LIVERPOOL, England — The announcement rang out around Goodison Park before kickoff, and then again ahead of the second half. In a clear, commanding voice, it informed Everton’s fans that they were not, under any circumstances, to invade the field or throw objects at the players on it.
With Everton’s long-held place in England’s Premier League hanging by a fraying thread, it was reasonable to assume that Sunday afternoon would end in one of two outcomes: ecstasy or outrage. There was no third option. All the final game of the season would decide, really, was which one materialized.
In the end, the former won out. Everton beat Bournemouth, 1-0, on a single, priceless goal by midfielder Abdoulaye Doucouré, rendering the results at Leicester City and Leeds United — the two teams that were hovering, waiting for Sean Dyche’s Everton team to slip — irrelevant. Leeds lost, Leicester won; both were relegated anyway. Everton, for the second time in two seasons, clung to its place in the elite by the quicks of its fingernails.
That should, really, have been cause for celebration. There were fans on the field within a couple of seconds of the final whistle ignoring the increasingly desperate pleas of the voice on the public-address system. Flags fluttered at their backs. Plumes of blue smoke trailed from pyrotechnics. Children slid on their knees on the turf.
Relief, though, is not the same as joy. As the fans milled around the field, many drifted as if on autopilot toward the area beneath the directors’ box. Its usual occupants, Everton’s owners and executives and power brokers, were absent, as they have been since January, when they were advised to stay away for their own security.
Still, this was a chance for the fans to send a message. Loudly, repeatedly, they set aside their glee to demand the removal of the club’s board. In what might have been a moment of triumph — or at least something approaching it — the thought of Everton’s fans turned almost immediately to revolt.
There is a reason for that. It is not just that the current regime at Goodison Park has brought one of English soccer’s great traditional houses low, thanks to a combination of poor planning, reckless spending and good, old-fashioned witlessness.
Even Dyche, brought in as a firefighter, seemed determined to point out after the game that survival should not be a source of pride. “There is still massive amounts of work to do,” he said, as if preparing the fans for the idea that there is more struggle to come. “This has been going on for two years. It is not a quick fix.”
That is true, of course. The ownership of Farhad Moshiri has reduced Everton to days like these — ones filled with fear and jeopardy and dread — with ever-increasing regularity. But more damning, and more urgent, is that the club has been managed so poorly that this game, this win, may be nothing but a stay of execution.
In March, the Premier League charged Everton with failing to comply with its catchily titled Profit and Sustainability rules, the regulations formerly known as Financial Fair Play. From 2018 to 2021, the club recorded losses of almost $460 million, three times more than the amount permitted under the league’s protocols.
The case is, slowly, making its way through the league’s labyrinthine quasi-judicial system. An independent panel will be appointed to investigate. Representations will be made. Appeals will, doubtless, be lodged. The whole process is dragging to such an extent that even the Premier League itself has suggested it might need to be expedited just a little.
In the end, Everton’s punishment might extend beyond being forced to pay compensation to Leeds, Leicester and Southampton, the three teams relegated this season. It could face a points penalty next season. It may even have one retrospectively imposed on this campaign. As things stand, Everton has avoided relegation. But only as things stand.
Regardless of the merits of the case against Everton, the fact that 38 games have been played and the table cannot quite be entered into the records should be a source of considerable embarrassment for the most popular sporting competition on the planet.
The season has ended and the Premier League cannot say, for certain, which 20 teams will comprise its membership next season. Given that there is also an open case against Manchester City, champion for the last three campaigns and on the verge of a domestic and European treble, it is fair to say that everything that has happened over the last 10 months is still subject to change.
The significance of that cannot be underestimated. If the Premier League cannot wrangle its teams to abide by the rules that they themselves have established, then it does not so much have a regulatory issue as a legitimacy one. Sports are, in effect, policed by consent. If that process is seen to be tainted, if the playing field does not appear to be level, then that consent is removed.
More important, those who watch the league — the people who follow it, fund it, afford it a significance that is not inherent — cannot trust that what they are watching has any meaning. If the outcome of a game cannot be known until a legal process has been exhausted, then the game itself becomes secondary.
Just after Doucouré’s goal, as Goodison Park was fizzing and bouncing and melting in euphoria, a fusillade of fireworks exploded in the sky just above the Gwladys Street Stand. They produced, in truth, more sound than light: Their sparkle and their shimmer was lost, just a little, against the bright sunlight.
Still, each thud elicited a cathartic, ecstatic roar from the crowd, each one signaling a step closer to salvation. The display felt, though, a little premature. There was still a half-hour left in the game. All Bournemouth had to do was score and, with Leicester winning, everything would change.
Everton survived the brush with hubris. It made it to the end unscathed. The whistle blew and the fans stormed the field and the table flashed up on the screen and the team occupied 17th place and sanctuary. And yet there was still a sense of uncertainty, a dull rumble of fear, that things were not yet settled. The fireworks have been set off, even if nobody knows for sure quite what there is to celebrate, not yet.