club. The Everton team that starts next season will be his.
11) And for those thinking that this will be by definition a bad thing, it is worth remembering that Doucoure, the scorer of the goal which kept Everton in the Premier League, was the player brought in from the cold by Dyche as something of a last throw of a dice to cure a team whose aversion to scoring goals was starting to turn terminal. Maybe he does know a thing or two after all.
12) To a point, Everton can tie their Premier League survival this season to the shortcomings of their opponents. Leeds United have spent their post-Bielsa period doing exactly the worst-case scenario predictions said might happen when they sacked him. Through Jesse Marsch, Javi Gracia and then for some reason Il Grande Sam, what they were actually trying to achieve as a football club became almost completely lost.
Leicester City, meanwhile, have suffered from the difficulties of their owners, and became sufficiently muddled to find themselves in a position in which they considered Dean Smith to be their best chance of avoiding relegation by April.
13) Matters of what has really been going on behind the scenes at Goodison Park have not been satisfactorily answered. The persistent rumours that former “main sponsor” Alisher Usmanov has continued to be involved in the running of the club have not been properly addressed, while the club’s transfer strategy has been scattergun to the point of negligence. FFP remains an issue, and the senior management of the club should be red-faced at the amount of money that has effectively been thrown onto a bonfire at Goodison Park, especially when considered in the light of what has been achieved at other clubs such as Brighton, Fulham and Brentford on a fraction of the budget.
The board are highly unlikely to sack themselves, but the much-discussed sale of the club to 777 Partners may yet ensure that this sorry chapter can be consigned to the history books.
14) It often doesn’t say much for a club when their best player of the season has been the goalkeeper, but Pickford has probably done more than anyone else to keep Everton in the Premier League. The club’s relegation would surely have ensured that he would move on, but survival changes that equation slightly. If he can be persuaded to stay and presuming that Everton don’t need to sell players to get anywhere near hitting FFP targets, then they should go all out to keep him. The importance of having a good goalkeeper is frequently misunderstood by a game that still often doesn’t seem to grasp the position that well, but the England goalkeeper will be valuable wherever he ends up next season.
15) And it cannot be understated, the extent to which the club needed survival. With previous profligacy in the transfer market, the Usmanov situation and the Bramley-Moore Dock stadium still under construction, relegation would have been expensive for Everton in more ways than one. This is just another one of those reasons why the overwhelming emotion at Goodison Park upon the final whistle against Bournemouth was one of relief giving way to anger, rather than one of joy.
16) 1994, 1998 and 2023 can hardly be considered a “pattern” in any meaningful sense, but Everton must surely already be aware that you can’t keep getting away with this sort of thing indefinitely. As time progresses and these close shaves come and go, the likelihood of the balance going against Everton reduces to one.
Perhaps the new owners will be able to right the club and put them back on an even keel. When they cut it fine last season, it was mentioned that they couldn’t afford to do so again. Well, they cut it even finer in the end, but there are limits to how many times this can repeated.