Back Where We Belong

A club with our illustrious history should be playing on the European stage. Thanks to the success of Roberto Martinez's first season in charge, Everton are back there and have the chance to show they belong there on a regular basis.

Nobody knew quite what to expect when Roberto Martinez took the Goodison reins last summer. After years of stability, albeit under a regime seemingly unable to take Everton any further by the end, there was a mixture of excitement and anxiety as a new era approached. Martinez ending the previous campaign as the first manager to oversee FA Cup success and top-flight relegation in the same season merely added to the intrigue.

The former Wigan boss confounded the doubters, though, building on the solid foundations laid by predecessor David Moyes, overseeing progression at a time when many expected a period of transition. Those improvements resulted in a club-record Premier League points haul and a return of European football for the first time in five years.

Admittedly, it is not the tournament of preference – although not for a want of trying, with 72 points enough for Champions League football in seven of the ten previous seasons – but that should not detract from the work to this point or the competition itself.

Whether it is the Champions League – the competition so briefly flirted with in 2005 – or the Europa League, Europe is a basic requirement for any team with upward ambitions. The players, especially the younger members of the squad, can use it to enhance their game; the manager will embrace it, supporters relish it, and a club of this stature needs it.

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For a side with such an illustrious history, boasting a number of notable firsts in the domestic game, the European history is all too brief, aside from the obvious European Cup Winners’ Cup success in 1985. The Blues’ record, since their European debut in 1962/63, comprises of 18 seasons and just 71 appearances. While the ban on English clubs in the 80s clearly affected the Blues at a time when the club were at the peak of their powers, those lowly numbers are lacklustre.

Beginning their quest to extend those numbers, the Blues must first pit their wits against a trio of tough opponents – this European return is unlikely to be a walk in the park. In the European wilderness for half a decade, a low coefficient has resulted in a group consisting of Lille, Wolfsburg and Krasnodar.

And there will be no easy ties in Group H. Lille dropped down from the Champions League, losing 3-0 to Porto at the final qualification stage; Wolfsburg finished fifth in the Bundesliga last time out, narrowly missing a Champions League place; Krasnodar, also fifth in their domestic league, impressively dispatched Real Sociedad to reach this stage.

However, successful navigation of the group stage (thereby eliminating two strong sides in the process) would leave Everton fancying their chances of further progression. And for the first time, there is the added incentive of a Champions League place for the winner of this year’s competition. Despite lacking the riches and media attention of its illustrious big brother, such a move is sure to renew interest in this less fancied tournament.

Then there is the no small matter of night matches at Goodison Park. There is always something unique about those games under the lights at this famous old stadium, with the supporters roaring on those in royal blue. The prominent example of recent times is the visit of Fiorentina in 2008 – which remains one of the best performances and atmospheres of recent times – when the Blues fell narrowly short when chasing an improbable comeback.

Perhaps the most exciting factor surrounding the return to Europe, though, is Martinez, namely seeing how the manager copes with the various demands and challenges ahead. With the players quickly adapting to his possession-based style, said approach is more befitting football on the continent.

Though previous excursions under Moyes were not without the quality, with the standout passage of play being the exquisite goal expertly finished by Leon Osman against Larissa in 2007, the methods of Martinez provide a stronger platform, especially away from home, when possession may be at a premium.

Throwing all those aspects into the mix, it points toward a potentially mouth-watering adventure. Only time can tell whether success or failure will define this latest attempt at success, but it is good to be back in the equation. European football is back. It had been away for too long.