Another Great Escape — Season 2022-23 in Review

2021-22 was supposed to be the nadir of the Moshiri era but Everton somehow ended up in even more peril by the end 2022-23. It took another managerial change, the fans going to the well of passion a few more times and one tortuous final day game before Premier League survival was achieved.

May 2022 was, understandably, a time for celebration. Despite all the mis-steps by the club’s hierarchy, not least the perplexing and potentially catastrophic appointment of Rafael Benitez as manager in June the previous year, Everton dodged a bullet by securing their top flight status with a game to spare on one of the most dramatic nights in Goodison Park’s long and fabled history.

The game against Crystal Palace might not have had the same do-or-die, behind-the-eight-ball stakes as that incredible afternoon against Wimbledon in 1994 when Everton had their first brush with relegation from the Premier League but it followed a similar script, with Frank Lampard’s side hauling their way back from 2-0 down to win 3-2.

The visit to Arsenal the following Sunday was more of a day out in the sun for Evertonians who cared little for the outcome of a dead rubber on the final day; after all, lessons would surely have been learned and a new future lay ahead under a young manager who had cleverly harnessed the passions of the land’s greatest supporters and done enough to steer a beleaguered team to safety with some memorable results along the way.

Sadly, those final few weeks of the 2021-22 campaign after Lampard had been brought in to pick up the mess left behind by Benitez proved to be a flash in the pan; a heady mix of Richarlison’s predatory instincts, Jordan Pickford’s brilliance between the posts and the unbridled passion of fans who took support to unprecedented territory with blue-fogged coach welcomes, an inspirational send-off for the team to the Leicester away game at Finch Farm and some thunderous atmospheres inside the Grand Old Lady to help drag the players over the proverbial line.

Though unquestionably hamstrung to a degree by the enforced sale of Richarlison to Tottenham and critical failings in the transfer market to sign a replacement, particularly when Dominic Calvert-Lewin suffered another injury three days before the 2022-23 season kicked off, Lampard proved wholly ill-equipped to push the club forward.

There were glimmers of what might be. The former Derby and Chelsea manager did his best to fashion a forward line from Anthony Gordon and Demarai Gray in the early games of the season prior to the transfer deadline and came close to picking up priceless wins at Leeds and Brentford. The home game against Crystal Palace in October ended up being the most complete team display of the subsequent seven months (until his successor Sean Dyche masterminded one of the best away performances by an Everton side of the modern era). And the win at Southampton, the only win away from Goodison that Lampard would oversee and which featured Dwight McNeil’s first goal for the club, offered further hope that the fledgeling coach could keep things ticking over until the January transfer window when desperately needed attacking reinforcements could arrive.

Overall, though, Everton’s fortunes followed a downward trend in the first few months of the season before their form collapsed, Lampard was belatedly sacked and Dyche was was brought in to save the club from disaster by the skin of the club’s proverbial teeth at the end of an exhausting and stressful campaign.

Lampard tries to make do

If there had been an overriding frustration from the 2021-22 season — other than that of watching Everton’s fortunes plummet in predictable fashion under the dreadful management of Benitez — it was the repeated loss to injury of Calvert-Lewin, a player who had established himself as one of the most important in the Blues’ squad along with Richarlison and Jordan Pickford.

The England international striker had managed just 15 Premier League starts thanks to a torn quad muscle and the consequent soft-tissue niggles that would plague him for the following months. He made a triumphant return in time to score the dramatic winner against Palace on a night of elation under the Grand Old Lady‘s lights but was otherwise a season he was probably happy to see the back of.

With Richarlison gone and no sign of another reliable goalscoring striker on the horizon by way of the transfer market, Calvert-Lewin was set to carry on his shoulders an enormous burden heading into the new season. There was concern when he was rested for the pre-season friendly against Blackpool in late July but DCL’s appearance in the starting XI for the final pre-season warm-up game against Dynamo Kiev at Goodison Park reassured fans that he would be fit to lead the line in the season opener against Chelsea eight days later.

Sadly for all concerned, Calvert-Lewin suffered a knee injury in training on the Wednesday and would be sidelined for the next two months. The urgency and importance of signing a replacement for a player who just couldn’t stay fit was immediately heightened but August stretched on with just speculation and rejected advances for the likes of Che Adams and a failed loan move for Ajax’s Mohammed Kudus that, like the similar collapse of a deal for Luis Diaz the year before, would become one of those agonising “sliding doors” moments.

In the meantime, Lampard tried to plug the gap, hoping that a system relying on the pace of Gordon and Gray in transition would be enough to collect points before the transfer deadline by which time attacking additions would surely have arrived.

