After a nerve-shredding few months the 2021-22 season is finally over, with Evertonians full of relief after the Toffees just about hauled themselves away from danger.
The campaign is statistically Everton’s joint-worst ever season when it comes to points-per-game average alongside 2003-04. However, the Toffees were never in any real danger of going down that season, with a run of four straight defeats to end the campaign sending them tumbling down the league.
That was certainly not the case this season. Everton stared right into the abyss of the Championship but somehow managed to claw themselves clear with a great escape that will sit alongside the likes of Wimbledon in 1994 and Coventry in 1998.
It is probably the most emotionally exhausting season I can remember. It had the full gamut of emotions: anger, rancour, despair, hope, exhilaration and, finally, relief.
But while there is understandable joy at their survival and the way Frank Lampard and the fans have begun to heal a broken club, that should not be an excuse for complacency.
There needs to be serious questions asked as to how Everton ended up in such a perilous position despite such heavy investment over the last five years.
They got away with it here. Next time they may not be so lucky.
Evertonians knew this was not going to be an easy season the moment Rafael Benitez walked through the Finch Farm doors last summer. It was a bad idea then and looks an even worse idea now. Though the board cannot say they weren’t warned – the graffiti-sprawled bed sheets outside Goodison foretold the bitterness and division that was to come.
After a bright start things nosedived quickly in the autumn, with Evertonians carrying a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach as they wondered just when the Toffees would reach rock-bottom.
The 5-2 thrashing by Watford, the 1-0 loss at Brentford, the 4-1 humbling by Liverpool. Everton plumbed new depths with each passing week.
Their impressive start, which saw them win four of their first five games, masked their miserable mid-season form slightly. They weren’t bottom of the league, but their form was by far and away the worst in the division.
Off the pitch the supporters were fractured. Fan groups organised a protest against the board but it did not always get universal approval, particularly a planned walk-out against Arsenal in December.
Everton football club was broken.
Benitez finally reached rock-bottom with a defeat at Norwich in January. One of just five games the Canaries would win all season. But while the Spaniard’s departure was undoubtedly the right one, it was chaotically handled by the club’s hierarchy.
For starters Benitez left just days after he had effectively forced out Lucas Digne to Aston Villa and signed two full-backs with the proceeds. The board then eventually turned to Lampard but only after a brief dalliance with Vitor Pereira led to more fan protests as well as a bizarre live interview with the former Porto boss on Sky Sports News.
Lampard’s appointment was confirmed on transfer deadline day, leaving him less than 24 hours to try and bolster the squad. It was a mess and summed up how the club has been managed over the last five years.
Lampard faced the unenviable task of trying to turn Everton’s ship around. Plenty of mis-informed pundits and football banter accounts mock the fact he took Everton ‘from 16th to 16th’ but that would ignore the context in which he took over.
He inherited a mishmash of a squad bereft of confidence after enduring one of the worst runs of form in the club’s history.
After early wins against Brentford (in the FA Cup) and Leeds the reality of the situation began to hit home. Lampard attempted to instil a high-tempo, forward-thinking style on the team but he simply did not have the personnel to do it.
Evertonians quickly got that horrible sinking feeling again.
Four straight league defeats, including a 5-0 loss at Tottenham that could easily have been 10-0, sent the Toffees into a tailspin. After the last of those defeats – a 1-0 reverse at home to Wolves – a sombre mood enveloped Goodison as Toffees fans truly began to contemplate life in the Championship.
A frantic last-gasp win over Newcastle gave us all hope, but a 4-0 thrashing by Crystal Palace in the FA Cup three days later led Lampard to question whether the players had the “b***ocks” to perform at the required level.
An international break gave us all a chance to take stock before the final push – but things did not improve. They were a touch unfortunate to lose at West Ham before what proved to be the nadir – a 3-2 defeat at Burnley.
The Toffees led 2-1 at half-time at Turf Moor but conceded twice after the break to gift the Clarets just their fourth win of the season in what was seen as a must-not-lose game. It moved the Lancashire side to within a point of Everton in 17th.
It was a wretched, sickening defeat. Burnley boss Sean Dyche stuck the knife in by revealing he told his players Everton “did not know how to win away” at half time – though he has subsequently said those words were misconstrued and were not meant as a slight on the Blues.
