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Everton woes deepened as long wait continued before terrifying prospect raised

The 2023/24 season was one of the most tumultuous in Everton’s history and that’s saying something given all the club has been through both on and off the pitch in recent years.

But despite being hit by two separate points deductions, Sean Dyche steered the Blues to safety with three Premier League matches still to play.

Over five parts, here is a potted summary of Everton’s 45 matches in all competitions and how the ECHO – the only major independent news outlet to cover all the club’s games home and away – reported on them. Today is the fourth instalment.

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January 27: Everton 1 Luton Town 2 (FA Cup fourth round)

Verdict (Joe Thomas): Everton and Sean Dyche have been left with more questions than answers after Luton Town dumped the Blues out of the FA Cup in stoppage time.

The Hatters won at Goodison Park for the second time this season after overpowering their hosts in both boxes to clinch a win that had the away end singing long after the final whistle.

It was fitting that the 95th minute winner from Cauley Woodrow came from the chaos wrought by a Luton corner. Yet again, Rob Edwards’ side caused havoc from set pieces against a team that, having conceded twice from dead balls in the league match in September, cannot claim it had not been warned.

The introduction of Danjuma and Youssef Chermiti did not drag Everton towards a winner and this game looked destined for a replay neither side wanted. But there was time for one last Luton set piece, and one final reminder of how Everton cannot deal with them. The club's long wait for a trophy will continue into another year as a result.

Everton player ratings star men (Chris Beesley): Joao Virginia, James Garner, Jack Harrison (all 7).

January 30: Fulham 0 Everton 0

Verdict (Joe Thomas): Everton are the only team in the Premier League yet to have been awarded a penalty and the controversy over the club's treatment at the hands of officials only deepened on a turbulent night in West London.

Sean Dyche’s patched up visitors put up a brave fight to earn a valuable point against Fulham, surviving a second half onslaught but also spurning good chances of their own.

Yet once again this season, the major talking point is a contentious decision that did not go Everton’s way. Few, if any, have this season - hence the reason disbelief and anger has now turned into exhausted expectation within parts of the club and its fanbase.

There is no doubt the ball rebounded from the crossbar to hit Antonee Robinson’s left hand inside his own box in the first half of this entertaining and chaotic fixture. But the official interpretation - that his seemingly outstretched arm was deemed to be by his side and that the contact was accidental - creates more questions than answers about the handball rule and about VAR’s role in Everton’s season.

Dyche marked a year as a Blue by overseeing a display of resilience in the face of adversity that means Everton have now kept four clean sheets in five games. But, as ever for the Blues boss, his team will leave a stadium believing he could, and should, have earned more - and that another outcome has been shaped by a controversial decision against his team.

Everton player ratings star men (Chris Beesley): Jordan Pickford, James Tarkowski, James Garner (all 8).

February 3: Everton 2 Tottenham Hotspur 2

Verdict (Joe Thomas): Necessity is said to be the mother of invention. Sean Dyche is living proof.

The Blues boss has been faced with setback after setback but, somehow, keeps reinventing ways for his threadbare squad to remain effective.

He keeps them fighting too. Just like the supporters who once again protested in their thousands against the unprecedented points deduction that has them looking nervously at the table and which makes every point vital.

Time will tell how valuable this point against Tottenham Hotspur is, but it is one that holds greater significance than simply moving Everton out of the relegation zone. It showed this is a group of players who believe they are never beaten. That resilience is the trademark of Dyche’s Blues and will be needed over the coming months.

There were several times when this game looked like a lost cause for Everton. The release of the teamsheets, which showed a multi-million pound squad of players fresh from recovering from their own injury crisis visiting a threadbare squad in the midst of its own fitness nightmare, was one. Anyone willing to write off a Dyche side based on the resources he has available has not been paying attention to his managerial career. But this always looked set to be tough.

Everton player ratings star men (Chris Beesley): Jordan Pickford & Jarrad Branthwaite (both 8).

February 10: Manchester City 2 Everton 0

Verdict (Joe Thomas): As Erling Haaland was mobbed by his teammates and Pep Guardiola celebrated on the touchline it was clear their joy came with a heavy dose of relief.

Manchester City got their win over Everton. But they were made to work for it and the Etihad was a ground bursting with frustration for 70 minutes until a debatable corner led to the ball bouncing around the Everton box and falling kindly for Haaland.

The extent of the home side’s reaction will offer little solace for Sean Dyche or the travelling away supporters as this defeat guaranteed another week in the bottom three - unless the appeal against the 10 point deduction leads to that punishment being reduced over the coming days.

The stubbornness and resilience displayed by a team still struggling with injuries against such illustrious opposition remains something to cling onto, however. Whatever happens on the pitch, that spirit will be central to the rest of the season for Everton.

Everton player ratings star men (Chris Beesley): Ben Godfrey, Vitalii Mykolenko, James Tarkowski, Ashley Young, James Garner, Dominic Calvert-Lewin (all 7).

February 19: Everton 1 Crystal Palace 1

Verdict (Joe Thomas): Amadou Onana rescued a point for Everton with a late header that did little to mask a worrying trend at Goodison Park.

The 22-year-old - left out as Sean Dyche had his most trusted central midfield four available for the first time in two months - came off the bench to rise highest at the back post to save his side from what was shaping up to be a damaging defeat.