Understandably, the team struggled going forward and the manager’s task was undermined by injuries suffered by both Yerry Mina and Ben Godfrey on the opening day, with the latter suffering a fractured tibia just 10 minutes into the game against Chelsea that would sideline him until after the mid-season break for the World Cup.

The season began with back-to-back defeats and then four successive draws, including a laudable goalless display in the Goodison derby, and the neglect of effectively sacrificing the first five matches of the Premier League campaign without an attacking addition the squad put Everton in a hole at the outset.

The hugely anticipated climax to the summer transfer window ended up being a very damp squib, at least in terms of that desperate need for a reliable goalscorer and focal point up front. Snatching Amadou Onana from the clutches of West Ham for £30m was something of a coup and the acquisitions of Dwight McNeil and James Garner in particular would prove to be astute later in the season but Neal Maupay was an unmitigated disaster.

Signed from Brighton for £12m the Frenchman’s arrival was initially promising as he popped up at the right time and the right place against Liverpool but failed to convert what might have been a precious winner before grabbing the only goal in the Toffees’ first Premier League victory of 2022-23 against the Hammers in mid-September. It would be the only goal Maupay would score all season.

A rare away win at Southampton followed, with McNeil opening his account in spectacular fashion with the decisive goal in a 2-1 victory but three successive losses followed during a tough part of the schedule against Manchester United, Tottenham and Newcastle that left the Blues in 15th place by the middle of October.

Even then there were signs that Lampard might be building something. Everton had taken the lead against United with a superb Alex Iwobi goal and had their chances at Spurs to have been comfortably ahead before Antonio Conte’s side took control in the second half.

As if to prove the point, everything came together brilliantly when Palace returned to Goodison and were swept aside by an almost rampant Blues team who had Calvert-Lewin back in the line-up and scored three unanswered goals, with the pick of them being a lovely flowing move from back to front that culminated in McNeil gleefully sweeping Iwobi's back-heel past Vicente Guaita to make it 3-0. Unfortunately, it would be the high point of the season under Lampard and the only time Everton would manage to score more than one goal in front of their home fans.

Into a tailspin

Calvert-Lewin played the next game at Fulham, a goalless affair at Craven Cottage before breaking down again in the next match against Leicester, a 2-0 home defeat that would mark the beginning of a precipitous slide in form that would eventually cost Lampard his job two and a half months later.

Indeed, it would be a dreadful week for the Blues as they followed up that anaemic display against a team that would end up getting relegated at the end of May with back-to-back humiliations on the south coast against Bournemouth, first in the League Cup where a team featuring wholesale changes in personnel was hammered 4-1 and then in the Premier League where the returning first-choice players fared little better in a 3-0 reverse.

At the time, they were the only games in an 11-match stretch that Cherries boss Gary O’Neil hadn’t lost and they might have been the wins that allowed him to keep his job at the Vitality Stadium when he was surely in grave danger of being sacked just weeks after taking over from Scott Parker.

In retrospect, had Farhad Moshiri and the Everton hierarchy had the foresight and the courage to take the same action that the likes of Wolves and Aston Villa did in getting rid of a struggling manager then the seven-week hiatus to accommodate the World Cup in Qatar offered the ideal opportunity. In the case of the two Midlands clubs, the appointments of Julen Lopetegui and Unai Emery proved to be timely and prescient, with the former lifting Wolves off the foot of the Premier League on Boxing Day to a comfortable 13th-place finish while the latter guided Villa all the way to seventh and the Europa Conference League.

Likely bruised by having paid out tens of millions in compensation payments to succession of sacked managers, mindful perhaps of how his current head coach had been left short on firepower by the summer’s transfer business, and keen to try and foster some stability at the club, Moshiri left Lampard in his post.

When the season resumed after Christmas, though, Everton’s form continued its nosedive, with home defeats to Wolves, Brighton and Southampton punctuated by an improbable 1-1 draw at Champions Manchester City courtesy of a stunning goal-of-the-season contender by Gray. The performance against the Seagulls in the first week of January was horrendous and with those dreadful displays in Bournemouth still fresh in the memory and the Blues winless since October, it was that result that many fans felt should have been Lampard’s last.

Instead, the 44-year-old was allowed to limp on and lose to the bottom-placed Saints before overseeing an utterly lifeless outing at West Ham where the club’s leadership saw first-hand that an immediate change of manager was needed. Lampard was sacked two days later, becoming the seventh managerial casualty of the Moshiri era having won just three Premier League matches since the start of the season.

