Report card: Everton shake off the shackles to chase the top set
Ignore any slight sense of disappointment that Everton didn't make the Champions League: Roberto Martinez's maiden Merseyside season has brought the good times back to Goodison.
It's not just reaching Europe: top-eight ever-presents for the last eight seasons, Everton needn't be overly amazed to qualify for the Europa. What has got the buzz back is the manner of Martinez's mission. A club that was regularly said to be overachieving under the safety-first David Moyes has found success by adopting an altogether more attacking attitude.
Taking the game to their opponents with a probing passing game exemplified by flying full-backs Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, they haven't scored more goals since before Euro 96. And while the mob from over Stanley Park have commanded more column inches for their (often overly naive) attacking football, Everton's fondness for free-flowing football never precluded a solid defence: only three times in 26 years have the Toffees conceded fewer goals. The net result is their highest points total since they won the league in 1987.
However, it's not just about the numbers: Martinez had changed the atmosphere and attitude. Under the previous manager the team's first aim was not to lose; now they strive to win. Nothing illustrated this better than Moyes's failure to achieve an Everton victory at Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool, a record Martinez overturned at the first opportunity… against Moyes's new side at Old Trafford.
Enough of the old boss: despite the wicked welcome back for the Scot's last game as Manchester United manager, Evertonians are looking forward. Martinez has bought and borrowed astutely, imbued a winning mentality and instilled a fast-passing attacking game. From key loanees Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku through to old hands like Sylvain Distin and Steven Naismith, and promising kids like Ross Barkley and John Stones, the players have all bought into the Spaniard's vision. So have the fans, and no wonder.
Would they have taken this in August?
Yes. It's an improvement, and although Moyes wasn't universally popular, some feared his absence would hurt the club.
Would they have taken this in January?
Probably. They spent most of the month in fifth, but in a tight battle with Liverpool and Spurs.
Everton 3-0 Arsenal. The Gunners were demolished at Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, and Everton's 3-0 walkover demonstrated that the Toffees deserved inclusion in the gang – especially as their sixth straight win left them a point behind fourth-placed Arsenal with a game in hand. Martinez simply out-thought Arsene Wenger by switching to 4-3-3 with Lukaku on the right, where he tormented Nacho Monreal so much that the UN threatened sanctions.
Southampton 2-0 Everton. Having recovered from the wobble of losing at home to Palace in fine style by cruising past Manchester United 2-0 at Goodison, Everton could have gone fourth with a win at Saints, but failed to turn up. Antolin Alcaraz's first-minute OG set the tone, Seamus Coleman doubled the self-inflicted damage on the half-hour, and the Toffees couldn't claw it back. The Champions League dream was all but over.
Hero of the season
Ross Barkley. Everton wouldn't have been as effective without Lukaku's goals and Barry's passes, but it's the local lad whose blossoming under Martinez has typified the club's optimistic belief in youthful enterprise. He has rewarded that faith with performances of such promise that England came calling.
Villain of the season
Antolin Alcaraz. Perhaps harsh on the injury-hit Paraguayan – one of Martinez's clutch of early signings from old club Wigan, along with the similarly ineffective Joel Robles and Arouna Kone – but of his five league starts Everton lost three and won just one.
The season in microcosm
That final home game, a 3-2 defeat to Manchester City: taking the initiative against a perceived 'bigger team' thanks to Barkley's beautiful opener; continuing to believe in themselves even when the opponents went in front; seeing Lukaku score yet again (his 14th); not quite upsetting the status quo but certainly announcing their arrival as a threat.
A-. Impressive turnaround in attitude from previously diffident student who may yet break into the top set.