Everton must hope their trip to Australia can help provide the spark required to ignite their flagging season into life because they cannot afford to be heading ‘Down Under’ again in May and dropping into the Championship. After the traumas of last season when the Blues came disgustingly close to what would have been their first relegation in 71 years, Everton’s loyal but long-suffering supporters helped drag their under-achieving team over the line in a nerve-jangling battle against the drop with safety finally achieved – despite what proved to be the joint lowest equivalent points total in the club’s history – through a dramatic 3-2 comeback win against Crystal Palace in their final home game.
It should go without saying that NOBODY connected with the club wants to – or should have to – go through all that again in the months ahead but the fact remains that when the music stopped and the Premier League party came to an abrupt winter World Cup-induced six-week halt, the Blues found themselves just a single point and position above the relegation zone. As a response to shipping 66 goals last term, manager Frank Lampard prioritised an improvement in defensive solidity this summer and while that had largely been a feature of the current campaign to date, the wheels fell off spectacularly in a calamitous final week of action before the break for Qatar.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, when it comes the importance of being earnest (about Everton’s need to remain in the top flight, which is arguably greater than ever as their magnificent new stadium rises before our eyes on the banks of the Mersey): “To lose one game against an opponent who leapfrogs you in the table may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness.” Indeed, as frustrating and flat as the Blues’ 2-0 defeat in their Goodison Park send off against Leicester City was, it paled in comparison to the double capitulation at Bournemouth.
As someone who made both journeys – travelling over a thousand miles in just four days but not at the expense of my own pocket unlike those hardy souls in the away end at the Vitality Stadium who deserved so much better – this correspondent can testify to what an utter shambles those two displays were when it came to an embarrassing representation of Everton Football Club. Unfortunately, Lampard’s unnecessary decision to make 11 changes for the Carabao Cup tie set the tone for the double-header and the subsequent 4-1 win for the hosts – who had lost four games in a row prior to the match, including surrendering a 3-1 lead to lose 4-3 at Leeds United in the previous outing – gave them the momentum to take into the Premier League fixture the following Saturday.
We were told that the second game would be different but while the personnel involved largely were, the margin of defeat was not and after the 3-0 drubbing, defender Conor Coady admitted: “We need to look at ourselves long and hard going into the break now.
“It was shocking, nowhere near good enough. We have to be better in the second half of the season, we have to do better. We have had a long chat about what we need to do.”
Coady is one of the Everton squad who did not go to Australia, alongside England team-mate Jordan Pickford, Senegal’s Idrissa Gueye and Belgium’s Amadou Onana who are all on World Cup duty. Others such as injured pair Dominic Calvert-Lewin and James Garner plus captain Seamus Coleman of Ireland and Nigeria’s Alex Iwobi were also absent through international duty.
Between them, that forms a core of some of the biggest personalities within the Blues’ dressing room but with the majority of the group still venturing to the far side of the planet from the UK, the desire must be that they return with tangible on-the-field benefits in addition to the bumper payday the club got for participating in the Sydney Super Cup and the interaction with their Antipodean fans – scenes that contrasted sharply with the ugly flashpoints that followed the final whistle in Dorset just under a fortnight ago. Following the only other season in which Everton finished with a paltry 39 points, David Moyes took his players on a long-haul jaunt that proved pivotal when it came to a revival in their fortunes.
The Blues’ 2004 visit to Texas – the first of what proved to be six stateside trips under the Scot with a seventh under Roberto Martinez planned on his watch – is looked back upon as a watershed moment. Moyes was known as an unrelenting task master during his early days in charge at Goodison Park and while he and his group continued to work hard, the players were allowed to play hard too from this time onwards as their boss adopted a more pragmatic approach to enable them, as a source in 2020 disclosed to: “Let their hair down.”
The result was an incredible year-on-year turnaround as Everton recorded a fourth place finish in 2004/05 – still their highest-ever Premier League placing – and while nobody is expecting such sporting miracles on this occasion, perhaps the past few days can help Lampard’s side start moving in the right direction at least. The stalemate against Scottish champions Celtic was followed by a morale-boosting penalty shoot-out success and while there have to be serious question marks about the standard of opposition provided by Western Sydney Wanderers in the second game – especially given the calamitous goalkeeping ahead of Tom Cannon’s goal – you can only beat what’s in front of you.
After the starvation diet being served up to beleaguered Blues in recent times, the highlights from their team’s 5-1 romp at the CommBank Stadium offer several crumbs of comfort at least. A hat-trick from Anthony Gordon – including an outrageous back-heel finish – shows just what Everton’s gifted home-grown hero is capable of producing and why several of the Premier League’s most well-heeled outfits were sniffing around him over the summer.
Another academy product Cannon was the man on the spot to follow up and capitalise from Daniel Margush’s butter fingers in between the sticks and the teenager – whose header after coming off the bench in the Premier League game at Bournemouth was his side’s only shot on target that day – will be buoyed by his first senior goal. There was also a welcome return to the scoresheet for Neal Maupay – courtesy of a header from a cross too, suggesting he might be able to fill the void when Calvert-Lewin is unavailable – which can only be a good thing after the thankless task the Frenchman has had to endure ploughing a lonely furrow up front.
Unlike Moyes some 18 years ago, Lampard and his side did not return from the USA with a spring in their steps with a 4-0 humiliation against Adrian Heath’s Minnesota United instead providing a startling wake-up call as to how much more work was required on getting this group up to speed. There may have been no American dream for Everton but at a time of year that ‘celebrities’ come back to the UK from Australia having undergone a series of trials, the Blues boss must crave that like his uncle, Harry Redknapp – who was crowned ‘King of the Jungle’ on a certain ITV show – he returns at least on a high with a much rosier outlook on what lies ahead.