Do not be on the wrong side of history
It is a familiar warning to Everton players at the climax to another depressing season. One of the club’s proudest records is under threat, Everton having spent 120 of the existing 124 years of top flight football in the highest tier. When we talk about England’s elite, Everton have been among the most established of all its members, their 69 consecutive years as a Division One/Premier League club bettered only by Arsenal.
“We don’t want that history where Everton go down and it is all on us,” says Alex Iwobi, Everton’s squad having been fully briefed of that legacy as they seek the three points to protect it against Bournemouth.
“It is not going to happen against our names – that is what we are trying to make sure doesn’t happen.”
The gravity of the situation means while there is an escape route from relegation hell, there is none from the daily reminders of the stakes.
It used to be that the passers-by, friends or supporters gathered at the training ground would ram home the message. In 2023, the footballers can also count on their domestic staff to offer encouragement.
'It amazes me how many Everton fans are around'
“My gardener is an Everton fan. He says, ‘we can do it, we can do it,’” says Iwobi. “Coming into training today, I was driving off like, ‘Yes, I’m sure we’ll do it.’
“I live in Manchester, but my neighbours are Everton fans. If I am walking my dog or dogs, they always say, ‘Come on, you can’t go down.’
“It amazes me how many Everton fans are around. Everton is a big club. You can be out minding your business and you see fans and they are so lively and energetic for the club. It just makes me feel like it is a privilege and an honour to represent them.
“It shows me who I am doing this for. I am not just doing it for people here, I am actually talking to people and it affects them. It shows how much Everton means to them. If Everton go down they will be devastated. When we are on the bus, coming into the game, and you can see them chanting, banging the bus, you definitely feel it. It is almost as if you are going into war. If I am not doing this for myself, then at least let me do it for them.”
'Coleman has been hobbling around, trying to keep us motivated'
Everton skipper Seamus Coleman has taken time from his rehabilitation to further ensure that whatever the side’s limitations, a lack of focus and work ethic will not be among them.
“He is basically Everton,” says Iwobi.
“He has been hobbling around on his crutches, coming into the changing room and trying to keep us motivated, always reminding us how so many people are affected by our results and what it means to Evertonians; to him, to the people upstairs, the staff and what it should mean to us. The least we can do is put in 100 per cent. Seamus will probably talk before the game and that will definitely kick us off.”
If Everton survive, Newcastle keeper Nick Pope can expect as much thanks as those in blue shirts. The sigh of relief when Pope made a last-gasp save to deny Leicester City on Monday was not restricted to Tyneside.
“When [Timothy] Castagne had the shot I was thinking, ‘No way.’ Nick Pope saved it and it almost fell to one of their players,” says Iwobi.
“The fact that it is still in our hands makes it good for us, we are in the best position of the three teams. No disrespect to the Championship, but everyone wants to play in the best league in the world. No-one wants to go into the Championship. It’s not on my mind.”
'It's now where we should be... but at least we are fighting for something'
Had his career followed its initial trajectory, Iwobi could have been involved in Arsenal’s title challenge, or preparing for next year’s Champions League. He did not move to Everton for successive relegation scraps.
“I guess so but, in the same sense, you are fighting for something,” he reflects.
“At Arsenal, you were fighting to play in the Champions League or the Europa League final. The same way now, we are fighting to stay in the Premier League. They are still big games. It’s different circumstances, but it’s not necessarily a different pressure. You go into every game and you want to win. If you win, you achieve something. If you won at Arsenal, it meant you would get into the Champions League. If we win this game, we stay in the Premier League.”
Would victory on Sunday bring the same satisfaction?
“We don’t ever want to be in it again but it would still be a good feeling,” he says.
“We didn’t want to be in that position last year but we still celebrated like it was a cup final. We shouldn’t be where we are, yeah. But we are. That’s the reality. It’s been a hard season, at least let us have the reward of staying in the league. I can’t lie. I think we will celebrate it a bit, even if it is just a release of the pressure.”
At the very least, it should also ensure everything in Iwobi’s garden stays rosy for another season.