There was a raucous atmosphere at Goodison for the visit of Manchester United a few days later, with Anthony Gordon’s deflected strike securing a precious win. Richarlison – the Toffees’ talisman in the final few weeks – then struck late to secure a vital point against Leicester.
However, there was to be yet another twist.
Burnley sacked Dyche after a 2-0 defeat at Norwich. His interim replacement, U23s coach Mike Jackson, sparked an immediate reaction. The Clarets won two games in four days to push Everton into the relegation zone before the Merseyside derby at Anfield, where a battling performance ultimately ended in defeat.
The following week the Clarets made it three from three, scoring two goals in the final 10 minutes at Watford. A gut punch that left Everton five points adrift of safety ahead of their match against Chelsea the following day.
Then, something remarkable happened. The supporters, fractured and divided for so long, realised the players needed their help. Only a united front would drag this team over the line. The recriminations can wait.
The result was an extraordinary mobilisation by supporters groups, who organised a blue smoke-filled welcome for the team bus ahead of the Chelsea game before providing a boisterous backdrop during the 90 minutes.
Richarlison scored the crucial goal to earn a priceless three points but the game will also be remembered for an extraordinary double save by Jordan Pickford. The 28-year-old has been one of Everton’s best players for a while now yet the wider footballing world still see him as an erratic, error-prone liability. This performance finally began to change a few perceptions.
The win wasn’t pretty, but is was effective. Lampard had learned from his mistakes and gone back to basics. Defend deep without the ball, play aggressive and direct, backed by a ferocious crowd.
The great escape was on.
They moved out of the relegation zone the following week with a battling win at Leicester featuring a stupendous volley from Vitaly Mykolenko, who after a slow start in difficult circumstances was starting to look at home in an Everton shirt. Pickford also made several crucial stops, while the supporters never stopped singing – and I mean never. I have not heard an away support like it. ‘Spirit of the Blues’ and ‘Goodison Gang’ echoed around the King Power before, during and long after the final whistle.
There were some tired limbs on show at Watford five days later, with the 0-0 draw disappointing given the Hornets awful home record, but not as bad when you consider Everton’s terrible away record.
Roy Hodgson’s side had seen their relegation confirmed a few days earlier. Norwich were also gone, meaning it was a three-way fight between Everton, Leeds and Burnley.
It meant Everton had two home games against Brentford and Crystal Palace to secure safety. Simple, right?
Not a bit of it. The coach welcome was perhaps even bigger – and louder – for Brentford and Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s early goal set Everton on their way. But more contentious officiating turned the game on its head, with a second half Bees comeback narrowing Everton’s options still further.
Crystal Palace it was then, and one of the most extraordinary nights in Everton’s recent history.
The clock is ticking on Goodison Park but the Grand Old Lady showed there’s life in the old gal yet. Everton’s whole season played out in 90 minutes – despair, calamity, fear, hope, joy and relief, pure relief that this latest disaster, that could have been some catastrophic for the club, has been avoided.
It meant the Toffees could rest easy against Arsenal on the final day, the first time Evertonians could say that for a long, long time.
The tension over the last few months has almost been too much to bear – and it cannot be repeated.
Lingering financial issues likely means Everton cannot spend their way out of this mess (not that they can be trusted to do so effectively after the last few years). But the arrival of Lampard and director of football Kevin Thelwell should hopefully mark the beginning of a new, shrewd transfer policy focusing on developing young talent rather than being dazzled by over-priced, big names on the decline, or those touted by agents who have the owner’s ear. Several players will also need to be shipped out alongside those already leaving at the end of their expensive contracts.
Lampard has forged a special bond with the supporters not seen since Roberto Martinez’s first season in charge. He has embraced the challenge and embraced the club. It is a solid platform to build on, but there is plenty of work ahead. The board cannot use this late revival to mask the need for greater structural change.
After Everton narrowly avoided the drop against Coventry in 1998 commentator Martin Tyler reminded us that “intensive care was still needed at this famous football club”.
Fast forward 24 years and the Toffees have once again roused themselves from their sick bed. But there’s plenty still to be done before they make a full recovery.