Everton crossed the line into the Premier League’s danger zone on Sunday and now stand on the precipice after a painful Merseyside derby defeat at Liverpool.
They are in the bottom three for the first time since December 2019 but more significantly it is the first time the club have been where no-one wants to be so late in the season since 1998-99.
And for all manager Frank Lampard can take from attitude and organization even in defeat at Anfield, there is no escaping that the threat of relegation for the first time in 71 years is no longer a lingering fear, it is Everton’s grim reality.
They gave it so much for so long before going down 2-0, their meager share of 17% possession (the second lowest since Opta starting compiling such statistics) reflecting the rearguard action carried out with such fierce discipline and an open willingness to get under Liverpool and Anfield’s skin.
It worked until Andrew Robertson headed the home side in front just after the hour before Everton’s long-time tormentor Divock Origi headed the second late on.
Everton, as in the past, left Anfield nursing a sense of injustice as well as defeat as they justifiably claimed they should have had a penalty when the outstanding Anthony Gordon fell under Joel Matip’s challenge with the scoreline goalless after 53 minutes.
Gordon had been booked for diving in the first half so this may have played on referee Stuart Attwell’s mind when he waved all appeals away but each incident should be judged on its individual merits, not recent history, and Everton were suitably astonished that the video assistant referee was not even called in to take a look. They had a cast-iron case.
To suggest this might have led to an Everton victory is quite the stretch given Liverpool’s dominance of the ball but it does not disguise the fact they had a genuine grievance.
It matters not now as the points have gone, with Everton suffering their 19th Premier League defeat in 32 games. They have never lost so many in a 38-game season and to add to the statistical wreckage, they have also lost 11 of their past 12 away games in the league, including each of their past seven. It is their worst run of consecutive away defeats since eight between April and October 1994.
All this was conducted to a predictable soundtrack of Anfield revelling in Everton’s potential demise, the chants of “going down” starting as soon as news of Burnley’s win over Wolves a little earlier filtered through.
It was repeated throughout, along with regular songs in praise of former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, who played a brief part in Everton’s dismal season before he was sacked in January after less than seven months in charge.
And, with victory assured, came the final wounding chant of “this is your last trip to Anfield”.
This was a grim, tortuous experience for Everton once the Kop were confident nothing would go wrong.
Everton can take solace in how they made Liverpool fight for their win, how they gave the Anfield crowd some very anxious moments, how the emerging talent of Gordon occasionally tormented Liverpool with his pace and control.
And yet Everton lost. Again.
This epic tale of football mismanagement from owner Farhad Moshiri and a somewhat self-congratulatory board of directors who have got so much wrong could now be heading towards the nightmare conclusion.
It takes some doing to arrive at Everton, as Moshiri did in February 2016, to set course for the stars, then spend £ 500m on making the team markedly inferior while heading shamefully in the other direction towards the Championship.
And yet this is exactly what Moshiri and Everton’s board have presided over.
If they were to go down, it would represent one of the game’s most colossal, expensive failures and the list of culprits would have to start with Moshiri and those in the boardroom.
This is hardly Lampard’s responsibility as so much damage was self-inflicted by Everton before he was appointed in January but no-one can escape the fact he has not been able to get the requisite results since replacing Benitez.
Lampard has now taken charge of 12 league games, losing eight and winning only three.
This simply must improve in the closing weeks of the season or Everton are doomed to the drop.
If they produce the same level of resolve as they did at Anfield before being overcome by one of the best sides in Europe, then they have a chance.
The big question is: can they be relied upon to repeat it with tough games coming up at home to Chelsea then at Leicester City?
Their prospects have not been helped by the late twist to the season’s storyline at Burnley, whose heavily criticized decision – yes, criticized here as well – to sack Sean Dyche suddenly does not look quite so daft after all as the Clarets have picked up seven points from three games under caretaker Mike Jackson.
Burnley have momentum. It is a vital commodity at this stage of the season. Everton need to find it and they are leaving it very late.
Even their midweek draw at home to Leicester City, a point earned by Richarlison’s stoppage-time goal, was a “better-than-nothing” result rather than a good one.
Gallant defeats are no good to this great old English football institution now. Everton need wins.
The fat lady, to misquote the old saying, may not be singing but she is certainly clearing her throat.