Back in June 2013, Roberto Martinez was unveiled to the media as Everton’s new manager. To his left, the Toffees’ wide-eyed chairman Bill Kenwright waxed lyrical over the acquisition of the Catalan, rattling off the credentials that convinced him the former Wigan boss was the right man to take Everton forward.
Understandably beaming and in typically theatrical fashion, Kenwright revealed to the watching world “Roberto’s first words were ‘I’ll get you in the Champions League’.”
There was a bit of an awkward silence and an uncomfortable shift from Martinez. The Champions League!? Everton?
A team that had been punching above its weight for a decade under the departed David Moyes? A team predicted to crumble under the tutelage of a relegated boss? A team who can’t compete financially with the majority of mid-table Premier League clubs? Not a chance, surely.
Whilst the majority of the watching world quaffed at this suggestion, for Evertonians, it was a welcome dose of lofty ambition. The Goodison Park outfit are one of the most decorated clubs in English football, after all. Why shouldn’t they be fighting it out at the top of the table? Why shouldn’t they be dissatisfied with mediocrity? Why shouldn’t they be playing in the Champions League?
Ten months down the line and Martinez’s boast no longer looks like blind aspiration, for Everton’s Champions League fate is completely in their own hands. Win all of their remaining seven games and it’s theirs. The glitz, the glamor, that wonderful, stirring music; Europe’s premier club competition is there for the taking.
This Sunday’s clash with Arsenal will go a long way to determining whether or not the Toffees can breach the top four. Win, and they’ll be one point behind the Gunners with a game in hand and a superior goal difference. As for a draw or a defeat? No other result will be good enough for those of a blue persuasion, as Arsenal would surely waltz to fourth place if they were to avoid defeat at Goodison.
It’s an immense opportunity for the Toffees. It’s a chance to prove those aforementioned doubters wrong, to secure a welcomed financial windfall for the club and perhaps most importantly, to rid themselves of the nearly-men tag that has weighed the club down since their last piece of silverware in 1995.
The valiant losers, punching above their weight, consistently overachieving; Evertonians have had enough of those tired, patronizing clichés. They want to see their team up against the best, playing at some iconic stadiums and winning some big, big games.
The pathway to those sorts of occasions can start to be paved on Sunday. The fans are due a performance in a crucial game. Too many times down the years, Everton have been gripped by fear and apprehension in vital contests. Granted, there have been signs this season that this inferiority complex is gradually being shed, but the current campaign has been punctured with instances where the team still seems haunted by the ghosts of big games past.
They must hold their nerve on Sunday in what is arguably the biggest league game that the club have had in many a year. Experienced men like Tim Howard, Sylvain Distin, Leon Osman and Gareth Barry must use their know-how, whilst young stars like John Stones, James McCarthy, Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku must continue play with the refreshing fearlessness that has made Everton such a pleasure to watch this campaign.
Win this one, and even more significant games will come as the end of the season draws closer. But victory against Arsenal can be the catalyst for a strong finish. Beating the Gunners would send a big message out to Arsene Wenger’s team that they are in a real scrap for this Champions League spot. Yes Arsenal have an easier run-in, but pressure can do strange things to sides at the end of the campaign, especially when they lose momentum.
Everton have momentum in spades at the moment and they can certainly heap the pressure on Arsenal on Sunday. The Toffees won their last five ahead of this one, whilst the Gunners have failed to win in their last three games. Plus, Arsenal have capitulated against the division’s better sides away from home this season; if you can get at them early, a perilously soft center can be embarrassingly exposed.
That won’t have passed Martinez by. Nor should it elude the Goodison Park faithful, who will be right behind their team from the off come Sunday. The Evertonians know that this unprecedentedly unpredictable Premier League season might be an anomaly; a chance to join Europe’s elite may not come around again for a while, they must do all they can to galvanize their team.
Martinez inspired some splendid late season runs in his time at Wigan and there is little doubt amongst Evertonians he’ll get this team reveling rather than recoiling in the big, big games eventually.
But lose on Sunday—whilst this season has undoubtedly been one of progress and positivity—it’ll be another “what if?”. Evertonians have had enough of them down the years; it’s time to start dreaming big again, just like their manager did on his very first day at the club.