Dwight McNeil preferred to watch The Last Dance rather than endure the stomach-churning tension of Leicester’s draw with Newcastle on Monday. Everton must hope the tale of a monumental last-gasp victory for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, and not its title, mirrors their Sunday.
Everton last suffered the ignominy of relegation on 5 May 1951. Clement Attlee was prime minister, Harry S Truman was US president, and to stay up Cliff Britton’s team needed a point away to a Sheffield Wednesday side who were in effect relegated. Everton lost 6-0, finished bottom of the First Division and spent three seasons in the second before returning in 1954, remaining ever since.
The 70th anniversary is on the horizon but no one at Goodison Park can contemplate a platinum jubilee right now. The famous stadium may never host another top-flight fixture should Everton fail to beat Bournemouth on Sunday and results elsewhere go against them.
The repercussions of relegation would be seismic compared with 1951 but like then, and unlike final-day escapes against Wimbledon in 1994 or Coventry in 1998, survival is in Everton’s hands after Leeds and Leicester failed to win last time out.
“I love watching football, I’ll usually watch any game, but those two games I just couldn’t watch,” McNeil says of Leeds’ defeat at West Ham and Leicester’s draw, two results that kept Everton out of the bottom three and in control of their destiny.
“I didn’t watch any of the Leeds game, I went out with my missus for the afternoon, and on Monday I decided to watch The Last Dance with Michael Jordan on Netflix and check the result afterwards. That was a relief. It’s in our hands now and we’re at home on Sunday with our fans behind us. We’ve got to take it like it’s a normal game but we know what’s at stake and the job that needs to be done.”
A proud 69-year residence in the top flight is not the only thing at stake for Everton. According to the club’s auditor, Crowe UK LLP, “a material uncertainty exists that may cast significant doubt over on the group’s ability to continue as a going concern” in the event of dropping into the Championship.
Farhad Moshiri, the owner, has pledged his continued financial support for a period of at least 12 months but that is not a legally binding commitment. He remains in talks with the American investment firm MSP Sports Capital over the funding needed to complete Everton’s new stadium at Bramley Moore dock.
Understandably, MSP is not rushing into a deal while uncertainty surrounds the club’s league status. There is also the investigation into an alleged breach of the Premier League’s profit and sustainability rules hanging over Everton. The English Football League tends not to be as slow as its top-flight counterparts in enforcing punishments for financial breaches.
The stakes are immense for a club that has endured more relegation battles than cup finals under Moshiri, as is also true of the entirety of Bill Kenwright’s 24 years as deputy chairman or chairman. But the high-pressure finale has not tempted Sean Dyche to alter his approach. “He is just the same this week,” says McNeil of the manager, with a knowing smile. That’s good because we do not want to change too much. We know what kind of game it will be on Sunday. We can’t change the identity of what we are. There is focus on mentality and tactics. The gaffer shows how he leads. He knows about keeping teams in the Premier League. He told us what we need to do. He just pointed to the results at the weekend and emphasised it is in our hands and what we need to do to stay up. There was motivation in there and telling us what he wants from us on Sunday.”
Beat Bournemouth, basically. A win guarantees survival. Anything less and Everton are praying for favours from Tottenham and David Moyes’ West Ham at Leeds and Leicester respectively. The task confronting Dyche’s team has been complicated by injury with Dominic Calvert-Lewin sidelined again and several full-backs unavailable.
The drop-off in Everton’s threat and performance level without Calvert-Lewin, and their failure to sign even one adequate replacement, explains why they enter the final day in such a perilous position. Everton have also lost their past three home games – only Michael Keane’s 90th-minute equaliser against Spurs stopped it being four – and suffered two heavy defeats at Bournemouth earlier in the campaign.
McNeil has come to the fore in recent months, however, and was outstanding in the 5-1 win at Brighton that revived Everton’s survival hopes. “When I look back at it I would say Brighton is probably the best individual performance of my career so far. We had a gameplan against Brighton and it worked perfectly.”
The 23-year-old was relegated with Burnley on the final day of last season as Leeds survived at his former club’s expense. McNeil is adamant Everton have the quality and mentality to ensure history does not repeat itself.
“It was difficult to take that day,” he says. “You feel a sense of responsibility for the team going down. When it happened it was more like disappointment within myself. I didn’t score that season, I knew I didn’t play my best football, so I found that difficult as well. Being in this position again feels different. I am going into the game with more confidence. Everyone is more relaxed. It is in our hands. It is up to us. We had a good start to the week and now we have to finish it right.”