David Moyes, the man who turned Everton from relegation fodder to Top Eight regulars, departed for Old Trafford, swiftly followed by his star midfielder, Marouane Fellaini, and few supporters, if any, knew what to expect after a summer of upheaval.
The appointment of Roberto Martinez divided opinion. Some argued that relegation with Wigan reflected his limitations; others believed the FA Cup victory over Manchester City demonstrated the potential of a manager in need of a bigger stage. It soon became clear, in rather emphatic, pleasing fashion, that it was the latter.
Expectations could easily have dipped for a club weighed down by preseason commotion, but Martinez had other ideas. For the first time in years, there was a sustained European push. The season of struggle predicted by numerous so-called experts and pundits gave way to one of endless progression.
In recent seasons, the standout performers usually numbered single figures. This season, though, candidates littered the field; there were contenders aplenty. Ross Barkley and John Stones arrived on the first-team scene in style. Baines maintained his excellence, Seamus Coleman added goals to an already striking resume, while Romelu Lukaku, though occasionally erratic, became the goal-every-two-games forward that Everton longed for.
There was James McCarthy, Ireland’s answer to the Duracell bunny, or Kevin Mirallas, who finished with most assists (eight) and most chances created (61), yet it is a summer recruit at the front of the queue.
Joining on loan, surplus to requirements at City, Gareth Barry, initially, generated mixed reviews akin to the manager signing him. Fast-forward nine months: the midfield metronome is a mainstay of the team.
Filling the void of the departed Fellaini and the injured Darron Gibson, Barry helped smooth out the rough edges evident in the early stages, as Martinez shifted the players onto a possession-based approach, through -- amongst other things – his passing ability, leadership and experience.
Few names spring to mind. Aside from those on the long-term injury list, valuable contributions rolled in from all corners of the squad. Steven Naismith began the season as the perennial boo-boy but he turned the corner when employed in his favoured central position.
Still, the award goes to Apostolos Vellios. Not so long ago, Vellios appeared set for stardom. Those days soon vanished, though, with promise squandered amid question marks over work ethic and attitude. The Greek forward looks set to depart this summer, more famous for his use of social media than his footballing ability.
Bold, not afraid to take risks at a moment’s notice; Martinez has displayed his impressive tactical awareness throughout his debut campaign. There was the brilliant use of Lukaku on the right wing against Arsenal, counter-attacking excellence against Manchester United, twice, and the introduction of Gerard Deulofeu in place of Baines to claw back the initiative in the Goodison derby, to name but a few.
Fearless beyond all doubt, though infrequently to the point of recklessness (see the Anfield derby), Martinez has ploughed this team with an abundance of self-belief. Almost immediately, the former Wigan boss vanquished the inferiority complex plaguing this side for nigh on two decades. Martinez has Evertonians daring to dream again.
Final grade: A-
Nobody of a sane mind envisaged a tilt at Champions League football this early into the Martinez tenure, although there is slight, ever so slight, disappointment at the final outcome as Everton had fourth within their grasp until ill-fated slips against Crystal Palace and Southampton.
Nonetheless, this has been an excellent start, laying the foundations for a bright future. Overseeing a record points haul, breaking countless club records in the Premier League, the biggest plus is the return of European football.
The key for next season -- something already referenced by Martinez, thankfully -- is bolstering the squad. The lack of depth within the squad is a chronic problem; Moyes failed to address it. If Everton are to challenge on several fronts, the squad requires additional quantity and quality.