By delaying Lampard’s dismissal as long as they did, the search by Everton’s leadership for a successor played out alongside increasingly frantic efforts to add firepower to a side that was among the lowest-scoring clubs in all of England’s top four divisions. Supporters who had been dismayed by the failure to sign a striker in the mould of Calvert-Lewin to play when the No.9 was injured had fully expected to see movement on a new signing in the first week of the winter window. They were bewildered when the final week of January approached and no one had been signed to provide the goals the team would need to stay up.

Arnaut Danjuma had been on the verge of putting pen to paper on a loan deal from Villarreal and was reported to have done everything but sign the contract due to a delay in submitting paperwork on the Spanish club’s side. It was enough time for the Dutch forward to undergo a change of heart and leave Merseyside for North London where he promptly signed for Tottenham.

Meanwhile, Gordon, a reported big-money target of Chelsea in the summer 2022, had been engineering his exit from Goodison, this time to Newcastle and he would get his wish, with Everton's coffers boosted to the tune of £45m but with the squad depleted by one more attacking option.

Nevertheless, Director of Football, Kevin Thelwell, still had a week to find alternatives to both Danjuma and Gordon while Moshiri and the Board assessed their options for a new manager capable of coming on board and making an immediate impact to set the Blues on the road to salvation.

Dyche was quickly installed as a candidate for the role alongside ex-Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa, not least because both were out of work. The enigmatic, dynamic and mercurial Bielsa quickly emerged as Moshiri's favoured option and the Argentine jetted to England to hold talks but returned to South America almost straight without Everton agreeing to his suggestion of working with the Under-21s for the remainder of the season while his staff oversaw first-team responsibilities.

With Sam Allardyce thankfully not in the running, that left Dyche as the obvious candidate and he was hired on 27th January, just four days before the end of a transfer window that supporters had labelled as potentially the most important in the club's history. To the utter dismay of Evertonians, despite a clear promise from Moshiri in an interview with the Fan Advisory Board in mid-January, the deadline came and went with no new acquisitions and the new manager was forced to get on with the job of assessing, rallying and motivating a dejected squad for the steep challenge ahead.

If that wasn't reason enough for fan fury with the club's hierarchy, the Board had fuelled the ire of Evertonians earlier in January when they announced they would not be attending the home game against the Saints, citing threats made against the likes Chairman Bill Kenwright and Chief Executive, Denise Barrett-Baxendale and the allusion to an incident where a supporter was alleged to have put the CEO in a headlock in the immediate aftermath of the previous fixture against Brighton.

Many fans viewed this as a cynical attempt to paint them in a bad light and detract from protests against the Board that were now being held before home games by growing numbers of supporters and it drove a large wedge between the two parties for the remainder of the campaign. Moshiri and the Board attended the defeat at West Ham; Kenwright and Barrett-Baxendale had the temerity to take their seats at Anfield two weeks later but they did not watch another match at Goodison for the rest of the season.

Dyche provides rays of hope

Dyche’s tenure got off to the perfect start with a 1-0 win over clear Premier League leaders at the time, Arsenal, ending the Gunners' long unbeaten streak that stretched back to the previous September and beat relegation rivals Leeds by the same scoreline thanks to a brilliantly improvised goal by Seamus Coleman either side of a derby defeat at Anfield.

At that stage, with six points gleaned from a possible nine, the feeling among supporters and outside observers alike was that Everton would have more than enough to get out of danger with Dyche at the helm, particularly if they could Calvert-Lewin back fit for the final three months of the season.

The striker had played an hour of the win over Arsenal but sustained an injury just minutes before his new manager was set to bring him off as a precaution given his record of frequent niggles over the preceding 18 months. Dyche and his staff soon resolved to leave no stone unturned in trying to get to the bottom of his injury problems, vowing to analyse everything from his bed at home to the car he drove.

As it turned out, DCL would miss the next 10 matches as Dyche gave him every opportunity to get fully “right” and the Blues would win just once in that time, keeping the club mired in a relegation battle that at one stage involved almost the entire bottom half of the Premier League.

An injury to Coleman compounded the continuing absence of Nathan Patterson and Dyche struggled to patch holes in the team, trying Ben Godfrey at right-back, Mason Holgate as a defensive midfielder and bringing Michael Keane in place of regular choice Conor Coady in a harrowing 4-0 defeat at Arsenal just days after an uncomfortably comprehensive defeat to Villa.

