Everton have been a fixture in the top flight since 1954 but their Premier League status is on the line.
Their game against Bournemouth on Sunday has been billed as Goodison Park’s biggest of modern times and has dominated every supporter’s thoughts.
Mail Sport spent the week canvassing opinions of fans on the brink.
The worst part of weeks such as these is the mental torture, the helplessness. You see it written all over people’s faces and here, in The Brick on County Road in Walton, the 11 souls who have gathered to watch Newcastle play Leicester embody the anguish.
Situated a good goal-kick from Goodison, The Brick isn’t so much a pub but a Blue shrine. There are slogans on the wall, about how these fans are born not manufactured, while a beautiful image of Alan Ball draws your eye. Mark Leary, the gregarious landlord, is rightly proud of this establishment.
Everton are fighting for their Premier League status with this weekend’s match decisive
Despite the tension and nervousness building, Dyche has looked to create a sense of calm
This group know their football and as the action unfolds, with Newcastle missing chances, they say ‘this is Grimsby again’. For those who wouldn’t know, in 1984 Everton pummelled Grimsby in a League Cup tie at Goodison but lost 1-0 to a last-minute sucker punch.
One local, a fine man named John, spends the second half chatting away about the issues afflicting his club. He winces when recalling how, in 1994, Everton’s then manager Mike Walker marched into the nearby Winslow Pub peacock proud after the first great escape against Wimbledon.
‘How can you celebrate survival?’ he asks. ‘If we go down this time, we have only got ourselves to blame. All I want is for us to have respite from this.’
Moments later the reference to Grimsby almost proves spot on and there are howls as Nick Pope saves incredibly to deny Timothy Castagne. To think there will be another six days of feeling this way.
‘We have been through too much,’ says John, who has been watching Everton since the heady days of Harry Catterick. ‘Can’t we just have some peace?’
The biggest travesty of this season has been how Everton fans, through some abysmal PR decisions, have been painted as one of the reasons for the club’s failings. Their relentless backing has been the one constant but the situation is taking a toll on everyone.
Father Philip Inch, parish priest of Holy Rosary in Old Roan, is devoted to his congregation but also to his team. An articulate man, whose first hero was Alan Ball, a story he tells from his daily work gives another perspective of the mood in the city. ‘It is just a constant topic of conversation,’ he says. ‘It is there, all the time, at the front of people’s minds.
‘Even today, there was the annual May procession at school. On the way out, the kids were telling me, ‘Say a prayer for Everton on Sunday, Father’.
‘Why do we feel so emotionally connected? I wish I could answer but that’s just the way it is. I say Mass at 6pm on Saturday – if we’ve lost, it really is hard to pick yourself up. That is what it does to you. That is what it’s like in this city. People (outside) think they understand – but they don’t.’
Nerves are fraying around the city but over at Finch Farm, Everton’s training enclave, the mood is different. The players had two days off, on Sunday and Monday, but have returned to work to find manager Sean Dyche isn’t allowing the magnitude of the situation to overwhelm them.
He won’t do anything different in sessions, doesn’t call extra meetings. Staff around the place have noticed that, compared to 12 months ago when Everton needed to beat Crystal Palace to stay up, things are a lot calmer. ‘If you see the manager he is walking around singing!’ James Tarkowski says. Alex Iwobi offers another perspective, adding: ‘When we are on the bus to Goodison, and you see the fans chanting, banging the bus… you definitely feel it, almost as if you are going into war.
‘The manager approaches every game the same. Very professional. He doesn’t let anything faze him. We know the magnitude of the game but he will say to us, “Remain focused, treat it the same way you would do any other match”. If we win, we stay in the Premier League – it’s that simple.’
Players were given two days off at the start of the week and have been told to stay focused
It does sound simple, but away from the training-ground bubble it is becoming intolerable – even for sportsmen who have operated at the sharpest end of competition. Take Tony Bellew, the former cruiserweight world champion, whose love for Everton is second only to his family.
‘I’m frightened about it all,’ admits Bellew, with disarming honesty. ‘I’ve got the same kind of nerves I had when I was a kid.
‘I’ve heard some people say it wouldn’t be the worst thing to go down but that is nonsense. I can’t contemplate that.
‘I’m just sick of everything. This situation we are in can’t go on, where we don’t know which way to turn.’
Over in Fort Worth, Texas, another Blue has found his thoughts drifting towards home. Tommy Fleetwood came off the course following his opening round at the Charles Schwab Challenge to air his concerns. ‘I just want the best for everybody at the club and the fans,’ says Fleetwood. ‘As a lifelong fan, I want us to get through this weekend but it is more for everybody involved at the club and those who have jobs that could be lost.’
For former boxer Tony Bellew (above), his love of Everton comes second only to his family
That puts things in perspective. The boardroom in-fighting, the countless bad decisions and their ramifications are being felt most keenly on the ground, by the fans and those who work for the club.
The idea that Everton could come out of this weekend as a Championship club is an outrage but Dyche will not contemplate it. His final media address isn’t Churchillian but the sentiment of his words strike a chord. ‘I absolutely trust this team to perform,’ says Dyche. ‘We have built an honesty within the group and staff, pulling in the right direction. Trusting each other is a big part of any team game — and there is a trust there. The glue that holds it together is the work ethic.
‘I haven’t earned the right to talk about how Evertonians feel and I wouldn’t want to patronise anyone. All they can do, from afar or in the stadium, is back us.’
They will do that: from publicans to priests, from schoolkids to sporting heroes, the bond will be shared. It is time for Everton to come down off the tightrope. These fans have endured enough.
The bond around the club will be shared when Everton head into battle against Bournemouth