Everton 3 - 0 Norwich City
It's a phrase he barely used in the last few weeks of his tenure at Goodison Park but Roberto Martinez spoke frequently of his desire to see his players "enjoying their football." It was reflective of his almost relentless optimism but for all the sunniness of his disposition, it had become quite clear by the Anfield derby and beyond that Everton's players were no longer enjoying anything.
Fast forward to three days after his overdue and necessary dismissal and there was much joy to be found at the Grand Old Lady â€” from the stands to the pitch, there were smiles and a noticeably elevated mood as the club began looking to a potentially brighter future than the stagnant one that has faced them in recent months.
As David Unsworth's well-received team selection and the impressive displays by its youngest members showed, that optimism for what lies ahead is not just confined to the search for a new manager to take the helm at Everton. Four fresh graduates from the club's academy featured prominently in a handsome 3-0 victory over relegated Norwich City, lending credence to the stand-in boss's confident assertion that the next permanent manager will inherit some real gems mined from the youth system.
Matthew Pennington, starting again at right back in the absence of Seamus Coleman, would have been more familiar to Toffees fans, having featured in recent games. In any case, he would manage just 28 minutes before succumbing to the same injury as his more senior team-mate but was ably replaced by Jonjoe Kenny â€” the captain of Unsworth's Under-21s side when he wasn't on loan helping Oxford United gain promotion from England's fourth tier â€” who made his senior bow in impressive fashion.
In midfield, the much-anticipated Kieran Dowell didn't disappoint with his hour-plus on the field and was involved in two of the Blues' goals but it was Tom Davies who emerged as the star of the show and finishing the game as many people's man of the match. Still just 17, Davies exhibited a wonderful blend of touch, skill, steel, awareness and maturity in the middle of the park that defied his tender years, more than justifying his selection. No wonder Unsworth has made repeated mention of the need for the next manager to cherish and nurture Everton's stable of young players.
It meant that there was no place in the squad at all for Ramiro Funes Mori or Muhamed Besic, both of whom are young enough to also form the backbone of Evertonâ€™s future under the right manager, nor was there room for more senior players like Steven Pienaar and Arouna Kone. Oumar Niasse, under a cloud following his arrest on suspicion of assault, likely wouldnâ€™t have featured anyway.
The blooding of those precocious young Blues wasn't the only refreshing thing about the Everton side that took to the field for this finale to another disappointing season. The attitude, tempo and intensity that a team blending youth with seasoned experience brought to the contest from the first whistle was in stark contrast to the insipid, pedestrian fare that plagued them for so much of 2016 thus far.
There was also a confidence coursing through playersâ€™ veins where so recently, with perhaps the exception perhaps of 45 minutes at Wembley, there appeared to be none. That was illustrated beautifully in the 19th minute when a lightning-quick move started by Tim Howard, making his last ever appearance, went straight down the centre of the field through James McCarthy and then Dowell, with the Irish midfielder continuing his run to meet a loose ball 25 yards from goal and bending a wonderfully crisp shot inside John Ruddy's post. Criticised so much recently for his staid, one-dimensional and crab-like performances, this was the sign of the kind of player McCarthy can be when the shackles of a flawed system are thrown off.
The goal epitomised a deliberate directness that was in evidence from the very first minute when Leighton Baines, similarly rejuvenated down the left flank, picked out Romelu Lukaku with a ball over the top from which the Belgian prompted a routine save by the Norwich goalkeeper from the angle.
Ruddy would make a double save to foil Lukaku again the 12th minute as the Blues threatened to score early, palming the strikerâ€™s first effort away as he tried to place it beyond him and then leaping to the same side of his goal to parry the second effort from Kevin Mirallasâ€™s pass.
Tracking back, harrying and probing, Mirallas, like Everton as a whole, looked a man reborn and he almost made it 2-0 when he drove into the side-netting from Lukakuâ€™s neat pass forward. Baines was charging up the flank like the attacking fullback supporters know him to be and McCarthy was operating more like the box-to-box midfielder many thought he had the potential to be under Martinez but always looked shackled and unsure of himself going forward.
Norwich, with their own weight lifted off their shoulders, did their best to feed off the home sideâ€™s energy and they had a couple of good moments in the first half: first when Ivo Pintoâ€™s dangerous low cross was unwittingly diverted goalwards by Jagielkaâ€™s out-stretched leg and then when Steven Naismithâ€™s shot took a deflection and hit Davies on the arm but referee Lee Mason determined it accidental.
Their best chance fell to Matt Jarvis a few minutes before the break but, thankfully, while heâ€™d capitalised on space in front of him as he cut in from the left, he hammered his shot over the bar when he should have done better.
He was left to rue that miss a couple of minutes later when, at the other end, Lukaku collapsed in the Norwich box under the attentions of Robbie Brady and the referee pointed to the spot. It looked harsh on the Canaries but Baines was handed responsibility for the penalty as Howard declined an invitation to mark his sendoff with a goal and, restored to spot-kick duties, the fullback made no mistake, slotting past Ruddy to send Everton into half-time 2-0 up.
The third goal was the one that put the game beyond Norwichâ€™s reach but it was the one that will have Evertonians most excited by the future given that it involved all three of impressive-looking teenagers. Davies snapped into a tackle midway inside the Canariesâ€™ half and the ball broke to Dowell. He nudged it on to McCarthy who in turn fed Kenny on the overlap and his low centre benefitted from a deflection before arriving at the feet of Mirallas who swept it into the empty net.
Having put all that effort into the first half, it perhaps wasnâ€™t surprising that Evertonâ€™s performance tailed off from there as Unsworth removed first McCarthy for Aaron Lennon and then Dowell for Ross Barkley, but not before the youngster had surged superbly down the left and tried to bend a searching ball around the back of the defence that was just cut out looking for Lukaku in the middle.
Norwich had the odd flurry to try and find a way back into the game but Howardâ€™s good save from Brady down at his near post was about the only time the Americanâ€™s clean sheet was threatened.
At the other end, Barkley went on one of his powerful, determined runs down the throat the opposition defence, tried a drag-back on the edge of the box that was initially blocked but when he came away with the ball anyway, the angle was a little too challenging and his low shot was saved.
Lennon wasted a late chance by blazing over but a good job was done all round and all that was left was Howard to say his emotional goodbyes over the microphone and the players to do their lap of appreciation, one in which all the â€œappreciationâ€ was surely from those on the pitch for the long-suffering fans in the stands.
It was an afternoon that could only have gone better for Everton if they had managed to pile on a couple more goals. Compared to what the day threatened to be were Martinez still in the dugout, it was an occasion pregnant with relief, hope for the future and expectation at the rebuilding job ahead over the summer.
2015-16 is a season that supporters will be glad to see the back of as the emotional toll has been a heavy one. Itâ€™s going to a busy close season, however, and 13th August will come sooner than you think!
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