Everton are 16th at the time of writing, two points outside the relegation zone with three games to play. What have you made of what you have seen during the second half of the Toffees’ campaign?
Like most Evertonians, I just want there to be a happy ending to a truly forgettable season. For long periods, negativity has surrounded the club - whether it be the unpopular appointment of Rafael Benitez, the lack of joined-up thinking among the hierarchy, recruitment or the disconnect with supporters - but Frank Lampard has brought back some much-needed unity. I was at the reverse fixture at the Brentford Community Stadium, and that truly felt like the day Benitez lost whatever support he may have gathered following his encouraging start. The fans turned on the players and the manager following that dreadful performance in a 1-0 defeat in November which really set the tone for a winter of discontent. There remains a lack of quality but what has changed in recent weeks is the mentality, a determination to not allow circumstance dictate the club’s future. The players deserve credit for how they have turned a grave situation around, but the job is not done yet.
How troubling has it been to have even been mentioned in the relegation conversation over the past few months, given that it was over 70 years ago that the club last dropped out of the top flight?
It certainly has been a traumatic period following Everton, let me assure you! Especially after the Burnley defeat not long ago, which sparked their revival. When they moved five points clear following the win at Watford, you feared the game was up. That was not long ago, so things can still change very rapidly, but it seems Everton are peaking at just the right time. The Aston Villa defeat may have knocked the stuffing out of Burnley while Leeds appear to have self-destructed. Both now have injuries to key personnel so Everton are certainly in a position of strength.
Following last Sunday’s win at Leicester, you tweeted that Jordan Pickford is keeping Everton in the Premier League. How important a figure has he been in this fight against the drop?
He has been superb. There have been those in the media who have criticised his concentration levels, his temperament and even his time-wasting antics in the past, but Pickford has always enjoyed proving his doubters wrong. I spoke with him not so long ago, and having become a father and used a sports psychologist we are now seeing a leader emerging in an Everton group that has at times retreated into their shell during games, especially if they concede the first goal. Lampard has often had to make enforced changes to his defence, but whoever he selects at the back know they have a first-class goalkeeper behind them, capable of bailing his team-mates out of trouble. Two clean sheets in the last three games is encouraging and without those saves against Chelsea and Leicester, Everton would be in a far worse position.
Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on on Sunday?
Richarlison - it has to be. His finishing and ability to drive at opponents place him in a different category to anyone else in the side. He is just so vital to how Everton attack and has really come to the fore in recent home wins against Man Utd and Chelsea. He was a bit ineffectual away to Leicester and Watford in his most recent outings, but I suspect the gradual return to fitness of Dominic Calvert-Lewin could free him up from the position of target man so he can truly play to his strengths.
How is Frank Lampard likely to set up his side at Goodison Park?
As I have just hinted, I feel this could be the time for Lampard to move away from the cautious 3-4-3 approach witnessed in the recent upturn in form. It was used again in the stalemate against Watford but Everton failed to create many chances against a side happy to sit back. It left fans frustrated as it was a missed opportunity. Lampard referenced a lack of cutting edge, refusing to admit any sense of regret at his approach, but I feel he will now struggle to resist the temptation to go more offensive by deploying an extra forward with survival within touching distance and backed by a partisan home crowd.
Everton avenged the previous league defeat against the Bees with a 4-1 win in the FA Cup back in February. What is your score prediction for this one?
That feels a very long time ago! You hoped that first win under Lampard would be the end of Everton’s worries this season but the problems he inherited will take time to be fully addressed. It has been away from home where the team has often lacked cohesion, however. Playing a side looking to impress their new manager was always likely to be difficult for Brentford then, and now they return to Goodison to face opponents with the knife at their throat to avoid relegation so the extra motivation should again be on Everton’s side. But we have seen how Brentford are only getting stronger as the season goes on, safe in the knowledge they’re staying up. That freedom to play and the pressure on the hosts will make this a much tighter affair but I’m tipping Everton for another narrow 1-0 home win.