Despite injuries to Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka, the future felt bright for Everton as the cup final kicked off. It felt even better seconds later when Louis Saha put the Blues ahead with the fastest cup final goal in history, but the feeling of euphoria did not last as Chelsea soon came into the ascendency. That said, even after John Terry lifted the trophy, it was not a feeling of disappointment that subsumed the many thousands of Everton fans at Wembley. Rather, there was a strange sense of optimism in the air, a feeling that Everton were back where they belong, challenging for honours and high league positions on the back of a second consecutive fifth-place finish. While it was well known Arteta and Jagielka were almost a year away from a return, and Yakubu was a good six months away too after a serious injury of his own, the squad had performed so admirably after the loss of those three key players that it really appeared Everton could cope, and keep within touching distance of the other top four hopefuls.
That is not how the first half of the season transpired, however. Everton sat 16th in December, worryingly closer to a relegation dogfight than a Champions League slugfest. The turnaround since then has been dramatic and total. Before Christmas, Everton were mostly playing dull, uninspired football, hamstrung by further injury problems that affected practically every outfield player at one point or another, as well as chronic problems in defence generated by Jagielka’s injury and Joleon Lescott’s defection to Manchester City. John Heitinga came in and could not find a settled position, playing across midfield and in defence and continually dropping out of the side due to his Europa League ineligibility, while Sylvain Distin’s form was hampered by his lack of a regular partner. Lucas Neil was drafted in as an emergency centre-back and performed well in partnership with Heitinga, but the Australian was only around for three months before departing for Galatasary. Every ounce of creativity in midfield came from Steven Pienaar, and the little South African’s narrow shoulders were straining under the weight. To his credit, he delivered and carried Everton through the dark autumn days, a rare bright spark in those dreary performances.
And then the New Year came, and it all changed. Everton finally started to show the quality they had promised with that journey to Wembley. It began with a snowy day at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, when an Everton side containing debutant Landon Donovan went to Ashburton Grove and came away disappointed with a draw. It felt like a landmark moment versus a team Everton perennially struggle against – no more so than in the first game of the season, a 6-1 thrashing at Goodison Park – and so it proved. Not only was the 2-2 away draw remarkable, but if anything, the performance was even more so. This was not a Dogs of War-like battle – rather Everton matched Arsenal for style and bettered them for substance, leaving the hosts desperately pushing forward as the game wore on in the hopes of snatching a draw. Tomas Rosicky’s late goal gave the Gunners a point after Pienaar’s immaculate lob appeared to seal all three for Everton, but if pushing Arsenal to the limit was good, matters were about to get even better.
Any disappointment from failing to hold on to the full total at Arsenal was erased a week later, when Roberto Mancini brought his City players down the East Lancs road. In the build-up to the game, most of the attention was lavished around the return of Lescott to his old stomping ground but with the England defender injured, the aftermath of the meeting was focused on two players who had very different fortunes – Robinho for the visitors, and Marouane Fellaini for Everton. The Brazilian was brought on for Roque Santa Cruz in the first-half and summarily replaced himself after the break, such was the lacklustre nature of his performance, while the Belgian midfielder had no such problems – indeed, Fellaini was imperious, entering quite possibly the best individual showing of Everton’s season, capping his magnificent day’s work with a swift turn away from Craig Bellamy that will live long in the memory of anyone fortunate enough to be at Goodison that January evening. In true Everton fashion, Fellaini’s season was soon over thanks to an ankle injury delivered by Liverpool defender Sotiris Kyriagkos in early February. Everton may have been robbed of Fellaini’s brilliance for the rest of the term but the quality with which he graced the field through January was a more than healthy contribution to the Blues’ cause.
February through to May was a story of Everton chasing Europe but ultimately coming up short, with some joyous results thrown in for good measure – none more so than the consecutive home victories over Manchester United and Chelsea. The damage to the Blues’ European hopes was done in autumn and early winter but given Everton’s form since then was better than that of all but Manchester United and Chelsea a late surge into the top six was not out of the question. It was not to be in the end, with two points being the difference between another year in Europe, but the optimism that was present 12 months ago has finally returned to the blue half of Merseyside.