There was a moment on Wednesday evening as I, one of the lucky 6,500 to witness a real-life game of football at Goodison Park, tilted my head around a pillar obstructing my view from the away end to see Richarlison net Everton’s match-winner against Wolves. And in that split-second, for the first time in 15 hellish months, football felt like football again.
There was then a moment on Sunday afternoon as I, from the comfort of my own sofa this time, watched Fernandinho pickpocket Tom Davies from Everton’s own throw-in, before Mason Holgate and Michael Keane formed a premature guard of honour for Sergio Aguero, who made it Manchester City 4-0 Everton. And in that split-second, for the first time in about a week, Everton felt like Everton again.
There is a sense of futility in running too forensic a post-mortem over this laborious box-ticking exercise of a season, one which feels as though it’s congealed into a single, never-ending football match where everyone can hear you scream and no stray parts of your anatomy are safe from our Stockley Park overlords. But it’s probably at least worth saying that, when all was said and done and push came to shove, for as long as they threatened the collector’s item of a campaign of tangible success, Everton merely reverted to type.
It would be remiss to say there hasn’t been improvement - it’s a desperately low bar, admittedly, but Carlo Ancelotti’s side did at least end two spots and ten points better off than last term under Marco Silva and later the Italian. A tenth-placed finish - Ancelotti’s lowest in all his full seasons as a manager - does feel slightly illusory, given Everton were never lower than ninth before their 5-0 shellacking at City on the final day - Sam Allardyce, by the way, took them to eighth with 49 points in 2018 [Ancelotti earned 59 this year]. But ultimately, it was a campaign where nothing was achieved, which by default for England’s eighth-most successful club, makes it one of failure.
And one of self-inflicted wounds, in many ways. The carbon-copy home defeats to half of the bottom ten, when just four points in those five games would have been enough for seventh place and the Europa Conference League. The inability to underpin a strong opening to the campaign, which saw Everton second as late as Boxing Day, by strengthening in January, other than with the eleventh-hour signing of the frequently M.I.A. Joshua King. The ignominy of ending with a negative goal difference. It all feels so quintessentially Everton by now.
In that respect, Sunday’s drubbing at the champions should serve as a watershed moment in Ancelotti’s tenure, who himself has already alluded to a summer sweeping of the decks. But the way Everton tossed away any faint European hopes so timidly, as if awestruck by the sight of a functional, freewheeling football team, privileged to breathe the same air as them let alone share a pitch with them, should expedite some of those departures. In many ways, we may look back on the way this campaign crashed and burned in the final straights as short-term pain, long-term gain.
That, though, can only happen if Ancelotti is given sufficient autonomy this summer, as we approach the point at which his predecessors’ Everton reigns all began to unravel. He has done plenty of good work so far, like overcoming mental blocks at grounds like Anfield and the Emirates, improving individuals like Keane, Davies (much as they didn’t show it yesterday) and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and signing four players last summer who all rank among Everton’s best this term. But without trimming the fat from this bloated mishmash, even a manager as revered as him will only lead Everton so far, as this season ultimately testified.
Much as Evertonians all craved European football, there’s no reason the lack of it should limit the height of their ambition in the summer transfer window, either. Ben Godfrey, arguably their most consistent player this term, began the season playing at Huddersfield Town for Norwich City in the Championship. Young, hungry, everything to prove, he is everything an Everton signing should be. If you can attract him to Goodison without the carrot of European football to dangle, you can surely convince others in his mould to join, too.
This must be Everton’s blueprint: to be more savvy than simply solving today’s problems with yesterday’s remedies. Much as James Rodriguez and Allan have improved them, each turn 30 this year, and both, irrespective of their age, have missed too big a chunk of this season through injury to place heavy dependence on. Other than probably Lucas Digne and Yerry Mina, meanwhile, their go-to method of feeding on top club carrion has proved as misguided as it has costly.
For too long, it’s felt like Everton leap all too readily into the arms of the discarded A-lister, yet there are surely more Ezes, Coufals and Souceks out there, let alone Godfreys and Calvert-Lewins, if they cared to take a closer look. Shrewd scouting, togetherness, a sense of purpose and clarity - they all go some way to explaining why Leicester, West Ham and Leeds all finished above Everton this year.
The inevitable sense of detachment of this season, coupled with the fact this is a team whose manager’s likeable qualities are not mirrored by many of his players, has meant that even at the best of times, it’s hard to be too emotionally invested in Everton’s campaign this year. From August, when football feels that bit more real again and Ancelotti needs to truly start making his mark at Everton, is when the real acid test arrives.