Everton unwrap traditional top four in Premier League
Everton are mounting a serious charge at the Champions League places this season
It was around this time four years ago that I paid a visit to Hull. Not to see the players play, but to see what the players were like. You see, Hull City were new to the Premier League and everyone outside of the city agreed that it was a cute kind of miracle that they had made it up to the top tier with the big boys and it was no secret that they were going to go down.
But when leaves started falling and the early season turned into October, the Tigers were still punching their weight and Phil Brown had just been made manager of the month. They were doing rather well. And yet we still expected their luck to run dry.
Hull City, after all, did not have the air of Premier League; the city had an outstanding record for finishing low in national surveys, it had been Britain’s obesity capital, its police force and education authority had been ranked bottom across the nation and a TV station had voted it the worst place to live in Britain.
This is all the kind of thing that people outside Hull liked to smirk at. Yet the football club remained buoyant; at the end of October, they went joint top of the Premier League.
Which was all, of course, very lovely. And kind of traditional. There is often a small-fry club that punches above its weight at the start of the season until a couple of injuries, the weight of the pressure and the week-in week-out intensity catches up with them and they slowly percolate down the league.
But Everton this season are not like that. Yes, Everton are punching above their weight, but no, Everton is not small-fry. Medium-fry Everton are second in the league and it is now reasonable to ask: can it last? Can they keep their head for heights? Can they break into the private club that is the top four?
Of course Hull, famously, did not. Hull suddenly got vertigo and as they toppled, people started to wonder if that manager of month would soon no longer be a manager at all. Brown did see out the season and so did Hull. Just. They finished one point above the relegation zone.
Everton are different, though. The Toffees are the product of years of work and a deeply embedded football culture. They have not shot to the top like a shooting star that will soon burn itself out. They are mounting a serious challenge to the established order.
The disruption of the top four is a huge achievement. Spurs made a charge last season. Liverpool are no longer a top-four team. Arsenal look perpetually ready either to plume or to plummet. Quite apart from the fact that Everton are currently playing the best football in the league, one reason a top-four raid looks genuinely achievable this season is because it does not look like a leading group in their pomp.
Manchester United are fallible, that is undeniable. Manchester City remain stronger on paper than on the field. Chelsea are inconsistent. In other words, it is a good year to make a charge.
And the fixture list has got two months’ worth of confidence-boosting for this Everton team. Wigan away on Saturday, QPR away the next week. Then they have a really tasty test of their worth against Liverpool, and then, before it gets properly tough again, Fulham, Sunderland, Reading and Norwich. That is one hell of a run in which to build up a head of steam.
From their first six games, they have 13 points. It is by no means inconceivable that they shouldn’t get the same return from their next six games. And then they have Norwich at home.
A different kind of pressure comes with success, but Everton are not like that Hull side. I remember particularly meeting that Hull team, because they seemed like a bunch of adventurers who couldn’t believe how far their journey was taking them.
Everton, however, are different: right now, they look as though they belong in the top four and they have players of such clear quality that you do not feel that they are going to be suddenly exposed. There is no exposing to be done.
Can they sustain a top four challenge? My biggest doubt is the strength in depth of the squad. Without their big players, they will struggle. But let’s ask the question again at Christmas. I will be surprised if they are not still top four then.