“This was really special. A perfect day.”
After more than eight and a half years away from the Premier League, Carlo Ancelotti is back in English football – and he could not be happier.
He began his Everton managerial career with a 1-0 home win over Burnley – with Toffees supporters surely agreeing with the 60-year-old’s verdict.
The appointment of a three-time Champions League winner by a team who three weeks ago were in the relegation zone has raised plenty of eyebrows, but this felt like a significant moment for fans of a club without a trophy in almost 25 years.
There is no magic wand for Ancelotti. Thirteenth-placed Everton are still closer on points to 18th than they are eighth, but the new manager used his programme notes to spell out his desire to win trophies with the club and supporters will hope this is the start of a journey that brings the return of some former glories.
Nothing is certain in football but Ancelotti’s CV of 15 major trophies in five different countries – including the Premier League and FA Cup in 2009-10 with Chelsea before he was sacked a year later – inspires optimism.
That’s why he received a standing ovation and a huge cheer from the home fans before the game, bettered only by the roar when Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s excellent diving header in the 80th minute finally broke a resolute Burnley defence, with Ancelotti later lauding the “fantastic” atmosphere and reception.
It was so different earlier this month. Marco Silva’s side were in the bottom three after a 5-2 humiliation by Liverpool. It’s so recent that “Silva out” is still painted on the walls of one of the streets only yards away from Goodison Park.
But then things began to change. Silva was dismissed and ex-Toffees striker Duncan Ferguson started bringing back the feelgood factor with five points from three tough Premier League games in interim charge, against Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal.
‘A lot of games were boring – Everton deserves better’
“Under Marco the tempo was not high enough,” said Toffees legend Graeme Sharp, part of the Everton side that were English champions twice in the 1980s.
“A lot of games were boring. Everton Football Club deserves better than that. The fans want to see positive, attacking football. We shouldn’t be where we are in the league and we need to get out of it.
“Duncan galvanised everyone. The fans just want to see the club moving forward and everything is moving forward now. Everton fans are excited, they want to see a successful team – the last one was in the mid-1980s, apart from winning the FA Cup in 1995, and that’s too long.
“Everton have to aim for European football every year, that’s the minimum – we want to be in the top six.”
Ancelotti did not make radical changes as he began his pursuit of that aim. He has utilised either a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formation throughout large parts of his career and, just like Ferguson, used the latter on Thursday, although he did play Djibril Sidibe in a more advanced position down the right flank, with him providing the cross for Calvert-Lewin’s winner.
Asked about potential signings, Ancelotti spoke of bringing in “one or two” in January, with centre-half and centre forward appearing to be the most pressing areas in need of reinforcement, although he appears to have confidence in 19-year-old Italy international Moise Kean, a player he tried to sign when Napoli boss.
Kean has not scored at Everton since a £25m summer move from Juventus and suffered the public humiliation of being taken off by Ferguson 19 minutes after coming on against Manchester United. But the Italian striker received a warm reception from the home fans when he came on against the Clarets in the 77th minute, three minutes before the goal.
Can Ancelotti get the best out of his countryman? Everton fans will be desperately hoping so.
Ancelotti finds a club craving success
Around Everton’s wonderfully atmospheric but outdated Goodison Park are 122 picture boards, a timeline representing memorable moments in the club’s 141-year history, including trophies won and magical players.
The first entry is from 1878 when the club was formed as St Domingo FC and the last is from 2014 with the club record purchase of striker Romelu Lukaku for £28m from Chelsea.
Since then? Nothing. Mediocrity.
Finishes of 11th, 11th, seventh, eighth and eighth are not moments of pride for a club that has been English champions nine times, FA Cup winners on five occasions and also had success in Europe. Ancelotti’s predecessors Ronald Koeman, Sam Allardyce and Silva will all go down in the history books as managers who tried but failed to bring back the glory years.
What makes it worse for Toffees fans is the continued success of the red half of the city, with Liverpool the European and world champions and, barring a huge collapse, the next Premier League winners too.
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But this time, it might just be different at Goodison Park.
Everton’s Latin motto of Nil Satis Nisi Optimum means “nothing but the best is good enough” and Iranian billionaire owner Farhad Moshiri and chairman Bill Kenwright have appointed someone whose record puts them among the elite in world football management.
Ancelotti has not come cheap, with a reported yearly salary of up to £11.5m, plus a £2.5m bonus for avoiding relegation, but with a four-and-a-half-year deal he has spoken of the club’s long-term ambition and the opportunity to build and craft a top team.
The Italian has drawn comparisons between the Everton of today and the Paris St-Germain side he inherited that had not won the French league in 19 years before he guided them to the Ligue 1 championship, as well as the AC Milan team that finished sixth before he came and then won two Champions Leagues and the Club World Cup during his time there.
A scrappy, late 1-0 win over Burnley does not catapult Everton anywhere near England’s elite and the hard work for Ancelotti starts now, but that does not stop Toffees fans from dreaming of special, perfect days ahead.