Rooney hauls Everton to safety, I hope

Coming off a season in which it had finished a strong seventh, Everton began this English Premier League campaign with reason for mild optimism. Sure, we had sold our star player, Romelu Lukaku, to Manchester United for a small fortune. And yes, we were going to have to play Thursday night football in Croatia, Italy, Cyrus, and France amidst the grind of the EPL season.

But we used the Lukaku money, and additional funds from our new, wealthy owner, to purchase some fine players and add depth to the squad. In came:

Jordan Pickford (at 23 years old, already a reserve goalkeeper for the England national team);

Michael Keane (at 24, a reserve defender for England);

Gylfi Sigurdsson (a world class midfielder and star of the Iceland team that defeated England at Euro 2016);

Sandro Ramirez (at 22 years old, scorer of 14 goals in 28 starts in the Spanish top division last season);

Davy Klaassen (a starter for Ajax, the Dutch powerhouse, and a reserve for Holland’s national team);

Nikola Vlasic (at age 20, already “capped” by the Croatian national team).

And, of course, Wayne Rooney.

Now, you can’t effectively replace a superstar, especially a big goal scorer, by adding lots of decent players. Ask Tottenham how that went, initially, with Gareth Bale. Ask Liverpool, how it went with Luis Suarez.

Nonetheless, few doubted that Everton would finish in the top half of the EPL. And I don’t know of anyone who expected a relegation fight.

The schedule conspired against us, though. Four of our first five EPL matches were against top six teams from last year, with a diet of European contests thrown in. All of this while manager Ronald Koeman tried to integrate all those new players.

It did not go well. We won the only EPL match against a non-top opponent, thanks to a Rooney goal, but managed only a draw from the four matches against the top clubs. And we were stumbling in our European matches, including a 3-0 loss to Atalanta, a less than fashionable Italian side.

Things figured to improve once we started playing mediocre EPL opposition, and they did — but only a little bit. We beat a poor Bournemouth team, but fell to surprisingly good Burnley. Next came a draw with newly promoted Brighton. Four points from three games from which we might have expected seven.

We then fell at home to Lyon in a contentious match that ended our European pretensions.

Koeman’s job was now in serious jeopardy and Everton had to face Arsenal, another top six club from last year. When the Gunners thrashed us 5-2 at home, that was it for the Dutchman. All those years as a successful coach in Holland, Spain and England — including that fine season with Everton in 2016-17 — counted for nothing. That’s the way it is now in the EPL.

What had gone wrong? The schedule, of course. But also the fact that Koeman’s summer buying spree produced an unbalanced team. Rooney, Sigurdsson, and Klaassen all are best in the #10 role — a play making position in front of the central midfielders and a little behind the center forward (the #9). Ross Barkley, billed for stardom not long ago, would also favor the #10 slot once he recovered from injury, assuming he wasn’t sold.

Meanwhile, Everton had no good #9 to replace Lukaku. Sandro Ramirez, the young Spaniard was supposed to do so, but he couldn’t get out of his own way. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, a star of England’s under-20 World Cup winning team (which included five Everton players) wasn’t quite ready. Oumar Niasse, whose scoring record is decent, was so far in Koeman’s doghouse that he wasn’t even included in the squad designated to play in Europe.

In addition, age had suddenly caught up with Ashley Williams (33) and Phil Jagielka (35). These are two of the very best EPL center backs of this decade. But now, EPL forwards were having their way with them. And Michael Keane, the newly acquired center back, was still finding his way with his new team.

Everton appointed David Unsworth, a loyal servant of the club and a key player on the last Everton team to win a trophy (way back in 1995) as its interim manager. The hope, I think, was that the team would perform well enough under “Rhino” that management could avoid a panic hire — that is, a hire designed to avoid relegation.

There are English managers who have made this a specialty. And the two best escape artists, “Big Sam” Allardyce and Tony Pulis were available.

But Everton, under its new owner, aspires to the big time and neither Big Sam nor Pulis has ever taken a club to the heights. If Unsworth could pull Everton well clear of the relegation zone (the bottom three), the club could hold out for a manager it really it wanted — a fancy European. If not, it would might feel compelled to hire Big Sam or Pulis, both of whom would demand a contract that extended beyond the end of this season.

Unfortunately, a month of Unsworth’s leadership only heightened fears of relegation. In successive matches we were crushed by Lyon 0-3, Atalanta (that pesky Italian club) 1-5, and Southampton 1-4.

The last defeat, coming against a team that has rarely caused us problems and that has had a tough time scoring this season, was the last straw. Everton found itself in the bottom three with one of the three worst goal differences in the EPL. Fans were now imagining trips to Preston, Barnsley, Millwall, and other non-EPL venues next season.

Management bit the bullet and hired Allardyce. The big man, desperate to get back into management with a team possessing good financial resources, bet on himself and took a contract for a year and a half.

The fan reaction, in the Everton tradition, was negative. Only a few years ago, Big Sam was judged good enough to manage England’s national team (though the opportunity was very short-lived due to a minor corruption scandal that cost him the job). But his management style is pragmatic — some call it “industrial” — whereas most Everton fans are romantic.

Under Allardyce, the thinking went, Everton might accumulate enough points to finish mid-table or a little better, but it would accumulate no style points. And style matters at Goodison Park.

Unsworth’s last match was a home contest against West Ham — the only team rivaling us this year in the underachieving department — now directed by Everton’s longtime manager David Moyes who has been called in to rescue the proud East End outfit. Allardyce was in the stands and likely helped Unsworth pick the team.

In the team was Wayne Rooney, a surprise omission by Unsworth, his former teammate, in the Southhamption debacle. I’m guessing Big Sam insisted that Rooney play against West Ham.

Good thing. The all-time leading scorer for England and Manchester United rolled back the years and scored three goals in a 4-0 victory.

Big Sam’s Everton debut took place three days later against newly promoted Huddersfield. Rooney was heroic again, contributing a fine assist in a 2-0 victory.

Suddenly, Everton is in tenth place, the last spot in the top half of the table. Our goal difference is far from top half stuff but, though our schedule has leveled out some, we’ve still played a tougher one than most.

This weekend, we take on Liverpool, the one top six side we’ve yet to play. A win, and Allardyce is an Everton legend. A loss, and he’s back to being a corrupt bum. But a loss won’t drive a nail in our coffin, as seemed possible less than a week ago. We’re out of the coffin — for good, I hope.

The folks at FiveThirtyEight fancy us for an 11th place finish, just behind Southampton, with only an 8 percent chance of being relegated. Right now, that doesn’t sound bad.

But with two of our top players — Seamus Coleman and Yannick Bolassie –scheduled to return soon from injuries that have kept them out all season, I can see us finishing higher. Provided that Big Sam sorts out the defense and, above all, keeps writing Wayne Rooney’s name on the team sheet.