Now that the dust has settled and the blue smoke has cleared, the question for relieved Everton supporters now is, what next after scrambling away from the cliff edge of relegation?
The 2021-22 campaign was, on a point-per-game basis, the joint-worst in Goodison history. From the most divisive managerial appointment in their history in Rafael Benítez to injuries to key players (Dominic Calvert-Lewin breaking a toe in a domestic accident summed up his personal bad luck) via Russian invasion of Ukraine costing the club a key sponsor – it felt like a season when just about everything went wrong.
Yet amid the woe, Everton have come out of the campaign with a unity not previously known during Farhad Moshiri’s ownership – a unity which augurs well for the club and manager Frank Lampard.
For all the sneering from certain quarters, Lampard has helped unify a club that was riven by division.
Graham Stuart, hero of the 1994 last-day comeback win over Wimbledon so uncannily echoed by the decisive 3-2 win over Crystal Palace, says: “Frank inherited a side with confidence at rock bottom. “There was fear everywhere around the pitch and Frank recognized very quickly that we needed to build a relationship back with the fans.”
Back in 1994, when Stuart’s Everton escaped relegation, the average Goodison attendance rose steeply from 22,876 that season to 31,291 the next year. This time the coming together has already begun – indeed from early in Lampard’s reign when the club started liaising with fan groups over creating a better atmosphere.
Before the penultimate home fixture against Brentford, Lampard instigated a meeting with those fan groups to give his thanks. Days later, against Palace, the home campaign ended with those remarkable scenes of players and supporters together on the pitch, singing the old anthems – an unthinkable scene during the midwinter fan protests as Benítez’s reign unravelled.
Nobody embodies the transformed mood better than Alex Iwobi, who found a performance level during the run-in not previously seen in his three seasons on Merseyside. Lampard warrants credit too for getting the best out of a player who impressed him with his attitude.
Stuart also applauds Lampard for his pragmatism in “compromising the way he wants to play to make sure he gets results”.
When Everton survived on the last day in 1998, the Liverpool Echo complained of the “wrong-headed decision-making that is riddling Goodison Park”. These words could just as easily apply to the reign of Moshiri – of whom nothing has been heard since survival was secured – yet the presence of Lampard and Kevin Thelwell, the director of football appointed in February, offers hope of change.
The fact Lampard was the first collegiate appointment of the Moshiri era was a positive step forward from an owner who once offered David Moyes the job before lurching to Carlo Ancelotti a day later. It bodes well too that Lampard has a closer working relationship with Thelwell than the previous director of football, Marcel Brands, had with certain past managers.
Lampard and Thelwell’s offices are across the same corridor at the club’s Finch Farm training ground, and Thelwell, who is understood to have demanded a level of autonomy not afforded Brands, is close to concluding the search for both a new under-23 coach and academy director following the departure of David Unsworth.
As another consequence of the club’s strategic review, a technical board is being put in place to monitor the entire football structure from first team down to academy.
The search will now begin for young, hungry players – and, as Lampard has avowed, players who are more robust.
If Benítez was unhappy with the club’s medical department, the recruitment of players with a history of injuries did not help by putting a strain on the rest of the squad.
Players may leave, with a strong question mark against the future of Calvert-Lewin, a player understood to have new advisors and a yearning for European football, though the departure of others will help.
The fact Everton should save more than £ 25m annually when Fabian Delph, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Cenk Tosun’s contracts expire shortly only highlights the bad decision-making the club are now aiming to put behind them.