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ABC News
ABC News
by Dean Bilton

Everton, a giant of English football, are on the brink of Premier League relegation — this is how they got here, and where they're headed next

Everton find themselves divided, financially frought but somehow still fighting. (Getty images/ABC Sport)

Blue smoke will tonight rise from the depths of Goodison Park, one of the most storied and significant grounds in all of football, to signal an ending.

Exactly what it is that ends will be up to the players and coaches of Everton Football Club.

The final whistle of the season's final game could see a season of unprecedented turbulence conclude with Everton still in the Premier League, relegation narrowly avoided for a second straight season.

Or it could lower the curtain on a 69-year stay in English football's top division, plunging an already crisis-ridden club into a black hole it may not be fully able to return from.

The Gwladys Street End is ready for one last ride against Bournemouth. (Getty Images: Tony McArdle)

The stakes really are that high for Everton, who will go into Monday morning's (AEST) final match of the Premier League season in 17th place, two points clear of the dreaded drop zone.

Hot on their tail are Leeds United and Leicester City, both able to leapfrog their way to safety should the Toffees drop points in their final game.

Everton play Bournemouth at home on the final day knowing a win will ensure their safety. Leeds and Leicester both have home games too, against Tottenham and West Ham respectively, needing wins and a bit of luck to have a chance of escaping their own danger.

Relegation hurts any club, but there is an added layer of jeopardy for Everton.

This is a club divided, with the relationship between its leadership and its lifeblood — the fans — strained beyond breaking point. It's a club on the edge of a financial cliff, a tiny nudge away from a complete catastrophic fall.

But it's also a club with a beating heart that only 12 months ago proved strong enough to save them from a situation of similar peril. That heart is about to be put to the test one last time.

A fallen giant

For most Australians, Everton will be known mostly as Tim Cahill's club. The Socceroos legend remains beloved by Everton fans, an icon from an era that doesn't rate among the greatest in Everton's history, but which have become glory years in retrospect when compared to modern times.

When Manchester City clinched their Premier League title last weekend, they finally tied Everton on nine English first division league titles. All season, goalscoring phenom Erling Haaland has been chasing the ghost of Dixie Dean, the Everton hero of the 1920s and 30s whose 60 league goals in 1927-28 remains an uncatchable record.

Everton's all-conquering 1985 team with the European Cup Winners' Cup. (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Everton were a founding member of the Football League, and one of the five clubs who spearheaded the formation of the Premier League. No club has spent more seasons in the top flight of English football than Everton.

In the 1980s, they were one of Europe's most fearsome forces and even though success has proven elusive since the 1995 FA Cup, through most of the first 15 years of this century they were positioned as "the best of the rest", lurking just outside the league's richest and most powerful clubs.

Those days are long gone. A change in ownership in 2016 brought Iranian billionaire Farhad Moshiri to the helm, with the promise of finally bridging the gap to the elite.

Instead, in the seven years since Moshiri took over, Everton have been a steady downward spiral. An initial spending spree in the transfer market served only to create a cluttered and incompatible squad, all on wages so inflated there was no hope of moving them on.

Farhad Moshiri at London Stadium for Everton's loss to West Ham — Frank Lampard's last game as manager. (Getty Images: Alex Pantling)

The modern Financial Fair Play and Premier League's Profit and Sustainability Rules, when simplified, basically mean that clubs can not spend a whole lot more money than what they bring in via sponsorship deals, TV rights and prize moneys.

As lucrative sponsorship deals eluded them and European qualification moved further and further from their grasp, the significant annual losses on their balance sheet meant Everton were suddenly on the wrong side of football's financial law.

Manager after manager tried and failed to arrest the slide. Frank Lampard was at the helm for last season's great escape — safety was secured in their penultimate game when Everton came from 2-0 down against Crystal Palace to rescue an emotional 3-2 win — but a turgid run to start this campaign saw Lampard dismissed in January.

