It must have been a weird feeling for Theo Walcott on Saturday as he watched Oumar Niasse turn his headed cross into the roof of the net. Not because this was the first time in well over a decade that the winger hadn’t been setting up someone in an Arsenal shirt, but because it was the first time in almost two years since he’d set up anyone in a Premier League game.
So starved has the winger been of the opportunity to service a colleague in recent times that one imagines the drought beginning to extend into all aspects of his existence. As he wanders the London underground at night, Walcott’s eyes widen at the sight of an old lady wrestling a heavy suitcase at the bottom of a staircase only for a younger, more dashing chap to pop up from nowhere and offer his assistance first. Trudging dejectedly home, Theo spots a charity collector on the high street when they suddenly disappear into an emergency phone call as he desperately probes his pocket for a spare quid. He waits, pound in hand, for their return until the Police move him along despite his pleading. “It’s when you’re most out of form that you try to force things” offers the officer, sympathetically, as he gently leads him away from the scene. For two years this has been the Walcott experience. Two years of standing patiently in the same doorway for someone he can hold the door open for, yet with only a slight draught and the of torment his own thoughts for company.
Given all this, Walcott’s assist at the weekend should have been a moment of pure catharsis. Yet rather than putting a spring in Everton’s step, the goal was more like ejecting a stone from your shoe. The individual release of relief it triggered was greatly outweighed by that of the collective, and rightly so considering it merely rescued a point at home to a West Brom side less convincing than a pair of Ray-Bans you buy from a guy on a bridge who arranges his merchandise on a towel.
By any account, this season has been an unmitigated disaster for Everton. So bad, in fact, that you can actually point to two distinctive eras of awfulness with a slice of David Unsworth flavoured disappointment in between them. If the feeling of creating a goal has been alien to Walcott, the sensation of even trying has become the case for a team that had managed a total of four shots on target in their previous five games.
In truth, Everton’s problem is that their young players are still just a bit too young to crack the top level while their senior players are just a bit too senior to make up the difference. Of those members of the squad you’d say are in their prime years, Seamus Coleman is just about to come back from nearly having his leg snapped like a fortune cookie, James McCarthy has just suffered the same fate while Yannick Bolasie is himself only just coming back from knee reconstruction. Morgan Schneiderlin still looks like a man coming to terms with the concept of playing weekly football again and Walcott now finds himself in the same boat. The unknown quantity that is Cenk Tosun aside, perhaps only Idrissa Gueye and Gylfi Sigurdsson and can be said to be of ripe age and experience and the Icelander has been reduced to putting in a shift on the flank rather than the string-pulling role in which he excelled for Swansea. Everton are a team of the past and a team for the future. It’s the present that’s proving elusive.
But, despite their unprecedented recent levels of direness, things remain pretty sweet for the Toffees. They are still in the top half. They’re two wins away from seventh. Everything has gone wrong, managers have been sacrificed, signings have floundered, the sky has fallen and yet there they are, still rooted to basically the same spot. While this experience may be somewhat comforting for Toffees everywhere, the knowledge that ‘as bad as it gets’ is actually relatively tepid and unthreatening, it’s the hypothetical alternative is what should be truly worrying. If everything went right, if the stars aligned and a certain set of players under a certain future manager (Marco Silva, anyone?) finally hit their stride, what’s the very best Everton could hope for? Fifth? The answer is certainly no higher than fourth and even that seems a tad fanciful in this era in which the ‘big six’ have better players, bigger budgets and bolder ambitions.
In this sense, Everton and Walcott complement one another like a polished pair of brogues do a decent suit. Before Saturday the winger hadn’t started a league game since last April, yet his signing still constitutes a major coup. Despite essentially going missing for two years and only adding a beard and a few tattoos to his game in that time, Walcott is still good enough to walk straight into the Everton team. Even if he too finally put all that long-touted potential into action and put together the season of his life next season, the route back to the Champions League now seems closed off. Both Walcott and Everton are increasingly defined by what they aren’t and what they can’t be more so than whatever they go on to achieve. They now stand beside one another and blend into one another. They are embodiments of the not quite, ambassadors for almost.