Buckle in and hold on tight. This retrospective is a roller-coaster unlike any other you’ve ever been on because it’s mostly just downhill with a few small peaks, twists, turns and then more downhills which then ends much, much lower than you anticipated when you started.
Everton finished the extended 2019-20 Premier League season in 12th place with 49 points with Carlo Ancelotti in charge and a squad full of big-earners past their prime. But how did we get here?
A deal with Crystal Palace for Wilfried Zaha failed to materialize in the dying minutes leading up to the transfer window deadline, and the Blues ended up with Alex Iwobi instead for about half the price.
Earlier, Moise Kean and Jean-Philippe Gbamin had been signed, with Fabian Delph added for experience and versatility. Andre Gomes had had his loan deal converted into a permanent transfer, and Djibril Sidibe came in on loan as right-back backup. Finally, Jonas Lössl was added to give Jordan Pickford some competition.
The Blues were slow to start the season, eking out a win against Watford FC at home and then promptly getting outfought 2-0 at newly promoted Aston Villa.
This was when the wheels started to really rattle on Marco Silva’s carriage. A somewhat fortunate 3-2 win over Wolves did not prepare the fans for what was coming next as the losses piled up and Everton looked creatively lost on the pitch. The effort was not missing, just the execution as the Blues played up to better opponents (see Manchester City, 3-1 loss), and followed that up by saving their most putrid performances against lower table opposition at the time - AFC Bournemouth, Sheffield United.
The up-and-down nature of Silva’s tenure was repeated here, with wins over West Ham United and the Hornets in the League Cup interspersed with soul-saddening defeats against Burnley and Brighton & Hove Albion.
That loss at Brighton would be the first, and not the last time, VAR bit the Blues in the behind. In a move that the Premier League later acknowledged they were wrong on, the Seagulls were awarded a nonsensical penalty when 2-1 down, and went on to win 3-2 against a shellshocked Toffees.
As the chill in the air grew, Silva’s seat at Finch Farm continued to grow hotter as it was becoming quite clear that without Idrissa Gueye his midfield and by extension his entire gameplan was falling apart.
A win at Southampton was followed by two successive defeats to Norwich City and Leicester City, and by the time the Anfield derby rolled around in early December, it had become quite clear Silva had no Plan B to arrest the slide.
The festive month started out with a humiliating 5-2 thumping in the derby with Silva handed a masterclass in tactics by Liverpool, and to no one’s surprise, he was gone soon after.
He would later say to the Athletic of the time he was sacked, with Everton sitting in 18th place but just seven points out of sixth -
“With two good results, you are in a European spot. With two bad results, you are towards the bottom. We had two or three games with really strange decisions and VAR decisions and bad luck for us — with all the respect for the referees as well — that takes from ourselves that confidence you need to perform in a good way.”
This time though it wasn’t David Unsworth stepping into the breach with a heavy holiday schedule coming up - club legend Duncan Ferguson was the only staff member from Silva’s crew that was retained and he was announced as interim manager. The players (and most definitely the fans) seemed to respond to the change to a very simplistic, old-school 4-4-2 as the Toffees romped to a 3-1 win over Chelsea before putting in a heartening performance in a 1-1 draw away at Old Trafford.
In between, another club legend in waiting Leighton Baines rolled back the years in the League Cup quarterfinal against the Foxes - with the clock ticking down and the Blues behind, the left-back strode forward with purpose before unleashing a rocket past Kasper Schmeichel to take the clash to penalties. That event only proved romance is dead in football as the Blues went on to lose the game on spotkicks.
Ferguson was holding fort, but the cracks in the side were clear to see - who would be the manager to come in and take over this aging, leaky ship? Turns out, none other than Carlo Ancelotti, the venerable Italian who had seen, done and won it all and looking for more of a rebuilding challenge than his usual ‘finishing touches’ roles.
The Blues reeled off two straight wins to start his tenure and the ‘Carlo Magnifico’ chants immediately became part of Everton’s storied lore.
Ahead of the submission of the final planning application for the new stadium, the Blues made some design changes following extensive public consultations.
Despite Ancelotti’s presence two of the lowest points of this season were yet to come. First the Blues were knocked out of the FA Cup in comical fashion, losing to Liverpool’s reserves and Under-23s as Jurgen Klopp looked to optimize his senior squad’s energy, and then equally deflatingly, Everton’s farcical defending threw away a two-goal lead at Goodison Park against Newcastle with just minutes to play to draw 2-2. The mood around Everton was grim to end the month - getting anywhere up the table would be difficult with the personnel Ancelotti had and no players coming in during the January window.
There was some big news both on the financial and new stadium fronts with mega-billionaire Alisher Usmanov basically buying first rights at the naming of the Bramley-Moore Docks facility.
Murmurs of a viral epidemic originating in Asia and spreading rapidly throughout the world tempered any talk of footballing progress. The Blues first comeback win away from home - a feat never achieved under Silva - happened at Watford. A big win against Crystal Palace followed, and then the Blues went unrewarded for two excellent displays, losing at Arsenal and drawing against Manchester United.
By the time the month ended it was more a matter of when football would be halted than an ‘if’.
The Toffees were flat in Ancelotti’s first return to his old haunt at Stamford Bridge, and his side were hammered 4-0 by a young and resplendent Chelsea side under Frank Lampard. Soon after that, play was suspended not only in the Premier League but sports worldwide as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the planet.
With the coronavirus seemingly under some sort of control, Project Restart to get the game underway again was fully implemented. Games behind closed-doors as well as a number of other safety features were implemented as the Premier League attempted to finish out the remaining nine games in the 2019-20 schedule.
The Blues started bravely, battling gamely against Liverpool in a scoreless draw that they once again had late chances to win, before struggling to beat bottom dwellers Norwich.
In the middle of this tumultuous season, progress on the new stadium at Bramley-Moore docks seemed to plod on onerously. Design architect Dan Meis resorted to social media to clear up the air on who was taking over as technical architect for the construction phase even as the club expects to receive planning permission by autumn this year with the goal of breaking ground by the end of the year.
With the fixtures condensed to about one game in less than every four days, the Blues future would be resolved with how quickly they were able to recover and adapt to their different opponents.
Unfortunately, like has happened so many times in recent years, the Blues basically bottled it. The midfield personnel weaknesses of the 4-4-2 were cruelly exposed time and again as the Blues meandered to a middle-of-the-road three wins, three draws and three losses for twelve points, ten points out of seventh place which would have clinched Europa League qualification.
And then when you started to think that the awful first half of 2020 was finally behind you, Baines dropped a bombshell that he would be retiring from the game. We knew it was coming, but it still did nothing to soften the blow of losing an icon for a whole generation or two of Everton fans.
All in all, it was a pretty miserable year with a few high points that filled us with hope, but the negatives once again crushed that fragile ambition to smithereens. Every Everton season is different, yet always the same.