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Infectious Duncan Ferguson gives Everton nowhere to hide

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Even if only for 90 minutes of blood and thunder, the Scot restored a much-needed sense of pride to an ailing season

Everton FC v Chelsea FC - Premier League
Ferguson led Everton to a 3-1 win over Chelsea on Saturday
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

Perhaps, ultimately, the end justified the means. Marco Silva, his lovely coat and his band of not-so-merry men couldn’t conjure up a performance as gutsy and committed in 18 months as this, try as they might. That, far more than on-pitch aesthetics, is paramount to the Goodison Park faithful. And nobody knows that like Duncan Ferguson.

It probably was unfair to denigrate Silva for a perceived lack of enthusiasm as Everton manager, particularly when, just across Stanley Park, the Premier League’s answer to the question nobody asked keeps fist-pumping his way onto the back pages. Even if often concealed within his own sombre enigma, suppressed beneath those seemingly immovable pair of lips, Silva was a decent man whose dedication to reversing Everton’s fortunes, though in vain, could never be questioned.

But there is something truly heart-warming about the sight of Ferguson, one of Goodison’s favourite sons, on an adrenaline-fuelled hurtle down the touchline before embracing an Everton ball boy. In an era where football seems hell-bent on selling its soul for a quick buck, and in a season where everything has contrived to go as wrong as possible for Everton, here was timely re-assurance that even just for one match, this game, this team, this club, can all still make you feel something.

Everton FC v Chelsea FC - Premier League
Ferguson couldn’t contain himself on the touchline
Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

And yet, as news broke of caretaker boss Ferguson’s first team sheet an hour before Saturday’s 3-1 win over Chelsea to lift Everton out of the bottom three, not much looked to have changed. Moise Kean remained stapled to the bench. The dysfunctional 4-2-3-1 formation that characterised Silva’s demise looked set to continue. Morgan Schneiderlin and Gylfi Sigurðsson, fresh from wiping the treacle they have run through all season off their boots, were persisted with in midfield.

As it played out, though, nothing could have been further from the lethargic, passive Everton side that Silva looked apologetic to bear responsibility for once he reached his messy, miserable last stand in Wednesday’s 5-2 thumping at Anfield. And not just because Oumar Niasse, who survives another Goodison regime like a cockroach after a nuclear disaster, came out of exile and in to the 18 for the first team this season (albeit as an unused substitute).

For a start, it was 4-4-f***ing-2 in every sense - indeed, the sort of which Mike Bassett would be proud of - the sort of card Silva usually only played in his hour of need, deserting his footballing principles to hurl on attackers arbitrarily and desperately, often to only yield no return. Where muddled thinking and conflicting messages often stymied Silva’s approach, Ferguson’s, by contrast, was much more measured. The memo was simple: get it forward, get a foot in, get up and at ‘em. No time for dallying at the back now. And how a revitalised Goodison loved that.

In fact, Ferguson’s dogged, relentless band of brothers made 37 tackles on Frank Lampard’s impressive yet naive outfit; the most of any Premier League side this season, the most of any Everton team this decade. Schneiderlin, whose application, if not ability, has been questioned more than most, and Sigurðsson, by trade an auxiliary centre-forward, looked as if they had spent the entirety of Friday watching Idrissa Gueye YouTube montages on loop. One particularly striking sliding challenge from Mason Holgate, with the game on a knife edge at 2-1, earned a rapturous applause from the Goodison crowd. Djibril Sidibé, especially excellent defensively and offensively, shrugged off the ignominy of being hooked by Silva before half-time during Wednesday’s derby debacle to play like a man possessed here.

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Sidibé (left) was wonderful in Everton’s win over Chelsea
Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin simply looked happy to finally have some company in each other up top, chasing down every lost cause, fighting for every ball as if their life depended on it. And with Big Dunc in charge, who knows; it may well have done. In many ways, it was fitting that, under the stewardship of one of Everton’s most iconic strikers, the former would emulate one of Ferguson’s trademark headers, and the latter would mimic his sheer persistence to forage two goals for himself. The Brazilian could conceivably have played within himself after losing his mentor at both Watford and Everton. Instead, he only bore a look of dejection when Ferguson substituted him for Tom Davies 20 minutes from time.

Aside from all else, though, this felt different to what had gone before in that, finally, it just felt like Everton’s day. Chelsea, though lacking the requisite experience to challenge at the top of the Premier League, provided a stern test for Ferguson’s side, and at times peppered a much-improved Jordan Pickford with efforts on goal left, right and centre. On another day, the pendulum would have swung away from Everton. But here, for no discernible reason, it was as if football’s wider, irreversible narrative just decreed that the Blues, by hook or by crook, would win this match, and inject an apathetic and bereft fan base with a 90-minute breakneck thrill.

That might be all it will be. If the Everton hierarchy tend to their banged heads and agree on a plan - and a man - to take the club where Silva could not before their trip to Manchester United next Sunday, that is probably all it should be, too. Having had their fix of bona fide Everton again, the clamour from some quarters to let Ferguson take the reins is as inevitable as it is, at least at this stage, short-sighted. Wonderful as Saturday was for him and Everton, it is difficult to appraise him tactically yet given he had only Friday to start to imprint his own ideas on the team before Chelsea's visit.

In that respect, the trip to Old Trafford could offer a fascinating sub-plot if Ferguson remains in charge given his opposite number, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, walked in exactly the same shoes at United a year ago. And though parallels between the two may be inevitable, they are just as trite at this stage.

Manchester City v Manchester United - Premier League
Solskjær’s United are Everton’s next opponents
Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

For one thing, the two ex-strikers are not the same characters: though patently no longer as abrasive as in his playing days, it would be hard to imagine Pascal Chimbonda, Stefan Freund or the fool who dared to try and burgle Ferguson endorsing Solskjær’s same ‘baby-faced assassin’ nickname for him. Both can offer an arm around the shoulder, and Solskjær may prove the better number nine, but the Norwegian does not have that same demonic glare, that imposing presence, that burst of acceleration on to the touchline. As for their records, Solskjær, for all of his detractors since, won 11 of his first 13 games as caretaker boss shortly before earning the job full-time; Ferguson has one from one so far. Impressive as that one was, it is far too premature for these kind of shouts.

But even if sticking with Ferguson would prove a gateway drug into further stagnation or regression for Everton, none of that needed to matter in this single snapshot of unbridled ecstasy. One of the club’s great paradoxes has long been that, however often they leave you on your knees, they always find a way of luring you back in. Through each of the 37 full-blooded tackles, each vociferous Goodison roar, each ball boy picked up and spun around in the air, they fused that perfect synergy between supporter, player and manager yet again. From famine to feast via no points in-between, this felt like Everton once more.

Maybe it won’t be sustainable. But frankly, for the time being, who cares? Because, irrespective of who prowls the touchline next, Ferguson rewrote the rule book on what a post-David Moyes Everton player’s minimum requirements are. He may have bought a Everton a little more time with this victory, but there is no reason, with or without him, why those standards should drop again.