Seeds of doubt at Goodison
The final chorus was familiar. Soaked and suffering as the Everton supporters at the Reebok Stadium on Sunday were, they nevertheless hailed David Moyes. The chants of the manager's name are as much of a soundtrack to life at Goodison Park as the Z-Cars anthem. They have been a constant in a reign that has lasted almost nine years, giving the Merseysiders a continuity rivalled only by Arsenal and Manchester United.
And yet there is an end-of-an-era feel about Everton. There have been past rumours that Moyes would walk away, but there are more reasons for dissatisfaction now. They lay partly in results - and for a club who have finished fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth under the Scot, 13th position is underwhelming in the extreme - but partly in the circumstantial evidence: the mood, the body language and the context.
Under Moyes, Everton have been renowned for their spirit, togetherness and resilience. None was notable in the 2-0 loss to Bolton. Moyes looked and sounded at the end of his tether. Taken in isolation, it indicated that the players were no longer heeding the manager's message. If that is an extreme example, there are others: the home defeats to West Brom and Newcastle were upsets in more than just the scoreline.
A struggle to beat seemingly inferior teams is a theme of the season. It reflects upon Everton's inability to afford the striker who would have converted draws into wins, but it is also a sign of a side whose personality is changing. Whereas in Moyes' earlier years at Everton, they often lacked the quality to trouble the best, that is no longer the case. While they have lost home and away to Arsenal, they are unbeaten against the rest of the top six, taking ten points. It suggests that while the day-to-day grind holds less appeal, Everton can rouse themselves for a challenge.
The problem is that the search may be for a new challenge. Breaking into the top four is no longer feasible and, while Saturday's FA Cup replay against Chelsea offers the chance to pursue the silverware that narrowly eluded them in 2009, others have rather more resources to chase trophies.
Moreover, after a period of rare stability, players have started to defect. The influence money played in the motives of Joleon Lescott, when moving to Manchester City, and Steven Pienaar, in his transfer to Tottenham, can be debated, but they were the first players in years to depart when Moyes wanted them to stay. Since Wayne Rooney and Thomas Gravesen joined Manchester United and Real Madrid respectively within the space of a few months six years ago, Everton successfully resisted the overtures of bigger or wealthier clubs for their premier talents. With Marouane Fellaini approaching the final two years of his contract and Chelsea apparently interested, a theme could develop. The tag of 'selling club' would sit unhappily, given Everton's history, traditions and recent excellence.
A lack of funds scarcely helps persuade disgruntled players to stay. Assess their dealings over the past three years and Everton are in profit. It is proof of Moyes' husbandry, but prudence isn't the first quality footballers look for in a club. It was especially telling to witness a January in which Pienaar, Yakubu and James Vaughan headed for the exit, albeit temporarily in the case of the two forwards, while no-one arrived.
Moreover, while Moyes possesses an outstanding record in the transfer market, two of his recent bigger buys, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Johnny Heitinga, do not rank among the more successful. Both may be best served by a move and, unless an asset like Jack Rodwell is sold to finance rebuilding, improvement is problematic on such a limited budget.
Moyes' loyalists have been faithful to the club, but they are an ageing band. Phil Neville is 34, Sylvain Distin 33, Louis Saha 32, Tim Howard and Tim Cahill both 31. Joseph Yobo, on loan at Fenerbahce, is 30 (and the mischievous may argue Yakubu could be, too) while both Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka turn 29 this year. None are over the hill yet, but their resale value is reducing. It all means that managing Everton in two years' time could be considerably harder than it is now, unless Bill Kenwright's long search for outside investment finally reaps a dividend.
Moyes does not complain publicly, but this has been a season to dent a sky-high reputation. His longevity means he is no longer seen as an up-and-coming manager, his sustained success giving others a freshness to onlookers.
With Manchester United and Arsenal remaining in the same hands, Chelsea preferring to import coaches and Liverpool impractical, the offers his achievements merit have not arrived. With Tottenham, Manchester City and (perhaps) Aston Villa spending, other opportunities may arrive for the strongest domestic candidate for advancement. As Everton have outperformed each during Moyes' reign, they would have been seen as a backward step. But not now.
The Glaswegian's fidelity to the Everton cause has been both admirable and enduring, but when the past appears preferable to the future, it plants the seeds of doubt. It raises the question of how many more times the fans at Goodison Park can salute and serenade David Moyes.