It may have been the most Everton thing ever had Middlesbrough, Millwall or Lincoln sprung the biggest of surprises and somehow lifted this season’s FA Cup, thus ending our hopes of making it into Europe.
Fortunately the excellent form of Ronald Koeman’s men has been further boosted by perfect results in the quarter-finals, with Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham all having reached the last four as expected. Either Chelsea or Manchester United will join them on Monday night.
If Europa League permutations aren’t your strong suit, it means that the Premier League’s third Europa League spot is almost certain to be awarded to the side who finish seventh because the FA Cup winners will almost certainly come from the division’s eventual top six – and will therefore have already earned a European place of their own. United are guaranteed at least a Europa spot by virtue of their EFL Cup win.
All of that sets things up nicely for the Blues. While trying to overhaul those in front of us should remain our goal – and a late charge for the top four isn’t mathematically impossible – it’s comforting to know that a return to the continent is now a realistic and achievable target, particularly after Saturday’s comfortable 3-0 victory over eighth-placed West Brom.
The gap between ourselves and the Baggies is now seven points. Stoke are four further back. We have tough games against Liverpool, United, Chelsea and Arsenal to come, but Tony Pulis’ side also face all of those clubs in their final 10 games of the season. It’s too early to say it’s in the bag, but it’s looking good.
A return to Europe, even if it isn’t the holy grail of the Champions League, is important for a number of reasons, not least because it has been one of Koeman’s main objectives since he arrived at the club from Southampton last summer.
The Dutchman has made no secret of the fact that reaching Europe’s elite club competition within the next three years is a major aspect of Farhad Moshiri’s Everton project, but for the evolution of Koeman’s side, playing in the Europa League next term would be an ideal first step.
While the Thursday-Sunday schedule can be demanding, getting used to playing twice a week again will only be of benefit should Everton manage to break into those elusive Champions League places in the seasons to come.
And when it comes to the matches themselves, testing our tactics, formation and style against unfamiliar sides, many of which are unlikely to play ‘the Premier League way’, is something to be relished, particularly with an emerging group of youngsters likely to be in and around the team.
Squad depth remains an issue, but the presence of European football is likely to ensure this summer’s recruitment is even more thorough, with plenty of positions being bolstered. Steve Walsh is working relentlessly to give Koeman the players he wants and is far better placed to do so after arriving midway through last year’s window.
Financially, the Europa League is not a game-changer like its big brother. With prize money, increased commercial activity and extra gate receipts, Everton earned around £8million from their run to the last 16 in 2014/15, so don’t expect qualification this time around to affect the price of the players we buy or the sort of wages we’re offering.
Next season’s prize money has increased significantly, but the extra opportunity to reach the Champions League by winning the competition is perhaps more valuable to us, particularly given the fierce battle for a place in the top four. It might take 14 games to make the final, but it’s certainly not impossible.
There’s also a small advantage to be had when it comes to new signings. While money, ambition and a guarantee of minutes on the pitch will always come first for a potential recruit – and, let’s be honest, not many players speak about their dream of playing in the Europa League – having European football is only likely to strengthen our chances of getting Walsh’s targets to sign on the dotted line.
But away from the ‘football’ reasons for wanting to get back into Europe, there is another which is at the top of my list.
I didn’t make it to Krasnodar or Kiev during our last adventure on the continent, but my trips to Lille, Wolfsburg and Bern are three I won’t forget in a hurry. The songs, the laughs, making new friends and getting charged by riot police. Ending up in a dodgy Swiss nightclub and being told Evertonians had drunk all the beer in a German bar as I tried to buy a celebratory pint.
I want more of that. We all want more of that. Everton in Europe just feels right.