Everton were in the relegation zone when they sacked Ronald Koeman in October 2017. They may have been just nine games into the Premier League season, but their performances were as worrying as the results, and the displays in Europe against the likes of Atalanta and Apollon provided even more cause for concern.
The Everton board had to make a decision which could have a massive impact on the future of the club, especially with plans for a new stadium beginning to turn into concrete arrangements as opposed to mere fanciful ideas.
Relegation was unthinkable, but it was a worrying possibility.
Their first act was to sack Koeman. That particular era had obviously come to an end with the side stuck in a rut, regularly being booed off the pitch, and the array of new players signed for big money in the summer were failing to gel.
During an even more concerning period for the fans which demonstrated that the board hadn’t really made any plans for replacing Koeman, the club were guided by caretaker manager David Unsworth.
The former player and manager of the club’s under-23 side struggled initially as Everton went out of the League Cup and were all but out of the Europa League after a second defeat to Lyon left them bottom of their group.
The league form improved slightly, with Unsworth managing to secure seven points from five games, but the board weren’t convinced he was a long-term solution. His last game – a 4-0 victory at home to West Ham United – was watched by incoming manager Sam Allardyce.
The club had to decide their next move with relegation looming. Did they go with a manager with new ideas, but risk the possibility that these ideas may take time to implement as they drop further into the mire; or did they choose the supposedly safer, but less inspiring option of a Premier League-savvy stalwart?
By the time Allardyce was appointed, over a month after Koeman was sacked, the important thing was that Everton made a decision, and the insurance offered by the seasoned relegation-avoider seemed like the sensible choice given what was at stake.
For Allardyce, Everton had the potential to provide him with a platform to eventually test himself at a higher level – a level at which he’s always believed he belongs. Though, for this to happen, a second season following this consolidation campaign would be required, and the mood around the club suggests it doesn’t look like he’ll get it.
The Toffees were already on the up when Allardyce joined, thanks to Unsworth, and the former Newcastle United and England boss has guided them to what should be a top-half finish.
There were doubts over whether Allardyce would even be able to guarantee Premier League survival, with The Independent’s Simon Hughes suggesting that “there is a dangerous assumption that Allardyce means results and safety.”
Safety is the reason Allardyce was appointed, and safety is what he has delivered. All of this has been achieved to a backdrop of confusion as to who is running the show when it comes to recruitment, and continued uncertainty at board level as to the direction of the club.
Steve Walsh was hired as director of football in 2016, but the perceived failures in the 2017 summer transfer window, and the apparent lack of cohesion between different areas of the club’s day-to-day operation, has led them to look for alternatives in this position too, with Dutchman Marcel Brands expected to replace Walsh.
Despite this, Allardyce has ploughed on and snapped up a few players in the January transfer window to help see the club over the line.
They have lost just one of their last six, and defeated the recently lauded Newcastle side managed by Rafa Benitez – with Allardyce again moved to defend his style of play after the game.
“What was wrong with our style today? We completely dominated the game,” said the Everton manager, speaking to Sky Sports.
“We were patient, we got the winner. You can't knock our football. You can knock some of the passing that goes astray but you can't knock me for that, I don't pass the ball out there, the lads do.
“I will keep doing what I'm doing because we keep winning and keep getting better. I think eighth in the league compared to fifth from bottom tells you we're getting better.”
Allardyce has done his job, and Everton remain a Premier League club with big ideas for the future, on and off the pitch. But the need to defend his style already suggests that he may not be part of them, and will not be given the chance to progress with the club even if he wanted to adapt his style.
An uncomfortable Christmas and New Year period was the start of more unrest in the stands at Goodison, where there is a desire for a more attractive way of playing which produces good football as well as good results.
Shortlists for next season’s manager are already being drawn up by the fans publicly, and possibly in the minds of the board in private, too.
Paulo Fonseca, Luis Enrique, and Diego Simeone were supposedly on the shortlist of the club’s owner Farhad Moshiri. But maybe before they appoint a new manager they should make sure their own house is in order, deciding on a clear direction in which they want to go, the overall philosophy they want the club to adhere to, and appoint a director of football and manager accordingly.
Otherwise they could find themselves in a precarious position again next season, struggling in the table with a disconnect between manager and recruitment, and not able to get the best from any investments in the playing staff.
This is why Allardyce and Unsworth deserve credit for their part in preventing what could have been a disastrous season for the club, even if they may not be deemed good enough, or attractive enough, to lead the first team to pastures new.