Sean Dyche was the man called upon to rescue Everton again. He may not have known the furnace he was stepping into.

A club divided

One of Lampard's last games in charge of Everton was a home game against Southampton in mid-January. Fan frustrations had risen in the weeks after the World Cup break as a series of poor results and a lack of investment in the transfer window, and a protest was planned for before the game by supporters calling for a change at board level.

While that was unfolding, a club statement was released explaining that members of the Everton board — including chairman Bill Kenwright, chief executive Denise Barrett-Baxendale and club legend Graeme Sharp — had been instructed not to attend the game by security advisors due to a "real and creditable threat to their safety".

Protests have been held before most home games since January. (Getty Images: James Gill)

An unnamed club spokesperson was quoted as saying "it is a profoundly sad day for Everton and Evertonians". Merseyside Police later clarified that "no threats or incidents were reported to police prior to the game".

That proved to be the final straw. The very same fans whose unwavering and overwhelming support dragged the team to safety not eight months previously had been publicly outed as dangerous and untrustworthy by the club's own leadership.

Everton lost the game 2-1, the protests only grew louder and the Everton board is still yet to return to Goodison Park.

The empty seats at Goodison Park belong to the board of directors, who haven't been to a match since January. (Getty Images: Peter Byrne)

A few short weeks later, after the transfer window shut without a single addition and only the lucrative sale of promising young academy product Anthony Gordon, the Premier League revealed it was referring Everton to an independent panel to investigate potential financial breaches — if charged and found guilty, potential punishments could potentially range from fines, transfer bans or points deductions.

When Everton belatedly released their accounts from the 2021-22 season this March, it contained a line that stated if relegation should occur and Moshiri should stop providing funding (something he most certainly can not be criticised for) "these uncertainties may cast significant doubt on the entity’s ability to continue as a going concern" — that is to say there is doubt Everton Football Club itself could continue to operate.

There are reports swirling that Moshiri is looking to sell either the whole club or a portion of it. Radio silence from the board has only been broken by brief statements of incredulity from Kenwright and Sharp that their competence or performance could dare be questioned by fans.

The fans, for all their grievances with the board, have been steadfastly behind the team. (Getty Images: Tony McArdle)

And all the while, there is a state of the art stadium being built on the Liverpool waterfront that the club hopes will transform its future — if only they can find someone to pay for it.

With all that festering in the background, Dyche and his squad have set about the task of scrapping their way to safety. And they're not there yet.

One last chance

Sunday afternoon at Goodison Park is going to be visceral. Too many emotions, too much history, too much invested in the result. Jubilation and relief and rage and despair will forge a dangerous cocktail, and there's no telling what the hangover will feel like.

To follow Everton's bid to avoid the drop has been a battle of endurance. How much battering can the human spirit take, so long as that tiny glimmer of hope remains somewhere almost within reach?

Everton's unlikely 5-1 win away to Brighton handed them a lifeline. (Getty Images: Charlie Crowhurst)

It looked over before Lampard was sacked; some strong early Dyche results turned it back around. Pitiful losses at home to Fulham and Newcastle were the big chances missed; a shock 5-1 win away to Brighton loomed as salvation. Down 1-0 in the 98th minute away to Wolves with fate slipping out of their own hands; Yerry Mina scored the latest goal in Everton's Premier League history to rescue a point.

So Everton still have hope. They may not have a fit striker, or a fit right back, but they have hope.

Yerry Mina scored in the 99th minute to rescue a crucial point for Everton last weekend. (Getty images: Barrington Coombs)

And the weight of Goodison Park, the magic left behind by the geniuses that have plied their craft there. Dixie Dean, Alan Ball, Howard Kendall, Neville Southall. All 145 years of a football club's history bottled up and embraced in a fight to ensure it has a future.

The only sure thing is that by Monday morning, it will all be over. What that means for the game's Grand Old Team is still to play for.

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