From hapless to heroics, Everton finally have something to celebrate
There were thousands of them on the pitch, celebrating Everton’s worst season for 24 years. Or more accurately, celebrating that it had not become their worst for seven decades. Relegation battles can do strange things and Everton, a fractured club and a failing team, have become united, a form of inspiration coming amid desperation, a fanbase who were often unhappy when they were higher up the league now jubilant, cavorting because safety was secured. A sense of peril, of imminent disaster, had channelled everything, brought everyone together. “People will say you are celebrating staying up but it means so much,” said Frank Lampard. “People won’t forget this.”
In a way, Everton were galvanised by their hopelessness, by a run that spanned the majority of their season, when they took 11 points from 22 games. They were rescued at the last, saved in symbolic fashion. The team that dug themselves into trouble conjured a great escape. The Goodison atmosphere was integral. Crystal Palace, like Manchester United and Chelsea before them, were beaten by the crowd as much as the players. Mid-table mediocrity would not have been as memorable. Haplessness followed by heroics produced the sort of scenes that even Lampard, with his two decades of experience of defining games, has rarely seen
“I have been playing a long time and coaching a relatively short time, I have been fortunate to be part of amazing things and this is right up there,” he said. “That is special.” He was part of it. “It was pure elation of fans that wanted to stay in the Premier League. I can’t complain when I am up in the directors’ box, jumping up and down.” He was hugging Bill Kenwright and Tony Bellew, Peter Reid and Joe Royle. It would all have been unimaginable from his predecessor, the unloved Rafa Benitez.
Lampard has been embraced by the wider Everton family. He reflected: “What this means to the club from the top to the bottom, bottom to the top: fans, board, players, staff.” He has been the unlikely unifier. “When I came into the club there were a lot of splits and we have managed to bring it together,” he said. He has roused Everton. He may be the first manager Evertonians have liked since the heady days of Roberto Martinez’s first season, which took them to the brink of Champions League qualification, not the verge of the Championship.
“I am full of thanks, thanks to the fans for taking me on board, to the board,” Lampard reflected. His credentials have been questioned outside Goodison Park, his lack of experience in relegation battles cited. He inherited a team in 16th and they are 16th now, but he has nevertheless saved them.
“When I came here, we had won one in 14,” he reflected. “Carry on with that trajectory and we get relegated.” The low point on the pitch came at Burnley, when Everton led and lost 3-2, when Sean Dyche claimed they did not know how to win games. “To find momentum was not easy after Burnley,” said Lampard, but they conjured four more victories.
Off the pitch, however, the most worrying point was when, while Everton were not playing, Burnley beat Watford. Lampard’s men were five points from safety. “The realisation of the situation, it smacks you in the face,” Lampard said. “You wonder how many motivational speeches you make.” Some have worked. Everton have taken 10 points from five subsequent matches, starting with victory over Chelsea, and nine more than either the Clarets or Leeds have in that time.
Salvation has come from spirit. There have been rearguard actions and superb saves from Jordan Pickford. Their goals have stemmed from set-pieces, defensive errors and deflections, augmented by the odd moment of brilliance. They have scrapped to survive. They were outplayed at times by Palace, but that is scarcely a new phenomenon. “The character of this club dragged us through,” Lampard said. After their previous meeting with Palace, March’s 4-0 FA Cup defeat, he wondered if his players had the “bollocks” required. Two months on, they demonstrated they did.
He benefited from having Dominic Calvert-Lewin at his best, for the first time in his reign, and the finest performance of Dele Alli’s Everton career after a catalytic substitution. In the broader scheme of things, neither has had a season to savour. Nor have Everton. But there has been an uplifting end, culminating in an outpouring of emotion. “Everton were fighting for their lives,” Lampard said. “We’ve got a heart and a soul and wanted to stay in the Premier League.” They have, and in a manner they won’t forget for years.