A funny thing about soccer, when it is done right, is that the best way for a team to ensure itself an exciting, dramatic end to the season is to be either really good or really bad. The sport’s beauty may come from its rules and the talents of its players, but the passion comes from its stakes. The system of promotion and relegation is so great because it extends live-or-die stakes not just to the fight at the top of the league table, but also to the one at the very bottom. Sometimes, as this year’s Premier League relegation war has proven, what happens at the bottom of the table can be the most captivating action of the whole league. And nothing demonstrated the power of stakes and the glory of attaining even the lowly title of Least-Bad Of The Bad than Everton’s season-saving victory on Thursday.
When Dominic Calvert-Lewin headed in the decisive goal in the 85th minute, capping a barnstorming comeback that saw Everton turn a 0–2 halftime deficit into a 3–2 win over visiting Crystal Palace, dozens of fans streamed onto the pitch to celebrate chest-to-chest with the players. You couldn’t really fault them. Along with the obvious joy the home supporters felt taking a lead that, when it held to the final whistle, guaranteed Everton’s place in the league next year, the fans had to have felt a very real sense of ownership of the moment. Michael Keane, Richarlison, and Calvert-Lewin scored the goals that saved the club, but the fans absolutely contributed by creating the atmosphere in which victories like Thursday’s and the other recent wins that sealed the club’s permanence were possible. There’s no way Everton is safe today if not for the performance of the fans at Goodison Park.
Of the six wins Everton mustered since bringing on Frank Lampard as manager, five of them came at Goodison Park. Even in spite of witnessing possibly the worst season in modern Everton history, the fans knew they had a role to securing EPL safety, and so they stayed relentlessly positive and deafeningly loud whenever the Toffees took the pitch. The energy inside the stadium had to have been like a turbo charger for the players, who could find in it the support, confidence, motivation that the team’s own play, poor as it was for almost the entire campaign, could not have engendered. And in the opposite direction, the Goodison atmosphere was an imposing, oppressive force exerting pressure and stress on all Everton’s rivals. The clearest example of this fan–team synergy came in Thursday’s match against Palace. Once Keane got that crucial first goal just nine minutes into the second half, the feeling of the match completely shifted. From that point on, the stands were rocking, the Toffee players were buzzing, and Everton had all the momentum.
It’s impossible to divorce the contributions of the fans from the performances of the players and the outcome of the match. That marriage of forces defines the sport, and the strength of that bond is a big part of what makes the English game so special. So, again, how could you fault the fans from taking to the pitch after Calvert-Lewin’s goal and again after the match finished? They’d helped their team win the game, too, and they deserved to experience what that felt like from right where it happened.
The video above features 14 minutes of uninterrupted joy and postgame reverie. Watch all of it and you’ll see the players being mobbed by adoring fans, players staying on the pitch to sing songs, and manager Frank Lampard climbing up to box seats to hug fans, executives, club legends, and eventually sing and dance with a random teen. That such a scene was created on the occasion of one of the biggest and richest clubs in the country doing nothing more than cementing their status as not one of the three worst teams in the league is, objectively, kind of silly. Except that it’s not.
There were plenty of people who rushed to take the piss upon seeing Everton fans and players celebrate like they had just won a title, but I think what divides those who look at a scene like that and scoff from those who allowed themselves to get caught up in the moment is a differing idea about what sports are supposed to be for. Do they exist just to separate the weak from the strong, to sort the world into columns of winners and losers? Or do they exist to create moments and feelings, which arrive not only according to concrete, codified markers of failure and success, but with the sound a crowd makes when it finally sees the thing it’s been so desperate to witness?
Nobody would know the answer to that question better than Lampard, who has only been at the club for a few short months. Lampard is one of the most accomplished players in the history of the Premier League. He spent his playing career performing at the highest level and winning the shiniest of trophies, and so if anyone is equipped with the experience needed to put a win like this into proper perspective, to understand what real stakes in this game feel like, it’s him.
“It’s incredible. It’s one of the greatest nights of my footballing life,” were the first words out of Lampard’s mouth when he was eventually pulled aside for a postgame interview. He was then asked to describe what he felt when the full-time whistle blew. “Thought I might cry,” he said.
Later, Lampard returned to the empty Goodison pitch for another interview, and in his own way provided a much more specific answer to the question of what makes sports matter. “I said this to the players this morning. In your career you’ll have moments,” he said. “That’s what we do it for. What moments that will be defining, and when you’re older you’ll remember—and I’m older now than them—and you remember that you either lost that final, or lost that game which was pivotal, and you didn’t do something yourself that could have been done and you let your team down. Don’t be that person tonight. Be the one that, as a teammate, you dragged them through, and those moments will stay with you forever, regardless of what you’re fighting for.”
That’s the whole point. To make a moment like this:
Luckily for us, there is still lots more at stake in the Premier League heading into Sunday’s season finale. Manchester City leads Liverpool by just a single point, so the title is still up in the air. A little lower down the table, Tottenham will try to stave off Arsenal to keep hold of the fourth Champions League spot. And way down at the bottom, Leeds United and Burnley, each on 35 points with Burnley enjoying a huge goal-difference advantage, still have some fighting left to do for one of them to stay in the league next season. It will certainly be difficult for any of those other contests to match what happened at Goodison Park Thursday, but that’s the thing about high stakes: you never know what’s going to happen, but it’s safe to expect it to be something big and dramatic and memorable.