Everton's Self-Inflicted Wounds Kill Off Champions League Dream
Is it better to have experienced hope but then have that hope dashed or to have never experienced hope at all? It’s a question that Evertonians must be asking themselves this morning as our dreams of Champions League football now seem to be in tatters.
It was always an outside chance, a team of Everton’s resources hoping to compete against the best in Europe next year. But for a time it seemed like a genuine possibility. The club started the season so brightly, sweeping aside opponents with ease. At one point we were second, a league altitude so high that nosebleeds must have been a real risk.
It was also a turn in form that seemed to promise longevity. In every season there are surprises in the early months, when unfancied teams put together a run of results that place them suspiciously high up the table. But these teams always fade as form deserts and opponents get wise to what temporarily made them so hard to play against.
With Everton though, it seemed different. Here was an unfancied team that might actually have what it took to go the distance, to take on the big clubs and beat them. And yet, as the season draws to a close it looks more and more likely that we just didn’t have enough of what it takes to cement a place in the top four.
Yesterday’s defeat against Norwich merely confirmed what a lot of Evertonians have begun to suspect for some time; the team has run out of steam. Whatever was going on at the beginning of the season is no longer happening now. The fizz and spark that overwhelmed teams back in August and September has gone. What we’re left with now is pretty much what Evertonians have come to expect during the Moyes era: combative performances that will get us enough points for a respectable finish.
But this approach to the game won’t be enough to get us a top four finish. We can’t battle our way into the Champions League through attrition. There are simply too many other better teams around us for that to happen.
Everton’s biggest crime this season has been to not capitalise fully on our long period of good form. For a significant chunk of the campaign, we were one of the best teams in the league, capable of beating anyone. And what did we go and do with this great form? We cheerfully p*ssed it away.
Time after time, Everton dominated games, creating chance after chance and yet came away with a solitary point. We became the most adept drawers in the game and the team guilty of creating and squandering the most chances in the league. Had we capitalised when we were good, then this leaner period the team is now going through could have been accommodated. But we didn’t and so now Everton are going to be lucky to qualify for the Europa, let alone the Champions League.
To go back to my original question: what’s worse believing you had a shot at the top four and finishing sixth, or never considering the possibility and finishing sixth?
Most Evertonians don’t begin the season expecting much. For some, (those still scarred by the bad-old-days of the nineties) simply not being relegated is enough. For others, they’d like a decent finish in the league and the possibility that our silverware drought might be ended. For others still, the outside chance of the Europa. What we don’t expect or see as our inalienable right is winning the title or qualification for the Champions League. We’re a simple lot as a whole and relatively easy to please.
Which is why this season has been so troubling. For the first time in years, we were actually good. And not just good but really good. As a result, Evertonians began to experience something long dormant within the hearts of the Goodison faithful, namely hope. Hope that the team was finally getting somewhere, hope that European football would mean us retaining our best players and hope that next summer we’d actually have some money to strengthen the squad.
If the team had started the season as we traditionally do, moribund and creatively inert, then none of this would have happened. And so, had we finished seventh or even sixth, then that would have been great, viewed by the fans as another respectable finish.
But come the end of this season, sixth would now be seen as a massive disappointment. Our early season form, however much an aberration, has jaundiced our perspective. It’s shifted the foundations upon which Evertonians view football. For a short time we forgot the financial gulf that lies between us and clubs like Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal and thought that we too had a chance to reside amongst the Premiership’s elite.
And so now we’re left with the consequences of our hubris, a bitter taste in the mouth as the truth is revealed to us. We just don’t have what it takes to go the distance, and barring some financial miracle, probably never will.
After much soul searching (or half an hour’s thinking as I type this out), I think the answer to the question posed at the beginning is that it is better to have never experienced hope in the first instance. Better to never believe that you were in with a shot. Give me the low horizons of a traditional season over the highs and lows of this one. Come May, I expect nothing but disappointment. Grant Holt’s injury time winner yesterday confirmed that to me. The only way is down.