Precious points were dropped in a away game against fellow strugglers Nottingham Forest in early March where the Blues were ahead going into the final quarter of an hour but ended up conceding an equaliser that meant they had to settle for a 2-2 draw but the following week, Brentford’s impressive run without defeat was ended at Goodison thanks to a goal by McNeil in the first minute and the week after that, Ellis Simms, recalled from his loan at Sunderland in January, stepped off the bench to score an excellent goal at Chelsea.

Dyche might not have been racking up wins in the bid to grind Everton away from the drop zone but he was picking up valuable points in games which, under his predecessor, tended to end in defeats. The points collected against Forest, Chelsea, Tottenham at home (thanks to a “worldy” off the unlikely boot of Michael Keane) and Crystal Palace away on Calvert-Lewin’s return would prove vital in the final reckoning.

Key to it had been Dyche’s focus on fitness and mentality and his decision to immediately reinstate Abdoulaye Docouré to the starting XI after the Mali international had been banished to train with the reserves by Lampard on account of a bust-up with the manager over treatment of Idrissa Gueye.

Deploying Doucouré behind which ever forward was leading the line on a given day, Dyche did laudable work in improving Everton’s attacking output and the former Watford man chipped in with two goals off set-pieces before the clash with Spurs where he allowed Harry Kane to provoke him into a reaction that earned him an automatic red card and a three-game ban.

His absence was keenly felt, not least at Old Trafford where the Blues were easily beaten by United and then against Fulham at Goodison Park where a 3-1 reverse underlined just how much jeopardy the club was still in as the fixtures ebbed away at Everton remained either just above the bottom three or, as was the case heading into May following a horrible 4-1 home defeat by Newcastle, very much in it.

A pivotal moment and the Miracle on the South Coast

By the time Everton travelled to the King Power Stadium on 1st May, their date with Leicester had taken on massive significance for both clubs. The Blues’ failure to win in almost two months had made this a veritable relegation “six-pointer” between two clubs separated by a point among a clutch of five teams still in danger of joining seemingly doomed Southampton in the Championship.

Everton, with Calvert-Lewin up front, started impressively and performed valiantly from an attacking stand-point over the 90 minutes, racking up 23 shots and taking the lead after 15 minutes when DCL converted from the spot. However, defensive frailties epitomised by the uncertain Keane and the profligate Iwobi, allowed the Foxes back in when the unmarked Caglar Soyuncu fired home and Jamie Vardy was put into the clear to turn the match on its head after 33 minutes.

Matters then threatened to go from bad to worse when Leicester were awarded a penalty of their own at the end of the first half and James Maddison had the chance to make it 3-1. However, in a moment that could well have been the most pivotal of Everton’s season, Jordan Pickford, having consulted notes taped to his water bottle, called the bluff of his England team-mate, stood tall in the middle of the goal and beat away the strike from 12 yards as Maddison tried to go straight down the middle.

Everton rallied in the second half, levelled through Iwobi and probably left the East Midlands feeling like they should have taken all three points but avoiding defeat would prove to be paramount.

If that performance had illustrated how well Dyche’s team could function from an attacking stand-point when it was largely at full-strength up front, what followed at Brighton five days later was pure poetry and arguably the most stunning result by any team over the course of the Premier League season.

With their window to survival narrowing with each passing game, the trip to Leicester had been viewed as must-win given how difficult a trip to play the high-flying Seagulls looked on paper. Brighton appeared to have replaced the departed Graham Potter earlier in the season with an even better manager in Roberto De Zerbi and, having played three fewer games than the teams around them, could still mathematically have moved into fifth place before the last couple of games of the campaign.

The Seagulls had ripped Lampard’s Everton to shreds in the reverse fixture at Goodison Park in a 4-1 drubbing but the Toffees somehow went one better. Taking just 33 seconds to stun the Amex Community Stadium into silence when Doucouré knocked the ball home and then doubling their lead through the same player’s superb volleyed finish after half an hour, Everton were 3-0 up by half-time.

That became 4-0 when Dwight McNeil waltzed around the goalkeeper to literally walk the ball over the line with 15 minutes left and though Alexis Mac Allister fortuitously claimed a consolation goal, McNeil rounded off a 5-1 rampage with a missile in stoppage time.

It would be a most unexpected but vital win — had the Blues only drawn they would have ended up relegated because victory would elude them in their next two games against Champions-elect City who left Goodison easy winners by a 3-0 margin and Wolves, although the latter result, a 1-1 draw, gave Dyche’s side an additional margin for error heading into the final day.

Another hugely important decision from the manager to belatedly introduce Mina to central defence at the expense of Keane had solidified the back line at an important juncture as Everton limited Wolves to a single goal at Molineux until they were able to launch a desperate late assault in search of a precious equaliser.

