Walking to the train station on the scorching morning of Saturday, August 11, 2018 ahead of watching Everton’s season opener at Wolverhampton Wanderers, an almost unjustifiable sense of optimism overcame me.
It is the sort which envelops every football fan up and down the country; the sort which leads them to dash eagerly through the turnstiles rather than plod wearily to them in April and May, entrenched in their incontrovertible beliefs that this season will be different to last.
But this felt more real; more tangible, somehow. Having hit the factory reset button in May by replacing Sam Allardyce with Marco Silva as manager, and Steve Walsh with Marcel Brands as director of football, Evertonians could surely at least expect more than they were served up in 2017/18, one of the most insipid, joyless campaigns in recent memory.
The summer signings looked promising; Richarlison may have endured a torrid time at Watford after Silva left the Hornets in January 2018, managing no goals or assists thereafter, but even at £40 million, looked good business if the Brazilian could be managed properly. Fellow Brazilian winger Bernard would hopefully, like Richarlison, provide the sort of guile on the flank that so often was lacking under Allardyce’s tenure.
Lucas Digne arrived from Barcelona with great pedigree and looked a natural successor to Leighton Baines at left-back, while Yerry Mina, who followed him from the Nou Camp, had shown himself at the World Cup to be the sort of uncompromising, imposing central defender Everton desperately needed. The two loanees, centre-half Kurt Zouma and central midfielder André Gomes, also seemed excellent, if only temporary acquisitions.
Everton did not win at Wolves that day; they managed a credible 2-2 draw, having twice led against one of the most impressive newly-promoted sides to grace the top-flight. But it all felt somewhat secondary to a bigger picture; that after years of false dawns and empty promises, this would be the year when the Blues finally get it right.
And while this season has certainly not been without its trials and tribulations, in the main, they have.
The momentum may not have carried immediately - a 1-1 home draw with Huddersfield Town, eventually relegated by 20 points, and the subsequent 3-1 defeat in our own back yard to West Ham United, who had previously lost all four league games - were particularly gut-wrenching affairs.
But by the end of November, Everton had found their feet again. A win against a top six side still proved elusive, but a run of five wins from seven league games, including a 0-0 draw at a Chelsea side who until then had scored in every home game this season, propelled the Toffees into sixth, above José Mourinho’s mutinous Manchester United.
Then Everton went to Anfield and their whole world caved in.
The Toffees had more than held their own against a side not just unbeaten in the league at that point, but who had not lost at home in the league - and still have not - since April 2017, when a Crystal Palace managed by Allardyce secured a 2-1 win.
Mina, unmarked in the Reds’ penalty area, headed inexplicably wide early on, while a combination of Alisson Becker and Joe Gomez conspired to prevent Gomes’ seemingly goalbound header crossing the line by the slimmest of margins.
Jürgen Klopp’s men had chances too; they were always going to. But few would have begruded Everton walking back across Stanley Park with at least a point that day.
It was not to be, though. Jordan Pickford’s needless fumbling of a harmless Virgil van Dijk swing - and it was no more than that - presented Divock Origi with an open goal in the 96th minute. Just as the Blues were adding to the latest chapter of their fine form, the Belgian ripped out the pages and lashed them in the dustbin.
It is impossible to discard December’s Merseyside derby as inconsequential to the course the rest of Everton’s season would take; to paraphrase Bart Simpson, you could pinpoint the second every Evertonian’s heart ripped in half. For much of the next three months, they simply were not the same team.
From amassing 22 points in the first 13 games, the Blues managed a meagre 11 from the next 14. The 5-1 win at Burnley on Boxing Day became more anomalous with each galling defeat; even that result was book-ended by embarrassing 6-2 and 1-0 losses to Tottenham Hotspur and Brighton & Hove Albion.
Still, there was more to come. Leicester City deservedly left an eerily muted Goodison Park with three points on New Year’s Day. Southampton, embroiled in the thick of a relegation battle, outplayed Everton on the South Coast and flattered Silva’s side by only beating them 2-1, as did Wolves in early February with their 3-1 away win against the Blues.
But Everton suffered no greater ignominy than in their FA Cup fourth round tie at Millwall in late January. Leading 2-1 with 15 minutes remaining at The Den, they succumbed to a 3-2 defeat to a side fighting for their Championship lives, conceding all three goals from the pinball machine of the Lions’ set-pieces.
By the time Silva left Vicarage Road on February 9, his former employers basking in the delight of beating the manager who left them so acrimoniously the previous season, Everton could hardly have sunk much lower. From the genuine belief that the Blues were on the cusp of something truly special only three months ago, the confidence, the buoyancy, the aspirations for this season, had all been sapped.
But then came a 17-day wait for Everton’s next match, and the chance to reflect and recharge. With Liverpool’s visit to Goodison, and the chance to derail their title bid, fast approaching, a response became imperative, not least for the security of Silva’s job.
And, to Everton’s credit, they have been largely excellent since dispatching Cardiff City 3-0 in late February. The Reds were greeted at the Grand Old Lady by a cacophonous, feral atmosphere which, coupled with the introduction of an air raid siren before Z-Cars blasted through the PA system, spurred the Blues on to a highly credible goalless draw. Ultimately, to the joy of the travelling Evertonians at Spurs on Sunday, it would cost Liverpool the title.
Silva will know that, from 2-0 up with 25 minutes remaining, Everton should have won at Newcastle United, rather than end up on the wrong end of a 3-2 scoreline. He will also be well aware that the 2-0 defeat at already-relegated Fulham in April was arguably the most sub-standard performance of the entire campaign.
But the progress the Toffees have made since their bleak midwinter has, in many ways, been immeasurable. Then, they looked porous in defence and utterly incapable of defending set-plays properly. But now, Pickford ends the season with eight clean sheets from his last 11 games.
Meanwhile, Michael Keane has improved beyond belief with Zouma next to him for the majority of the campaign, and Digne has established himself as one of the league’s best left-backs in his first season in English football. Even Seamus Coleman, who endured such a tortuous first half of 2018/19, has rediscovered his best form at times lately.
Just as it is unwise to overlook Everton’s aforementioned shortcomings this term, it is unfair to disregard their late-season resurgence, including wins over Chelsea and Arsenal and a 4-0 thumping of Manchester United, as a mere flash in the pan. The hallmarks of a side truly capable of challenging the top six are there; that potential just needs harnessing this summer.
And so, Everton finish up exactly where they did under Allardyce last year - eighth. But in reality, that is where the similarities with last season begin and end. Whereas then they were a club fumbling around in the dark looking for the light switch, a year on, there is a clear direction and vision as to where Silva and Brands can lead this club.
This summer represents huge opportunity for Everton. Lessons must be learned from two years ago, when Ronald Koeman and Walsh haemorrhaged tens of millions of pounds on assembling a bloated, barely functional, top-heavy squad. Perhaps the pair were simply trying to prepare suitably for the forthcoming Europa League campaign, a potential distraction Silva will not have to contend with next term. Whether that is to his benefit, only time will tell.
But Manchester United are as unmitigated a disaster on the pitch as they have ever been since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, while Chelsea look set to lose their prize asset in Eden Hazard and have a two-window transfer ban to contend with. As for Arsenal, can anyone really rely on them to learn how to defend?
Perhaps it is too early, too fanciful, to suggest Everton are capable of securing Champions League football next term. But as 2018/19 draws to a rather unwelcome close, given the way the Blues have finished the season, it is inarguable that they are far, far closer to that dream than a year ago.
Without a shrewd summer, though, the dream will only remain exactly that - a dream.