2013 brought a summer of change at Everton. David Moyes’ 11-year stay was over, his backroom staff cleared, the club ready to move in a new direction. Candidates were rumoured, scrutinised and pre-assessed. Porto’s Vitor Pereira was in the frame. So too Ralf Ragnick. Michael Laudrup was also mooted. European football hipsters dreamed of Favre, Tuchel or GIVIN’ IT TO BIG DUNC LA. Phil Neville, David Weir and David Unsworth were all interviewed. Though Unsworth impressed, none of the three were likely to take the top job.
In the end, it was Wigan manager Roberto Martinez who was selected. The Spaniard, Everton’s first foreign boss (though Mike Walker was from a different planet), had a healthy mix of a desire to play neat passing football, and plenty of experience in the English game, from playing in the fourth tier with the Latics to leading them to FA Cup glory. Martinez set about poring over the club’s history, promising to bring back the ‘School of Science’. In the end, he would fail. But the 2013/14 season was Everton’s best since the Eighties glory days.
Sure, 1994/5 brought silverware. And 2004/5 ended with Everton occupying fourth spot, not fifth. But not since the days of Howard Kendall’s first spell in charge did Everton thrill so often, earn so many points, or claim big scalps. Martinez was the first since Harry Catterick to claim a double over Manchester United, with the beleaguered Moyes axed after a hiding on his Goodison return. A run of seven straight league wins matched Kendall’s effort in 1987. There were some lows, but they were few in comparison to some of the giddying highs that season.
There had been a few changes in the playing staff as well as higher up in the chain of command. Marouane Fellaini and Victor Anichebe departed, netting Everton £33.5m. In came a Wigan quartet: James McCarthy, Arouna Kone, Joel Robles and Antolin Alcaraz. Loanees Gareth Barry, Gerard Deulofeu and Romelu Lukaku – all of whom would go on to sign on a permanent basis – added more quality.
Inspired by a mix of attacking verve and the defensive stoicism instilled by the departed Moyes, Everton recovered from three successive draws at the start of the season to show some top four-quality form. There were tricky periods, though, and the Blues went into March on a run of three defeats and a draw from their last five league games. Then an 81st minute Lukaku winner accounted for West Ham, and the tide changed. Seamus Coleman popped up in injury time to down Cardiff; a 3-2 win over Swansea was much more one-sided than the scoreline suggests; Newcastle were blitzed 3-0 in a vintage performance at St James’ Park; and two late goals gave the Toffees a 3-1 win over Fulham.
Next, Martinez’s charges took on an Arsenal side whose strength at home was offset by an atrocious record away from home against fellow top clubs. Manchester City trounced Arsenal 6-3 in December 2013, but even that was preferable to a 5-1 capitulation at Anfield two months later against a rampaging Liverpool, who were 4-0 up after 20 minutes. Chelsea took 17 minutes to take a 3-0 lead at Stamford Bridge, going on to claim a 6-0 drubbing two weeks before the Gunners’ trip to Goodison. Draws against Swansea and Man City did not give Arsene Wenger anywhere near the momentum that Martinez was enjoying.
Everton were desperate to make the most of that momentum. Leon Osman set the tone with a swerving effort that had Wojciech Szczesny beaten but went wide, before suffering a nasty gash in a challenge on Bacary Sagna. Osman was issued a yellow card as he left the field, his final involvement of the day just ten minutes in. Ross Barkley came on, taking a central role as Lukaku switched to the right in a bid to expose the weaknesses of Gunners full-back Nacho Monreal.
Four minutes later, Everton led, thanks to a poor pass by John Stones. Tim Howard had to sweep the ball away from goal, and it led to Leighton Baines making a foray into the Arsenal half. Kevin Mirallas had made a run beyond him, but Baines had seen Lukaku dart into the penalty area. An incisive pass between the lines found the big Belgian, but Szczesny parried his effort away. What Arsenal hadn’t banked on was Steven Naismith arriving behind Lukaku to pick up on the rebound and slot the ball into the corner.
On the best of days, Goodison needs only the slightest spark for its atmosphere to combust with furious Scouse energy. Naismith lit the blue touch paper. This was not like previous occasions on which Everton had brought the big boys down a peg or two. They looked imperious, every bit like a side accustomed to challenging at the very top, while an uninspired Arsenal looked scared in comparison. Barkley and Mirallas both had efforts saved, and a deflected Naismith strike also caused Szczesny problems. Lukaku lurked out on the right, ready to strike. And strike he did.
Mirallas searched for his international team-mate on the wing, and Lukaku ran at Monreal, then cutting inside and taking the game to the entire Arsenal defence. Three Gunners were no match for Lukaku. The striker took one look at goal and hit a swerving effort past Szczesny, whose view was obstructed by Naismith (a.k.a The Authentic Bullens Experience™). 2-0 to Everton, and Lukaku raced off to embrace a delighted Martinez.
The second half continued the all-important momentum. Arsenal were unable to forge any good chances for themselves, bar a fizzed Monreal effort that ran across the face of Tim Howard’s goal. Everton were causing all sorts of problem going forward, with Naismith’s darting runs confounding defenders, and the triumvirate of Mirallas, Barkley and Lukaku causing mayhem. The former pair combined to finish Arsenal off. Mirallas stole the ball from Sagna and slipped a ball in for Naismith. Szczesny got there first, but only managed to scoop the ball into the path of the onrushing Belgian winger. Mikel Arteta scored many a memorable goal in front of the Gwladys Street, but the Spaniard finally notched one he’d rather forget, beating Mirallas to the ball but poking it into the empty net.
It was a game that ticked all the boxes. Seamus Coleman ran a good thirty yards down the right wing doing keepy-ups, and later totally outfoxed Santi Cazorla. Even Barkley and Leighton Baines squaring up to Arteta signified Everton’s steel. Arteta backing down summed it all up.
That afternoon was one that Evertonians had been dreaming of for years. Not only was a top four regular beaten at Goodison; they were outthought, outfought and outdone in every way. Everton looked every inch a side equipped to battle it out at the top. The victory meant the Blues could go clear of Arsenal in fourth if they could win their game in hand, the rearranged ‘very very wind’ tie at home to Crystal Palace. What could go wrong?