This is what a relegation threatened season looks like. That’s what I told my son when he recently quizzed me about why Everton were so [beep] (I’m paraphrasing here).
When the drop zone exerts its gravitational pull, achieving escape velocity is always difficult. Back in November, prior to the West Ham victory, a time when Everton looked to be truly in the mire, a friend of mine (a Red) pointed out that ‘you only need a few wins and you’ll be clear’. To which I replied ‘True, but sides who are in the bottom eight, don’t just keep winning.’ And that’s just what’s happened. After our Allardyce honeymoon period (three words that should never go together), the club, quite expectedly, has hit a bump in the road.
When you’re down near the bottom, you’re down there for a reason; usually a toxic mix of poor management, poor players and low confidence. A change to one of these elements can bring around an improvement in fortunes. But that side, the one that struggled and seemed unable to get a win, defend competently or forge a coherent attack is still there, lurking. It does not completely go away but merely lies dormant. And it doesn’t take much for it to wake up. A few defeats, a poor run, a slight slide down the table and it emerges once again.
Escaping relegation, and that is exactly what Everton’s season has become about, will likely characterise the remainder of this campaign. At the moment, it might remain only a distant one, but dropping is still a possibility. There are 36 points left on the board at the time of writing and Everton need 12 to be comfortably safe.
While that might sound easily achievable, bear in mind that even good clubs drop points. And Everton are not a good club. Over the remaining months, the Blues will lose games and draws will occur. So we can expect that from those 36 points left, a good chunk will be lost. How many will dictate how uncomfortable the closing weeks of the season will be.
For those confident that safety should be a doddle, Everton have past form when it comes to late season collapses. Take a look back at the 90s, the era that for many fans is most strongly associated with the spectre of relegation, and you can find four examples of the club absolutely ballsing up the final months of the season. In 93/94, 96/97, 97/98, 99/00, Everton’s points haul from the final twelve games, if mirrored this season would be enough to ensure that the club would enter the final week of the campaign in a very precarious position. Death spirals might not be common, but they do happen.
I’d bet good money, that whoever pushed for Allardyce to be appointed (over a manager like Silva) is somebody who has lived through relegation threatened campaigns before. Somebody who recognises that more than anything, such seasons are a grind, where a manager will be constantly trying to stop that dormant, under-performing side from waking up. And that tends to take a manager of a certain ilk, a manager who understands the battle that will be constantly taking place, who appreciates that until you hit that magic forty point mark, you’ll never be free from its threat.
Nobody watching Everton at the moment could be happy with what they see. In terms of the football being played, this is arguably one of the least attractive Everton sides to watch in a generation. Stodgy, uncreative, tentative, conservative and clearly lacking in confidence, the side is currently as far away from the ‘School of Science’ as it’s possible to be.
But should we have expected anything different? When we hired Allardyce, we hired a specialist, a man with a stellar reputation for suppressing those dormant sides that threaten to reawaken when form dips. At Blackburn, Sunderland and Palace, he successfully (if not always attractively) ground out results and made sure that the side that had got those clubs into trouble rarely appeared (even when, inevitably, results did not go their way.)
With half the season remaining when he was appointed, a blip was inevitable. And at the moment Everton are certainly not in a good place. But there are few managers better or more experienced than Allardyce at negotiating such blips and ensuring that the Everton of the late Koeman-era does not return and stay.
Having been hired to save the club, Allardyce will do whatever it takes to do just that, however ugly. We as fans might not like it but it can’t come as any surprise. Our desire to see something more exciting, to see exhilarating football, to watch Everton attack with verve, will be of no concern to a manager whose primary remit is to keep this club in the top flight.
We might not like it but I suspect that with an unbalanced squad, a group of players that possess fragile confidence and a rapidly improving chasing pack beneath us, exhilarating football will be off the menu for some time to come.
Back in November, Everton could have gambled and gone for a manager with a more cavalier approach to the game. But the club didn’t. It played it safe and went with a manager who excels at playing it safe. And as soon as the club did that, it was clear what kind of football we were going to get.
The real problem for Everton will be what happens next season. To use a medical analogy, right now, the club is in intensive care, with Allardyce probably the ideal man to provide treatment. But do you entrust someone skilled at triage to manage your rehabilitation in the longer term? If Everton survive, which most think likely, the club will face a big decision in the summer. Does it initiate yet another regime change, which could yield success or possibly prove destabilising, or hope that Allardyce can change what he has become.
The club and the fans are in for an interesting summer.