As we head into the final weekend of another Premier League season, a sense of optimism surrounds Goodison Park. And why not? In what was billed as a ‘transitional' first season under Roberto Martinez, Everton have defied expectations to produce their best campaign for several years. Regardless of the result against Hull City on Sunday, the Toffees will have secured a record Premier League points total, and they will have done it playing in an entirely new, possession-based style. That's not bad, considering the reservations held by some fans back in August.
The move from the direct, often pragmatic football played under David Moyes to Martinez's more cultured style, along with the emergence of youngsters such as Ross Barkley and John Stones, are just a couple of positives to be taken away from the Spaniard's first year in charge, however the manner in which the season has ended has given cause for reflection. With five games to play, Everton sat in fourth position, two points ahead of Arsenal, but a run of three defeats in four has seen the Blues' hopes of Champions League qualification extinguished. A fifth placed finish is nothing to be sniffed at certainly, but when looking at the state that the rest of the league's big teams have found themselves in this year, it is difficult to shake the feeling that this could be Everton's last real chance of breaking into the European elite for quite some time.
Over the summer, both Manchester City and Chelsea can be expected to flex their financial muscle once again; a resurgent Liverpool will surely use their regained Champions League status to attract a higher class of player to their promising squad; and Arsenal may just indulge in a spending spree after finally breaking their transfer record to sign Mesut Özil on last year's deadline day. Not only that, but Tottenham Hotspur are likely to strengthen significantly once again, while it would be foolish to think that Manchester United will not improve markedly on their dismal performance this season.
Everton meanwhile will potentially have to contend with the loss of three key personnel if deals for Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry and Gerard Deulofeu cannot be reached, and while there are likely to be more funds available than in previous seasons, the Toffees will still almost certainly lag behind their rivals in spending power.
Competing in the Europa League will bring its own difficulties too. As exciting as it is to have continental football back at Goodison, Martinez's squad will need to be expanded significantly, with the Spaniard estimating he will need six additional signings to ensure that his team are able to compete adequately on all fronts. Combine these numbers with the aforementioned potential departures, and the Blues' squad could require as many as nine additions over the summer, though this number will be mitigated somewhat by the return of long-term absentees Darron Gibson, Arouna Kone and Bryan Oviedo.
All this is to say that the circumstances presented this season are unlikely to be repeated any time soon, and that as superb as Everton have been at times over the past year, their failure to qualify for the Champions League now could damage their chances for years to come. Roberto Martinez is an ambitious man, and one who believes, as do we all, that Everton should be competing at the very highest level. His relentlessly positive demeanour, excellent man-management, shrewd transfer dealings and willingness to give young players opportunities have all been a collective breath of fresh air, but the Blues' manager has his work cut out for him if he is to improve the team's fortunes once again in his second campaign.
So has this season been a step forward or a missed opportunity? Ultimately, it may turn out to be both.