They would not go. Not the fans who invaded the Goodison Park pitch and sang with raw emotion for 30 minutes after the final whistle. Not the players who joined the choir from the other side of a police cordon. Not Frank Lampard, who disappeared in the throng and re-emerged on the roof of the executive boxes to soak up the acclaim.
And not Everton. Their Premier League life was ebbing away after 45 desperate minutes against Crystal Palace. They would not go.
Five minutes of normal time remained of a fraught but unforgettable encounter. Five minutes for Everton to preserve their top-flight status for a 69th year and avoid having to fight against a first relegation since 1951 on the final day at Arsenal. Dominic Calvert-Lewin timed his impact on Everton’s year to perfection.
Throwing himself to meet Demarai Gray’s free-kick, the centre-forward who has missed so much of the season through injury launched himself into Goodison Park folklore with a diving header past Jack Butland.
Lampard’s team had been 2-0 down at the interval; chaotic, uncertain and free-falling towards the Championship. Now, galvanised by the half-time introduction of Dele Alli and reprieved by goals from Michael Keane, Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin, they had a comeback to compare with the final day escape against Wimbledon in 1994. The fightback sparked a first, foolish pitch invasion that led to seven minutes of stoppage time. When it was over, however, it was a fightback that will never be forgotten in these parts.
Lampard had got the job done. The consequences of relegation were vast for a club in Everton’s financial position and with a new stadium under construction at Bramley Moore dock. Survival allows for a rebuild and, in these circumstances, an understandable celebration.
Evertonians could not have done more to push their beloved club over the line. For the third home game in succession the Everton coach was greeted by an impassioned mass of supporters on Goodison Road, but in far greater numbers and with far more blue smoke bombs than preceded Chelsea and Brentford.
Repeated appeals over the tannoy for supporters to make room “to allow players access to the stadium” gave a sense of the backing, and desperation, for one final victory in a torturous season. It felt more like the prelude to a cup final than a relegation scrap.
The desperation of the crowd seeped into the team’s performance in the first half. The hosts were frantic, nervous and overly reliant on the long punt towards an isolated Calvert-Lewin. The rudimental approach played perfectly into the hands of a composed and confident Palace team.
Patrick Vieira dropped two of his most influential midfielders to the bench in Conor Gallagher and Cheikhou Kouyaté but the visitors dominated possession regardless. The guile and intent shown by Eberechi Eze, Wilfried Zaha and Jeffrey Schlupp was in stark contrast to the wastefulness of André Gomes and Abdoulaye Doucouré.
The Goodison mood was punctured after Gomes and Doucouré were penalised for fouling Tyrick Mitchell deep in the Everton half. Eze swept a dangerous free-kick to the far post where Jean-Philippe Mateta easily escaped the weak attentions of Doucouré and Vitalii Mykolenko to guide a textbook header beyond Jordan Pickford at close range.
Goodison was in uproar again when Anthony Gordon was scissored by a dangerous challenge from Jordan Ayew. The Palace forward went over the top but escaped with a yellow card. Two minutes later he compounded Everton’s torment by doubling the visitors’ lead.
It was a calamitous goal to concede, starting when Séamus Coleman was dispossessed by Mateta who darted down the left before crossing. Five blue shirts had chased back but Pickford chose to punch clear and scuffed his clearance to Zaha. The winger’s shot bounced off the ground, Pickford flicked away a save, but only as far as Ayew who scrambled the ball past Mykolenko and Doucouré on the goalline.
Everton created next to nothing in the first half. Something had to change and Lampard introduced the lesser-spotted Alli for the badly out-of-sorts Gomes and switched to 4-3-3. It was the former Tottenham playmaker’s first appearance since 1 May and his introduction helped ignite an immediate improvement, taking Everton higher up the pitch and offering more time on the ball.
The home side needed an early response. It arrived when Mykolenko delivered a deep free-kick from the left and Mason Holgate headed back to Keane, who controlled with his left thigh before drilling past Butland with his right.
Everton’s relentless search for an equaliser left them exposed to the counterattack and Pickford saved well from Mateta. Keane was booked for scything down Eze, Calvert-Lewin was fortunate not to follow suit for a foul on Nathaniel Clyne, but just as Everton appeared to be losing their cool they found a way back.
Alli was heavily involved, taking down Coleman’s cross on his chest and volleying low across goal. A Palace touch cleared only as far as Richarlison who miscontrolled with his first touch but managed to release a shot with his second. The ball struck Gallagher, who had replaced Schlupp a minute earlier, and looped beyond Butland. Goodison erupted, and there was more to come.