It’s the BIG ONE: Everton v Norwich, with ALL TO PLAY FOR. Dan Brigham talks to Everton fan and writer Chris Smith about Roberto Martinez, John Stones, Ross Barkley, Gameboys and Loose Women
Dan: Hi Chris. Misery loves company, eh. After your meek surrender to Sunderland which sent Norwich down on Wednesday – thanks for that – you guys could finish as low as 16th. Which is insane. With the squad you have, your season is almost rivalling Aston Villa's for ineptitude, isn't it?
Chris: Hi Dan. Yes, apologies for the capitulation though I'm sure you didn't get your hopes up. Your Aston Villa comparison is sadly accurate. Wretched defending, hopelessness and protests in the stands. An inactive board hoping it will all blow over. Villa and Steve McClaren's Newcastle are the only sides Everton did the double over this season. Those wins are essentially why we're not fighting relegation. Grim.
Dan: That's two more doubles than Norwich have managed this season... We also went and lost at Villa Park. Remarkable. And to think we were both so full of hope (relatively, anyway) last time we spoke in December.
So Roberto Martinez has gone. For Norwich fans, that's about two days two late. But for Everton fans I imagine that's probably two seasons too late? I've rarely seen a team so clearly not playing for the manager than Everton over the last month. Aside from the obvious defensive deficiencies in his coaching, where has he gone wrong?
Chris: First and foremost, fitness. Martinez is a qualified physiotherapist but he is a bit of a Wenger when it comes to keeping players fit. He gives his own clearly flawed methods far too much credence. He rushes players back from injury and keeps them on the pitch when they're exhausted. Everton persistently lose players through injuries, particularly hamstring pulls, and those who are available are simply not fit enough to compete for 90 minutes – as evidenced by conceding more goals in the last 10 minutes than any other Premier League side.
Martinez is also a really poor man-manager. He fell out with senior players constantly (Distin, Eto'o, Mirallas, Baines, Pienaar) and threw young players (Stones, Barkley, Lukaku) under the bus by basically never substituting them. It seems that the senior players sussed him out and made their feelings known, while younger players, who were eager to impress, were exploited. It's been a horrorshow.
Dan: When we played you in December, with hindsight it felt like a natural tipping point for Everton: brilliant in the first half, but then completely weak in the second half. It was the same against Sunderland on Wednesday – you had all the possession and all of the play for the first half an hour, and then Sunderland force a bit of pressure and your defence looked utterly terrified, and imploded. And that was that.
Will a new manager be able to turn that obvious ability in the squad into top six challengers? And who will you like as your new boss?
Chris: Martinez has been getting the absolute worst out of the vast majority of the squad so I'm confident any new manager will improve us, but doubtful whether this would constitute a return to the top six. While Everton clearly possess some really exciting players, we also have a lot of average and old ones. There's a lot of upheaval ahead. We're going to have to spend a fair bit of money just to refresh and maintain the squad even before we start addressing weaknesses let alone replacing any key players who depart.
All in all, a stabilising first year for the new manager is not only likely but potentially quite useful.
Ronald Koeman or Phillip Cocu would be my choice if they were available, same for Jose Mourinho of course. However, given all three will justifiably have ambitions beyond Everton, Frank De Boer looks a decent candidate. He boasts a good defensive record in Holland and may well bring Jaap Stam with him as part of his staff. This seems like a good response to a defensive problem. Beyond that however, he would theoretically be able to tweak rather than overhaul the style of play, and his Ajax upbringing would tick the youth development box Everton require. He may even be able, like Koeman, to raid the Eredivisie for cheap talent.
Dan: Enough of that. Let's be positive. This has been a brilliant Premier League season, right?
It might feel like Everton and Norwich have been stuck watching reruns of Loose Women while next door throws the party of the century, but it did feel like the Premier League woke up from a slumber this season. Leicester, Spurs, West Ham, Southampton have all produced great stories, plus Chelsea being terrible was even better than Manchester United being terrible.
It's been just what English football needed, hasn't it? Have you been able to enjoy it despite Everton's predicament?
Chris: It's been a fantastic season. I've thoroughly enjoyed a title race contested between two excellent coaches who have no interest in belittling opponents and indulging their ego. I wanted Spurs to win it because I loved watching them but Claudio Ranieri establishing himself as the most wonderful man of all time was enough to sway me at the end.
In some ways, Chelsea's plight has been more inspiring for middling sides. You can't realistically aim to recreate Leicester's stunning success but a grossly wealthy champion led by one of the game's best ever managers suddenly plummeting and opening up a place in the top four is an interesting development. That can happen again.
I've also really enjoyed watching a lot of England's players develop. I'm never normally particularly bothered by international football but the likes of Kane, Dier, Alli, Smalling, Barkley and even Hart have given me some genuine optimism of seeing a few decent England games this summer... which already seems like a foolish prediction having mulled it over.
Dan: Yeh, I agree. I'm looking forward to watching England in a tournament for the first time since 2002.
Astonishingly Jonny Howson has been overlooked by Roy (but at least us Norwich fans will get to watch Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady on the big stage), so tell us about Ross Barkley and John Stones. You mentioned that Martinez overplayed them, and Stones in particular has received a lot of criticism this season, but are they still going to turn into England LEGENDS? Or are they just doing to be OK Premier League players who'll probably end up at the kind of clubs managed by Steve Bruce in three or fours years' time?
Chris: Barkley and Stones both have the potential to be world class, but I was saying this two years ago. They ought to have progressed more by now. That said, Barkley's had a pretty decent campaign – double-figure league goals and assists. And I really sympathise with Stones. He arrived as a right-back and so has only really been taught how to be a centre-back by Martinez. Imagine that! Any manager who can instill defensive basics will make a great player of him. He's a really special player.
Ultimately, both players have suffered during a key formative year. That can be made up next year but it will take a special manager. As for England, both are too low on confidence to start for them this summer. Sub role for Barkley will suit him and could prove very useful for England.
Dan: Right, for the last time this season, let's have a score prediction for Saturday's rubbery dead-rubber of a match. I reckon both teams will play not just like they're on the beach, but like they've opened up a bar in Ibiza and have invited Danny Dyer to the opening night. There should be some utterly hilarious defending which, after the seasons we've both had, would be a fitting way to end things. 4-3 to us.
Chris: It'll be interesting to see if there's any sort of reaction after the players essentially stopped trying for a few weeks, but with David Unsworth and Joe Royle in the dugout for Everton, a new kit on display and the sun likely to be out, this is basically a last day of term mufti day with two of your uncles in charge! I wouldn't rule out Kevin Mirallas bringing in a Gameboy.
Given Everton's rotten form there's an opportunity for Norwich to sign off with a win, particularly as you're the final opponent during the worst home campaign in Goodison history. But our matches always tend to be let-downs and there's every excuse for all concerned tomorrow. All the promise of a 3-2 fading into a bland 1-1.
Dan: Actually, I’ve changed my mind. Norwich to win 6-0. Why not, eh? Cheers Chris, and thanks to everyone who’s read the previews this season!