When Allardyce was appointed Everton manager, although the majority of Blues shuddered at his arrival, there was also a sense of understanding amongst some. Looking back on the season now, it is easy to believe that the club was never in danger. And that is probably true. Despite its claims to be the ‘Greatest League in the World’, the Premier League is clearly a bit shit. If a side as woeful as Everton can finish eighth, then it’s evident that the clubs beneath can’t be that good.
But just because the inevitability of Everton’s survival seems obvious now, it doesn’t mean that there was a significant proportion of the fan base, myself included, who weren’t convinced that the drop was a possibility back in November. The side was atrocious during the first third of the campaign. Porous, uncreative and determined to make every other team look good, that period could stake a claim to be one of the worst in Everton’s modern history.
Of course there was mitigation. There hadn’t really been a pre-season. The Europa League was taking its toll. There had been too much squad upheaval. The fixture list had been unprecedentedly cruel. But mitigation didn’t help us. For a variety of factors, the Blues were one of the worst sides in the division, bereft of confidence and facing a long hard slog to get themselves out of the mire.
‘The Fear’ had gripped many of us (likely those who had lived through the dark days of the 1990s and early 2000s). We could smell disaster in the air, recognise its hallmark on the pitch, we had been here before and knew what it looked and smelt like.
It didn’t matter that Europa would soon be over. That the squad would settle. That the transfer window, and the tantalising prospect of a new forward, was at hand. That the fixture list would inevitably become kinder. All we could see was danger and the pitfalls that lay ahead. Christmas was on the horizon, the period that can make or break a season. For those laid heavy by pessimism, a bleak mid winter could spell doom.
Within that context, for many fans, the Allardyce appointment made sense. For those gripped by ‘The Fear’ his arrival represented three things. First, an acknowledgment by the club that they understood the predicament Everton were in. Second, that the team now had somebody with a track record to guiding clubs out of the shit. And third, by taking him off a rival, we had ensured that one of the clubs around us would be denied an easy exit from the dog fight.
The sense of certainty that having a manager provides and the arrival of a manager well versed in the stresses and vexations that come with struggles at the bottom had an immediate impact. Pretty quickly matters on the pitch became more positive. A steelier and better organised Everton began picking up more points and by the end of the year, with the Christmas fixtures nearly over, the club stood ninth; a healthy distance between Everton and those around the bottom who had briefly been peers.
And that’s the problem when it comes to Allardyce. The crisis was too simply averted. All the side really needed was a short-term boost, a shot-in-the-arm to ensure that when all those mitigating circumstances turned in the club’s favour, Everton would be in a position to capitalise on the opportunity.
Once that happened, the club inevitably rose to its natural position. Any connection between Everton and ‘relegation’ stopped being talked about after Christmas. The panic subsided. ‘The Fear’ abated.
But for Allardyce, nothing changed. This is a manager who has spent much of his recent career in near constant crisis mode. And that’s because he has managed sides that are more likely to reside in the bottom half of the table and who are often in dire trouble when he has arrived. When in charge of the likes of Palace, Sunderland and Blackburn, Allardyce has had to fight all season long to avoid the drop, developing a tactical approach and managerial mindset rooted in crisis.
That wasn’t necessary at Everton. Between January and May, there was no need to employ this ‘siege mentality’. Confidence was back, the side was better balanced and there were no distractions. What existed was an opportunity to think in the long term. Fringe players could have been introduced, youngsters blooded, recent recruits given time.
But Allardyce could not get beyond November in his mind. The template he applied while at his previous clubs was applied even when it was obvious to all that that such a method was unnecessary at Everton. The club approached the season’s run-in as though it was in the midst of a fight for survival, rather than seeing if it would finish seventh.
You can’t blame Allardyce for this. He is what he is. And we all knew that when he was appointed. As a manager he has become shaped by his experience. And that experience is rooted in crisis. But without the crisis to justify it, his approach just looked out of place and strange, an ill fit for a team such as Everton.
The appointment of Allardyce perhaps illustrates the difference between where Everton are and where we want the club to be. No ‘elite’ club finding themselves in a similar position to the Blues back in November would have acted in the same way. You could not imagine the likes of Arsenal, City or Chelsea turning to figures such as, Allardyce, Moyes or Pulis if their season had started as equally poorly. Despite the club’s best efforts, Everton have not yet reached the point where we believe in our hearts that relegation is an impossibility (which is what fans of elite clubs believe).
Decades of frustration, dashed hopes and times of genuine distress have played havoc with the Everton psyche. As fans and a club, we can, as this season illustrated, go from outlandish optimism to unfounded pessimism in the blink of an eye. As understandable as this is, such an outlook is not one shared by those who follow the ‘Big Six’. If we want to avoid another Allardyce and a season like this, that ‘November’ mentality will have to change. If it doesn’t, then we might be doomed to repeat the same mistakes again.