Everton’s fans basked briefly in their annual celebration of Premier League survival before the wider crisis engulfing one of English football’s great old institutions burst to the surface at a highly charged Goodison Park.
The facts of an occasion riddled with nervous tension were that Everton escaped their third last-day dice with relegation in the Premier League era with victory over Bournemouth – but the sub-plots were many and for a while this looked like the day 69 successive seasons in English football’s top tier would end.
It felt as if Everton would drop into the Championship as they demonstrated their lack of quality by struggling to break down Bournemouth at the same time as Leicester City led against West Ham United. At that point Everton were in the bottom three and a sense of panic was growing inside the stadium.
It was in the 57th minute that Abdoulaye Doucoure wrote his name alongside Barry Horne in 1994 and Gareth Farrelly four years later as the Everton midfielder who saved the day with a spectacular long-range strike.
The goal was greeted with an impromptu firework display behind the Gwladys Street stand, the heartbeat of Goodison Park, and yet another explosion of the noise that assaulted the ear-drums and provided the soundtrack for most of this tumultuous afternoon.
With the stands ankle deep in chewed fingernails, not helped by an agonising 10 minutes of added time, referee Stuart Attwell’s final whistle brought an outpouring of joy similar to the one that greeted Everton’s win over Crystal Palace that brought safety in last season’s penultimate game.
After the joy – perfectly understandable – came the anger, as Everton’s fans voiced their discontent with the club’s hierarchy with chants of “Sack The Board” sweeping around Goodison.
As manager Sean Dyche said: “It was a horrible day for all concerned. There was no joy in it for me other than getting the job done.”
In reality, this was a celebration born out of failure, the failure of Everton owner Farhad Moshiri, chairman Bill Kenwright and chief executive Denise Barrett-Baxendale and the calamitous strategies that have brought Everton to the financial and footballing precipice.
Everton got away with it this time but if there is not significant change at the top of the club everyone will be back here again in this parlous position next season.
The board have not attended a game since January, citing safety concerns, Everton have been referred to an independent commission by the Premier League over alleged breaches of financial fair play and for a while here they were looking at the sporting catastrophe of relegation.
It is fair to say positive news has been in short supply until this win.
Chairman Kenwright’s most recent intervention was an ill-advised and poorly timed “open letter” which focused more on criticism of the board by supporters rather addressing any of the poor decision-making and squandered millions that have characterised the Moshiri era.
The relationship between supporters and board is fractured beyond repair and it is easy to see why, after all the talk of “never again” when Everton got out of trouble at the next-to-last fence in 2021-22 before a much-trumpeted ‘strategic review’ did nothing other than lead to an even more perilous position this season.
There will be more talk of “never again” but it cannot come from the same people who have delivered that message in the past. There have been too many mistakes. Moshiri – who has reached an exclusivity agreement with MSP Sports Capital for investment, which presumably will be directed at the new Bramley Moore Dock stadium – is at the forefront.
The investment must come with change in a boardroom that has not simply presided over stagnation but a decline that almost ended in the Championship. The empty seats in Goodison’s directors’ box cannot remain unoccupied but it is almost impossible to see a situation where the board can return, which is unsustainable.
Dyche has completed the job by keeping Everton in the Premier League but he also needs help with the squad – or their league position will be exactly the same this time next year.
Everton relied on those few who have served them so superbly through the struggles right to the end, particularly goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who saved from Matias Vina as the seconds ticked down.
James Garner did a top-class shift as an emergency right wing-back, while Doucoure’s goal confirmed the impact he has had under Dyche following his exile under Frank Lampard.
He not only scored the winner against Bournemouth but also got two in the 5-1 win at Brighton that gave Everton three points not many had factored into the relegation equations.
Dyche struck a tone of grim realism as he sifted through the aftermath of Everton’s latest escape but how he gets the assistance he clearly requires to avoid another season like this remains to be seen.
What has been a constant throughout has been the magnificent backing from Everton’s supporters, who packed the nearby County Road in such numbers before kick-off that traffic on that busy stretch had to be diverted.
They do not deserve the suffering they have been put through yet again and their furious reaction once they turned away from the joy was a clear indication they do not think Everton’s board deserves them.
And their instincts are right.
It is not a time for the “never again” soundbites fans have heard before. Everton need a serious reboot and fresh ideas in their hierarchy otherwise this will merely be a temporary reprieve.
For this night, though, and for those pouring out into Goodison Road heading for The Winslow Hotel, the famous old Evertonian hostelry, they could savour the taste of something to settle shattered nerves after their club once again went to the very edge before stepping back.