His header earned a valuable point that lifted Everton out of the bottom three and prevented Crystal Palace from snatching a win that would have halted the club’s spiral towards the relegation zone.

But this was a poor performance in which the hosts failed to land an early blow in the survival fight and missed a golden opportunity to pull Palace and several other clubs into their clutches. Everton instead followed an increasingly concerning pattern by once again proving unable to turn up to a rare game they started as favourites. With home games against bottom half teams a key feature of the final months of the campaign, that has to change.

Everton player ratings star man (Chris Beesley): James Tarkowski (8).

February 24: Brighton & Hove Albion 1 Everton 1

Verdict (Joe Thomas): For the second time in a week a draw feels like a defeat for an Everton side that cannot buy a win.

On Monday, they could not have asked for better conditions to start a match as they faced a Crystal Palace side in poor form, with their best players injured and with no manager in the dugout.

On Saturday they could not have asked to end a game in more favourable circumstances as they led a frustrated Brighton & Hove Albion team that was down to 10 men as the match entered stoppage time.

The Blues won neither, and that is a problem. In so many ways it has felt as though the world has been against Everton for some time. On the occasions it is not, they simply have to take advantage. But, and it is hard but important to add that ‘but’ right now - there is some reason for hope they may eventually start to do that.

The result against Brighton, in particular, might feel like two points lost. But it is still a good point. The result against Palace might have felt like two points lost. But it was one point more than previous versions of this side would have won. It might be nine league games without a win. But five of those were drawn. This is no time for celebration or complacency. But it is also not a time of lost hope.

Everton player ratings star men (Chris Beesley): Jarrad Branthwaite & James Tarkowski (both 8).

March 2: Everton 1 West Ham United 3

Verdict (Joe Thomas): Goodison was almost empty when the final whistle blew but those folded blue seats only told part of a complicated story.

Perhaps a better starting point than the thousands of empty chairs would be the sound that resonated around the ground from the away end. After a closing rendition of ‘I’m Forever blowing Bubbles’, the celebrating West Ham United supporters turned their attention to goalkeeper Alphonse Areola.

The visiting number one made nine saves, including one from the penalty spot, in another bizarre match in L4. It was some achievement for Everton to play this well and lose. But lose - again - they did.

Whoever is writing the script for Everton’s season has a cruel sense of humour. And, it feels, every joke is at the expense of the Blues. But unless someone quickly takes responsibility for setting their own narrative then Everton will find themselves back in the trouble that, 60 minutes into this game, they were so close to pulling clear from.

There is a set of headlines from this match that should read like the overview of a much-needed, season-defining win. A first penalty of the season - finally. A first meaningful goal from a striker since Dominic Calvert-Lewin last scored against this opposition back in October. A barrage of efforts on goal, chances created and the redemption story of Beto - who missed that penalty, and the best opportunity from open play, but had the courage to keep going and nod his side into a second-half lead.

Instead, Everton are winless in 10 league games, have not earned three points in front of their own supporters in three months and for a third week in a row have missed a glorious chance to build much-needed momentum.

Everton player ratings star men (Chris Beesley): Jarrad Branthwaite & James Garner (both 7).

March 9: Manchester United 2 Everton 0

Verdict (Joe Thomas): Everton have three weeks without a game and that might be for the best. Winless in 10 league matches, going into this trip to OId Trafford, one thing this side could not afford to do was to be their own worst enemy. Once again, they were.

A fortnight ago the Blues were leading against 10 men in stoppage time at Brighton and conceded a gut-wrenching late goal from a poorly defended set-piece. Seven days ago it was wasted chances, included a missed penalty, and more defensive lapses that led to defeat against West Ham United.

On Saturday, against a Manchester United they were capable of challenging, Sean Dyche’s team lost because of two bad tackles that led to two clinically taken penalties. If Everton are not playing, they cannot defeat themselves. And after three months of being battered by injuries, off-the-pitch chaos and some appalling decisions, perhaps what the Blues need more than anything is a break.

What is certain is that the Blues will go from Christmas to Good Friday without a win in the Premier League. The three-week break that now follows is both a gift and a curse. This squad has been unable to find answers on the pitch so maybe they are better taking the search off the pitch. But the club’s predicament could look worse before there is a chance to make it look better.

Everton player ratings star men (Chris Beesley): Jordan Pickford, Jarrad Branthwaite, Dwight McNeil, Lewis Dobbin.

March 30: Bournemouth 2 Everton 1

Verdict (Joe Thomas): Everton added another nightmare to their collection of hellish trips to Bournemouth by snatching defeat from the jaws of a fortuitous draw.

There can be no clearer indication of the misfortune overshadowing the Blues’ season than the manner of this loss - one that took the winless Premier League streak to a joint-club record 12 games and sparked cheers of ‘going down’ from the home crowd.

Everton entered stoppage time level after a goalkeeping howler from Neto provided the away side with a rare slice of luck in what has become another tortuous campaign.

Even then they were unable to take advantage, conspiring to a late defeat through a calamitous mix-up at the back. This 2-1 loss was about far more than bad luck, however. It is one that raises serious questions about how a side desperate for a shot of positivity will find the boost required to save it from another fight to the death.

A club that builds a record-equalling spell without a Premier League win has to accept the first place to look for a solution is within. After three weeks of searching, answers are yet to be found. That quest must end soon or May 2024 could well be as terrifying as the final months of the last two years.

Everton player ratings star man (Chris Beesley): Beto (8).