It’s the hope that kills you, as every Evertonian knows. Some scouse wag posted a comment here last week suggesting the reason Carlo Ancelotti’s side are riding so high is because performing in empty stadiums means the players are no longer jinxed by the waves of negativity and fatalism emanating from bluenoses on the terraces.
This theory simply does not hold water – there were no fans in grounds at the end of last season and Everton were terrible – though the word fatalism does ring true of a generation of supporters, actually make that several generations, brought up on more or less constant disappointment. Anyone of an Everton persuasion would be looking forward to next Saturday’s Merseyside derby, perhaps even feeling bullish, with club historians delving back into the 19th century to try to find a better start and Liverpool conceding seven in their last outing.
Those two sets of circumstances certainly ought to breed optimism, if not quite confidence, though for the past half century, roughly since Sandy Brown contributed that epoch-defining own goal to the irresistible rise of Bill Shankly’s Reds at Goodison in 1969 – even though Everton were on their way to the title that year and would win the return game at Anfield, it still felt like a turning point in the power balance between the two clubs – Merseyside derbies have mostly operated like a candle-snuffer to bring reality and perspective to any dreams of a blue resurgence. Not always – Everton won titles in the 80s and it is in the nature of derbies to sometimes defy or transcend the patterns of the rest of the season – but mostly.
Ancelotti had been in charge for three matches last season when he had his own introduction to the occasion and its peculiar pain. Everton were bundled out of the FA Cup, one of the few trophies it might have been possible to win, by Liverpool’s youth team, Jürgen Klopp’s seniors being rested for the purpose of winning the Premier League.
So no one should run away with the idea that unbeaten Everton will be salivating at the prospect of a derby, eager for the chance to show what a difference a world-class manager, an in-form striker and a new midfield can make. There will be time for all that afterwards, if it is still relevant.
It is not true to say Everton have climbed to the top of the table without playing any of the leading sides – their sparkling win at Tottenham on the first weekend of the season set the tone – though you cannot beat the visit of the defending champions as a check on progress, especially when for the first time in 30 years they are from just across the park.
Before anyone complains about fatalism, Everton have just enjoyed a highly impressive transfer window. If you want to sign players of the calibre of James Rodríguez and Allan then it clearly pays to have a manager who has worked with them at previous clubs. Ancelotti was only joking when he said he was heartbroken to see Thiago Alcântara join Liverpool from Bayern Munich – that deal was never going to be derailed even if Everton could have run to the budget – but supporters have noted already that there is more about their manager than simply a contacts book.
Abdoulaye Doucouré and Niels Nkounkou are unheralded signings who have not taken long to impress and Ancelotti also made sure he signed a goalkeeper when Jordan Pickford’s inconsistency began to cost goals. Pickford is an England goalkeeper and a talented shot-stopper who will generally keep out more than he lets in, but as Sir Bobby Robson once said of Titus Bramble, he does not play in a position where he can afford to keep making one expensive mistake per game. It is yet to be seen whether Robin Olsen will displace Pickford or merely provide sterner competition but the goalkeeping situation needed to be addressed and Ancelotti acted.
The newly efficient Everton operation has also brought in a centre-back of promise in Ben Godfrey, sent out the underachieving Moise Kean and Theo Walcott on loan, and re-energised existing talents in Gylfi Sigurdsson, Séamus Coleman and Dominic Calvert‑Lewin.
Ancelotti came in only with a promise to improve Everton, he knows perfectly well how difficult it may be to raise the club’s standing above perennial fourth-best in the north-west, but he has been as good as his word and unlike Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United, he has yet to see his side ship five or more goals.
Yes, this is already the strangest of seasons, and for that reason it is still too early to tell whether Everton’s excellence is part of the general chaos or something separate, something that will survive the return of normality, whenever and whatever that might be.
For now it is safe to say Everton’s pride has been restored, and quickly, at a time when their rivals’ has been punctured to a surprising degree. There are definitely worse ways to approach a derby.