Once again, injuries had conspired to make the Toffees’ task that much harder. Calvert-Lewin had pulled up with another hamstring strain after half an hour and Patterson, who had done well in place of Coleman whose season had been ended prematurely by knee ligament damage sustained at Leicester.

That had necessitated Keane being thrown on first as an awkward right-back and then pushed forward as an emergency centre-forward late on, a move that paid dividends as he and Tarkowski combined to set up Mina to score a dramatic leveller almost 10 minutes into injury time.

Another key moment in the Blues's season came 48 hours later in the northeast where Newcastle had been expected to roll over Leicester but, despite hitting the woodwork three times, couldn't make the breakthrough. The Foxes, now under Dean Smith after Brendan Rodgers had been sacked with seven games left, had unequivocally set their stall out to defend but with five minutes left, they suddenly tried their luck and when Timothy Castagne popped up six yards out in the 88th minute with the visitors' only effort on goal all game, Evertonian hearts skipped a beat before Nick Pope parried the ball away to safety.

Had Leicester grabbed a dramatic late winner, Everton would have been relegated.

Doucouré the Saviour

Heading into the final day of the season, it was a case of two from three going down with the already-relegated Saints. The point salvaged by Mina at Molineux meant that both Leeds and Leicester had to win against Tottenham and West Ham respectively to have any chance of staying up and they would then have to hope that Everton didn’t. Possessing an insurmountably superior goal difference, the Foxes had an advantage over the Yorkshireman which would see them safe if they won and the Toffees could only draw with Bournemouth.

The Cherries, already safe despite looking odds-on for the drop just a few weeks earlier, had already made mugs of Everton on those two occasions prior to the World Cup so Everton’s task was anything but a formality, particularly as Dyche had had to prepare for the game knowing that he would be without any effective striker with DCL sidelined once again and no fit full-backs with all four of Coleman, Patterson, Vitalii Mykolenko and on-loan Ruben Vinagre also injured.

Employing a back three for the first time since taking charge and starting Gray up front for the first time in five weeks, Dyche made the best of what he had but for long periods of an increasingly nervy encounter, it didn’t look as though the Blues would have enough.

At the halfway stage, Everton were heading out of the Premier League on account of Leicester’s 1-0 lead over the Hammers, an advantage they went on to double before Pablo Fornals pulled one back for David Moyes’s men. 2-0 down to Spurs, Leeds’s position was irretrievable but the task remained unchanged at Goodison Park. Just win.

Enter Doucouré just minutes after Gray had come agonisingly close to putting the Toffees ahead. With 56 minutes gone, Gueye flighted a ball into the Bournemouth box that substitute Matías Viña could only head out to the “D” where Doucouré watched the bounce all the way before thundering it past Mark Travers in the opposition goal.

Cue bedlam in the Old Lady’s stands and then what felt like an eternity through the remaining 33 minutes of regulation time and ten more minutes for stoppages before referee Stuart Attwell blew the whistle to make Everton’s Premier League safety and a 70th consecutive season of top-flight football at Goodison Park.

Another bullet dodged

There was an argument frequently posited that Everton probably deserved to go down this season and, in retrospect, the club was incredibly fortunate that both Leeds and Leicester imploded in the manner in which they did in the final weeks. In general, the Premier League was unusually strong in 2022-23 and for the first time in years, all three promoted sides stayed up.

In the final reckoning, Leeds were a mess, and it’s debatable whether Sam Allardyce would have kept them up even if he had had more time at Elland Road. Meanwhile, Leicester’s astonishing fall from grace, going from Champions seven years ago to the Championship in 2023, opened the door through which Everton crept on the final day to retain their top flight status.

Certainly the Everton hierarchy could have had no complaints had this club fallen out of the Premier League; likewise, some of the players. There is no question however, that Everton’s long-suffering supporters did not deserve the ignominy of relegation and the pain and anguish that would have followed due to a highly uncertain future.

On a points-per-game basis, this was the worst season in Everton’s 145-year history, the direct consequence of years of waste in the transfer market, failed managerial appointments and unforgivable recruitment failures that left first Lampard and then Dyche to battle on without a fit, reliable, recognised goalscorer.

That the consequences weren’t more dire owes much to one of the few decisions they got right, namely hiring Dyche and in just enough time for him to amass sufficient points to beat the drop, and to the indefatigable spirit that lives in this club and its supporters. Fans who simply refused to let the club disappear from the division it has graced for 69 years.

It’s been said before but this time Everton FC needs to mean it with every fibre of its collective being: Never again.

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