Sean Dyche was about to take his seat when he noticed the head chef at Fulham beating a retreat as the Everton manager was about to conduct his post-match press conference.
After close to 100 minutes of a “ding-dong” goalless draw along the banks of the River Thames, the waft of pastry emanating from the media lounge had proven too irresistible for the likeable Englishman from Kettering.
“Are there any pies left?” came Dyche’s best impersonation of Oliver Twist towards the only man in attendance dressed in a white apron. Plenty of laughter and a recommendation of the chicken balti option came back from the gathering press.
“I’m being deadly serious,” followed up the Everton boss. “My son is here, too, so could we please have two? I’d love a pie to mark my anniversary.”
The light-hearted exchange encapsulated how Dyche has taken to his task in his first 12 months in charge on Merseyside.
If you cannot stand the heat, get out of the kitchen? The pressure, it would seem, has never become too difficult for Dyche, battle-hardened across his managerial career spanning 425 games at Burnley and a brief spell under the Pozzo rule at Watford. His current side dropping into the relegation zone this week will not faze him.
Everton’s recent history of hiring and firing managers makes the marking of a one-year anniversary at a club besieged by supporter unrest, a points deduction and another relegation battle no small feat.
Frank Lampard was sacked over the phone by owner Farhad Moshiri barely hours after discussing late January transfer targets following a run of eight defeats in nine games. Lampard lasted just 357 days, while his unpopular predecessor Rafa Benitez spent six-and-a-half months in charge. Sam Allardyce did not fare any better.
For most Evertonians, Dyche has been the right appointment at the right time with the club at the most significant crossroads in its history.
There has been a realism from his first press conference, and a desire to change the narrative, but perhaps the most impressive feature in the reign of Everton’s seventh manager in as many years has been his ability to block out the noise.
“The reality is that ever since I walked into the building, there was a lot of hard work to be done,” said Dyche, who has won 13 of his 40 Premier League games in charge. “After the last game of last season, I said the same thing and it continues to be the case. We’re trying to bring the club to a level where we can build forwards.
“There is a bigger picture but ultimately you’ve got to win games. Managers don’t get time to build if they’re not winning games. I’ll never lose sight of that regardless of all the noise and the other challenges. You’ve got to remain clear on the focus of the team. We’ll take on the other challenges as they come.”
As he departed Craven Cottage into the west London night following a hard-fought draw, the former Burnley boss could reflect momentarily on a whirlwind 12 months that have resembled at times a social experiment, such has been the psychological torment experienced by the club’s supporters.
In that time, Everton have survived a second successive relegation battle, overseen the resignation of multiple board members, the collapse of an investment deal, protracted uncertainty over a proposed takeover, 10 points docked with the threat of a second sanction and another battle for survival.
This month, my colleague Alan Myers described the club as an “ongoing drama series” akin to a “large cruise ship, which has been cut adrift, with Dyche and Captain Coleman trying to steer the vessel to the relative safety of Bramley Moore Dock”. Poetic but completely to the point, so what has Dyche improved?
Organisation and defensive discipline
Everton have won five away Premier League games this season – one more than they managed in the last two Premier League campaigns combined – and there is much more besides that Dyche has turned around.
There is the almighty elephant in the room. With the 10 points reinstated, not only would they move above Fulham up to 12th in the table, but it would also have a direct knock-on effect on any further points deduction for the second breach of PSR.
Bringing the ostracised Abdoulaye Doucoure in from the cold, the development of England U21 international Jarrad Branthwaite and convincing Jordan Pickford to sign a new contract rank high among the positives. His eight clean sheets so far this term is more than any other goalkeeper.
There is then the case of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who after two injury-ravaged seasons has worked closely with Dyche to carefully address his fitness. The problem for now is a confidence issue.
One goal in 19 games has placed greater scrutiny on the combined £40m outlay on Beto and Youssef Chermiti, one unproven the other young, at this level. For all the mitigating factors, financial constraints has meant additional pressure on director of football Kevin Thelwell for the recruitment to be better.
Dyche is not immune from criticism. He must prepare for Spurs, and then Manchester City, and then Crystal Palace. He can only control what’s in front of him. That has been the constant message that has not cracked. The controllables.
The dispiriting FA Cup defeat to Luton highlighted what areas Dyche must address on the training ground, but for all the pain at seeing a 28th year without silverware pass by, the priority cannot be lost on Gwladys Street residents.
The mess Dyche inherited means survival has unfairly capped his own ambitions for now.
When asked about improvements the Toffees boss said: “If you put the 10 points on then factually yes. And I think the feel of the team, yes.
“The energy and commitment, yes. Quality, generally yes. Flexibility of the side to try and find a win, yeah. So a lot of good markers but when the 10 points is not there, no one tells the story – and rightly so.
“I don’t like harking on about it. Facts are facts. We are one point outside the relegation zone. Of course at the back of your mind you’ve got that nagging doubt, have we moved forward?
“Yeah, I think we have as a club and as a team. We have in different ways but the facts remain the same and that’s where the table says we are.”
What areas remain a concern?
Dyche will want to improve his team’s resolve. Of the ever-present Premier League clubs since his first game in charge on February 2 last year, no side has collected fewer than Everton’s five points from a losing position.
Conversely, only Manchester United (7) and Liverpool (9) have dropped fewer points when taking the lead than Everton’s 11 to highlight the importance of the first goal in games under Dyche.
Everton have lost just once in 18 league games when scoring first since his arrival late last January – winning 13. But they are one of just two teams yet to take a point when conceding first this season, along with Burnley.
He and his coaching staff can take responsibility for defending set pieces better, particularly at the second phase, and the profligacy in front of goal that has undermined tangible progress. He can take control of the formation he chooses, the substitutions he makes.
It’s Tottenham up next. Dyche’s second year starts with Everton hosting a north London club at Goodison Park for a 12.30pm kick off – just as year one had.
Victory over Arsenal that day set a standard his side have struggled to replicate consistently, not least on home soil, but perhaps the most significant day in Dyche’s second year will be the very first, with Everton’s appeal against their 10-point deduction for breaching the Premier League’s financial rules starting on Wednesday.
The club have hired one of the UK’s top barristers, “super silk” Laurence Rabinowitz KC, to lead their legal team with the outcome due in mid-February. Their Premier League status this year could hinge on a three-day hearing; in the courts as much as it will on the pitch.
Clarity is needed at the earliest opportunity, and the outcome will define to what extent Dyche is able to build on the foundations his first 12 months have put in place after years of upheaval.
As Rabinowitz fights the perceived disproportionate punishment, Dyche’s body of work at Everton still only feels a chapter old.
In the face of adversity, he must continue to show why he is the authentic leader and transformational change agent capable of presiding over the club’s biggest battle in its 146-year history.