“No doubts,” an old ally said to Sean Dyche. “Apart from all the doubts,” the Everton manager replied. In its own way, it summed up their escape. Dyche was brought in to be the guarantee against relegation. Everton stayed up with their lowest points tally in the era of three for a win, with their smallest ever goal total, after spending some of the final day in the drop zone, without centre-forwards or full-backs. But they stayed up, and that felt the promise of Dyche. Everton only took 15 points from 20 games under Frank Lampard. In Dyche’s time in charge, Everton earned five more points than Leicester and eight more than Leeds. The least exciting of managerial appointments had a strange kind of efficiency.
Everton have won five games under Dyche, four of them 1-0. But survival has also come from a combination of seemingly freakish incidents: Abdoulaye Doucoure’s first goal from outside the box in five years to beat Bournemouth, a Seamus Coleman winner from a ludicrous angle against Leeds, a spectacular injury-time equaliser by Michael Keane against Tottenham, a 99th-minute leveller from Yerry Mina against Wolves. Perhaps three Everton players have scored the goals of their lives in March, April and May. And then there was the strangest result of the season: a team with 29 goals in their other 37 league games won 5-1 at Brighton.
In a sense, Everton have got lucky: not so much Dyche and the core of his team, whether wholehearted performers like James Tarkowski and Alex Iwobi or Jordan Pickford, much the best goalkeeper in the relegation struggle, or the rejuvenated pair of Dwight McNeil and Doucoure, who proved unexpectedly, crucially prolific in the run-in: but the powerbrokers.
Everton’s strategy to score this season was to rely on the fitness of the often unfit Dominic Calvert-Lewin. He played barely one-third of minutes, scored two goals and one of those was a penalty. Everton’s specialist strikers only mustered four. It amounted to negligence in the transfer market, created in part by a lack of funds.
And that situation may not change, given financial fair play constraints and with the possibility of investment from MSP Sports Capital intended instead to fund their new stadium. Some of Dyche’s predecessors have enjoyed periods of excess, with transfer spending in seven years under Farhad Moshiri approaching £700m. He won’t. “I’ll be very surprised if they say, ‘Here’s another war chest, sign who you like’,” said Dyche. “It’s not going to happen so we have to be wise, recruit wisely and recruit players who, if possible, understand this club.”
All of which is eminently sensible but Everton might have to sell in the summer; they are already losing Mina, plus on-loan Conor Coady; they surely need two forwards if Dyche can play his beloved 4-4-2. Everton have spent a fortune under Moshiri, yet look short of both funds and players. There are times when relegation seems a logical endpoint to the mismanagement of the Moshiri regime. Years of mistakes have started to catch up with them.
Escaping relegation 12 months earlier brought scenes of euphoria. Lampard was bouncing on the roof of an executive box. Dyche, more restrained and less emotional, provided fewer indelible images. But a year ago, Everton, who had not finished in the bottom eight since 2003-04, could imagine a scrap to survive was a one-off. Now it is a two-off; there are dangerous parallels with clubs who dodged the drop for season after season until, suddenly, they didn’t. Everton don’t want to be Sunderland.
In the short term, they don’t want to be Everton, either: not this version of Everton, anyway. “I’ve just told the players we can’t be in this state. You are only a big club if you are doing big things,” said Dyche. The contrast with Lampard a year earlier may not have been deliberate but it was jarring. “It’s a horrible day for all concerned, there is no joy in it for me other than getting the job done,” said Dyche. His charges echoed his thoughts. “It’s becoming a thing now and we don’t want it to become a thing,” said Coady. Pickford added: “It’s been a tough couple of years but we should never be in this situation anyway.” Doucoure shrugged off his status as the saviour. “I’m not a hero,” the midfielder said. “Nobody is here.”
If Everton are now adamant that their 70th consecutive season of top-flight football cannot be a repeat of the last two, there is no easy escape. They have dug themselves into a hole. It will take hard labour to rebuild their fortunes. “I don’t have magic dust, I can only make things happen I think are believable,” said Dyche. “I’m just bereft of giving you nonsense. I’m trying to tell Evertonians the truth of how it is. You can mess about with all the myths about how we are going to play like Man City now we have got over the line and it’s going to be wonderful: it’s not.”
Dyche emerged with more authority after succeeding in his salvage job. Everton lost their way in part because of getting starstruck, of pursuing glamour; Moyesian grit fell out of favour. Dyche likes to talk about Peter Reid and Joe Royle, about how he sees earthiness and hard work as central to Everton’s identity. Perhaps he isn’t selling a dream, but a reality.
“The problem with realism is not many people want it because it sounds boring,” he said. Rewind a few months and, when Lampard departed, Moshiri wanted Marcelo Bielsa, who had the impractical idea to take charge of the under-21s for the rest of the season. The rest of Everton’s board preferred the pragmatist Dyche and, for all the errors made by the directors in recent years, it proved the right call.
Any revival may not be fast or pretty. Simplistic solutions have taken them to this point. “It is not just a quick fix: buy a player, hurrah. They have tried that in the past. It is not that easy,” said Dyche. “We need to realign it and [there will be] another day when a fashionista can come in here and we will have a beautiful product.” In the modern Everton, it isn’t about beauty but avoiding the ugliness of relegation and relegation battles.