Are you ready to be heartbroken? Everton may only have two more full seasons left at Goodison Park. Assuming their long-awaited relocation to Bramley-Moore Dock runs on time, 2023 is pencilled in as the year this Grand Old Lady is finally laid to rest. Which, no matter how long it’s been mooted, won’t make the eventual last goodbye any less of a tear-jerker, carry any lighter an emotional heft.
Goodison has long been viewed with nostalgic romanticism; a priceless relic of bygone eras, this same arena is the one constant which connects the 1894 FA Cup final, Dixie Dean’s deluges in the 1920s and 30s, Eusebio’s finest hour in the 1966 World Cup, Duncan Ferguson capering about the touchline hugging any ball boy in sight in December 2019, and just about everything in-between. Perhaps because, the further football has geared itself towards commerce and consumerism, Goodison feels a last bastion of life when the game belonged to the great unwashed.
The creaking wooden seats! The obstructive pillars! The shuddering gantries! The laced-up trainers living charmed lives as they droop from overhead telephone wires! The acrid aroma of horse manure and cannabis! More creaking wooden seats and obstructive pillars! All of it, so out of step with the polished, identikit 21st-century bowls, yet so quintessentially Everton.
But for all its ageless beauty, characterised by these footballing Easter eggs, Goodison is not just a pretty face. It may be harder to recall now, given it’s not been packed to the rafters since March, and given we’ve been force-fed a homogenised, watered-down product for the best part of the last seven months. But when there’s been a cause to die for, a striking up of the tinderbox, Goodison still surges into a ball of white-hot fury and transforms a game of 11 vs 11 into 11 vs 37,000 plus.
This was synonymous through Everton’s glory years of the 1980s, but undoubtedly remains one of the most invaluable weapons in their artillery. Take the Merseyside derby in March 2019, when title-chasing Liverpool were held to a goalless draw amid a backdrop of unrelenting hostility. Or that aforementioned December day when caretaker boss Ferguson resuscitated a foundering Everton with a thrill-a-minute win over Chelsea. Those febrile melting pots of pure, uninhibited emotion made Everton, against all odds, virtually unbeatable.
Yet much like Everton themselves, Goodison only really deals in extremes nowadays. When it’s not making decibels soar or commentators fear for their lives, a funereal apathy can fester. Either that, or the ground that Howard Webb labelled the hardest to referee in the Premier League becomes the hardest to occupy the home dugout or wear royal blue in. The last days of Carlo Ancelotti’s predecessors, for instance, were pockmarked by streams of supporters making early exits or calling vociferously for their heads. Meanwhile, those on the pitch being in particularly close proximity to those in the stands feels as much of a help in the best of times as a hindrance in the worst.
This might explain why, when Project Restart was lavishly unveiled, a number of flimsy-looking theories were posited. Chiefly, would the absence of moody Goodison in fact liberate Ancelotti’s side? Would Jordan Pickford, so easily affected by outside influences, improve his concentration thanks to the removal of such distractions? Would Tom Davies, so often a lightning rod for Evertonian ire, finally return to the heights he scaled as a straggly-haired 18-year-old who danced fearlessly through Pep Guardiola’s defence?
And yet, while Goodison at its lowest can be a testing environment for Everton’s players and staff to work in, the idea that the natives are more detrimental than beneficial is a myth increasingly debunked with each passing Goodison defeat. Saturday’s insipid home loss to an apparently hopeless Newcastle, following similarly tepid debacles on their own turf to Leeds and West Ham, means that Everton are still without a Premier League win at an empty Goodison since October 3.
Indeed, their only league successes at home since that 4-2 triumph over Brighton came on successive Saturdays in December, when 2,000 socially-distanced Blues roared Ancelotti’s depleted side on to monumental wins over Chelsea and Arsenal. After edging past Chelsea, an especially commendable display of rearguard action from Everton, Ancelotti paid tribute to those in attendance, saying they made a ‘total difference’ to proceedings on that biting winter night. On that basis, then, fans make the right kind of difference more often than not.
This is not to totally absolve Ancelotti or his side of blame for the recent home fiascos, Newcastle in particular. Fans or no fans, Everton should have had it within themselves to see off a team with no wins and five goals in their previous 11 matches. Or, at least, to deliver a performance less pedestrian and prosaic than that which they churned out on Saturday.
And of course, they are in the same boat as every other side in this strangest of seasons, which has seen Burnley win at Anfield and the Emirates and Sheffield United at Old Trafford, and Leicester lose at home to Leeds and Fulham. Of the 288 Premier League games played last term before March’s COVID-enforced suspension, 129 were won by the hosts. Of the 297 since the top-flight resumed in June, there have been 119 home victories. That’s a 4.7 per cent drop - not gigantic, but it still suggests a slight erosion of home advantage.
The point is, these are not circumstances unique to Everton. The whole league, the whole country, the whole world is having to make do and mend in These Unprecedented Times. The locals haven’t always been in unison, admittedly, and once Messrs Martinez, Koeman, Allardyce and Silva incurred their wrath, Goodison became the last place they wanted to be.
But the notion that this bear pit too often picks on the wrong targets falls flat when zero league wins in an entirely deserted Goodison are accrued in four months. Ancelotti has impressed in finding alternative routes to three points without a number of his star turns so far this term. Now, he needs remedies for the total absence of buoyant Blues in this footballing cathedral.