Experiencing The Premier League Run-In: The Heart Of English Football
As a supporter, trying to grasp perspective during a wonderful run can be difficult.
You become so immersed in your soccer team when it’s going well; reading every match report after a win, trawling through social media to sample opinions of your team and counting down the seconds until the next fixture.
On Merseyside, there’s been plenty in that kind of mind-set for lengthy spells during this season, and whilst the vast majority of fans will be quick to tell you that they don’t want to get ahead of themselves, it’s in the nature of every supporter to dream.
From an Everton perspective, the last time I penned one of these columns I too was wrapped up in the hyperbole; signing off with references to the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu, as Everton moved into pole position in the race for Champions League football after a 1-0 win against Sunderland.
Despite seeing the team come up short for most of my match-going life, I too was dreaming of the big-time. But as is so often the case, it’s the hope that kills you, and just as Evertonian optimism reached its peak, it all unravelled once again.
Perennial party poopers Crystal Palace rocked up at Goodison Park just four days after that win over the Black Cats, and Tony Pulis’ side produced a clinic in cohesive defending and scintillating counter-attacking to earn a well deserved 3-2 win.
Suddenly, fourth place was out of Everton’s hands. After sorting tickets for the final two away games against Southampton and Hull City, I was hoping that those two clashes would have something on them. Especially when a loss in the next game against Manchester United could have effectively put an end to Everton’s season.
That day — Easter Sunday, as it happens — was probably my favorite of the entire season. The pubs were packed from noon onwards with locals enjoying the bank holiday, so we settled in somewhere to sample the two games on before ours; singing, drinking and laughing for hours.
There’s a lad who I went to university with who always liked soccer, but never really had a team to support. So about two years ago, I asked him along to an away game with me, and since then, he’s fallen in love with the Toffees.
The amount of matches he’s been to is in double figures now, but that game against United was his first ever trip to Goodison Park, and he couldn’t have picked a better afternoon (although I did warn him, it’s not usually that good!).
The Toffees tore into Manchester United in front of a fervent crowd. The 2-0 scoreline flattered David Moyes’ side, and the dreary manner in which the visitors played provided an emphatic reminder of how far Everton have come under Roberto Martinez this season. Perspective indeed.
Kevin Mirallas also gave the impression that things were a little too easy for the Toffees:
In the grand scheme of things, that win meant Everton were still in the race for fourth and could go back into the Champions League spots with a win at Southampton the weekend after.
It was the first time we’d been to Saints’ stadium, so with the game being an early kick-off on Saturday, we traveled down to London on the Friday, and then got the train to Southampton on Saturday morning.
We had another fantastic day out, and the train down to the South coast saw us discussing the potential away trips next year. Everyone agreed we’d prefer the likes of Prague, Bratislava and Zagreb to Paris, Munich and Madrid, so a Europa League spot wouldn’t be a complete disaster.
After having to literally crawl under the barriers at Southampton station — I stupidly left my train ticket on the train — we jumped in a taxi to the ground, getting dropped off “not even five minutes away” from the stadium, according to the driver.
He was certainly right about that, and about half-an-hour (!) later we arrived at St Mary’s. In truth, I was a little underwhelmed. The ground is a little bit out of the city center, and aside from the abandoned railway tracks and warehouses dotted around, there’s very little character to the place.
The game itself was an unprecedented disaster — probably Everton’s worst performance of the season, and I’d include the 4-0 drubbing by Liverpool in that. Heads were in hands after around 50 seconds when Antolin Alcaraz headed into his own net.
Then lot of supporters found themselves laughing when Seamus Coleman headed past Tim Howard to concede the second own goal of the day. What else can you do when you’re 2-0 down in the first-half, 250 miles away from home? It was absolutely vintage Toffees, in truth.
Southampton fans did sing mainly about the England national team, which was somewhat peculiar, but their chant of “who needs Rodriguez, we’ve got your back-four” was inspired, to be fair.
To cap the day off, on arrival back in London it was announced that all trains to Liverpool were canceled. The rest of the lads stuck around for a night out, but I was sat at Euston station for three hours waiting for a train. I was supposed to arrive back in Liverpool at 8:30 p.m., but didn’t get back until 11 p.m. in the end.
Next up was the Manchester City game, a match I was dreading. Not because of some moral dilemma on whether or not to support Everton — a Toffees win would have given Liverpool the initiative in the title race, of course — but because the aftermath.
Either way, Evertonians were going to come in for some stick. With fifth place secured pre-match, the atmosphere was never going to be full on. But a positive result, and those lovable Reds would have reveled in telling us how we won the league for them. A negative one and it’d all be about how Everton rolled over for City. It was going to be insufferable whatever happened.
It was good to get it out of the way, and the majority of the crowd were fully behind Everton despite the aforementioned circumstances. The Toffees took the lead thanks to a stunning goal from Ross Barkley, then battled back with vigor after falling 3-1 down. Nonetheless, cries of “you bent over,” “it’s a conspiracy,” and “you bitter lot” that littered my phone and the social media pages as expected.
With that defeat came confirmation that Everton wouldn’t be visiting Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Barcelona next season. But now we’re not involved in a battle for fourth place, perspective becomes a lot easier to gather.
It’s been a remarkable campaign for the Toffees and as I’m sure you can tell from these columns, I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. The whole experience of being a supporter isn’t just about the result of the game, but the people you meet, the moments you share and the great days you have in different parts of country.
This season has been by far the best for all of the above. Plus, games like Manchester United away, West Ham away and Arsenal at home are some of the most thrilling I’ve seen next season. Now, with European football guaranteed next season, I simply cannot wait to watch Everton in some far foreign lands.
Other Evertonians still tell wonderful tales of trips to Nurnberg, Kharkiv and Alkmaar from the club’s last European jaunt, and it’s something that’ll be wonderful to sample. Hopefully we’ll see more nights like this:
The final game of the current campaign is away at Hull City, a place where I had my worst ever match-going experience — 3-0 down at halt-time on a cold winter’s evening.
The Everton supporters will turn up in their usual numbers and the Tigers’ fans will be in party mood with an FA Cup Final on the horizon. Let’s hope the Toffees can finish a fine season off in style.
We’ll certainly be making the most of our last away trip for a few months.