It’s enough to make your heart go ‘whoa’…

It’s enough to make your heart go ‘whoa’…

Other, smarter people have covered in detail how Everton ended up in the relegation battle, the tactical breakdowns of the football played, the plight of the local fans, the miraculous escape, why it can’t happen again. This was only my third season as a fan and, as of today, I’ve yet to set foot in Liverpool. But this club means everything to me. As player after player described on social media how difficult this season was, I wanted to try to capture what it felt like to live through a relegation battle while going through a personal crisis. I’m not trying make it seem like I’ve had it worse than anyone else—we’re all dealing with our own challenges in our own lives in our own ways every single day. But we don’t have to go through them alone.  

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The warning signs for Everton were there from the beginning. As a new-ish fan, I didn’t have any personal baggage with Rafa B (as I came to call him, like distinguishing between multiple kids with the same first name in an elementary school class; as we all know, there’s only one Rafa). But I was wary enough. To me, it was less about him being a Red and more about the foregone conclusion that “Rafa in” automatically meant “James out.” I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around the ego involved with voluntarily casting aside your most talented player and not being able to manage differences in a professional work environment for the benefit of the team and the club. 

The warning signs were there on the pitch, too. Being down immediately to Southampton the first game of the season. Not being able to close out a win at Leeds. Going down to Burnley and being generally outplayed but for a six-minute burst of goals. It was easy enough to be in denial. The football wasn’t great, sure, but at least it wasn’t coming at the expense of points on the board. 

The warning signs had started for me by the end of July. I’d lost my sense of smell and taste entirely after getting COVID in March 2021, just two weeks before I was eligible to get vaccinated. The city’s case investigator warned me it could take up to 8 weeks for my senses to come back to normal, so not to be alarmed if it felt like slow going. By June, I felt my taste and smell had come back to about 50%. But by the time the season started, I was wondering if I was somehow backsliding. Everything started to taste vaguely like soap. Was I losing my mind, or did this berry flavored sparkling water taste like chalk? 

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It’s the Brighton game at the end of August. Dom has gone down without contact, grabbing his leg, getting subbed off. At the time, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. But it ended up becoming a line of demarcation in the season. Calvert-Lewin hasn’t scored since August 28 at Brighton…. Everton hasn’t won away since August 28 at Brighton… 

And I hadn’t felt anywhere close to normal since August 28 at Brighton. By this time, I’d figured out I wasn’t going insane: I had parosmia. My entire taste and smell palate had become a rotation of a few awful scents and flavors: poison, rotting meat, dead flowers, burning chemicals. There’s no available treatment or cure. The best advice is to undergo smell training and wait it out. Some initial research suggested that for half of people with parosmia after COVID, symptoms cleared up within 3 months. I had been making do throughout most of August, but one by one, foods started to slip away. Onions and garlic. Eggs. Oats. Butter. Almonds. Peanuts. Chocolate. Yogurt. Meat. Tomatoes. Avocado. Fruits. Vegetables. Quinoa, lentils, beans. Tea, my beloved tea, which I drank out of my Everton mug nearly every match. I rounded up all my soaps, scented cleaning products, and candles and offered them to my neighbors and donated what I could. 

I’ve got a new hobby: Crying! Crying in the shower, crying in the car, opening the fridge and crying, lying on the floor and crying. 

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Just like that, he was gone. I had bought a James shirt last season, knowing even at the time I was doing so just so I could hold proof in my hands that a World Cup Golden Boot winner had actually played for Everton, that I didn’t just dream it. And then he was gone. And not just gone—gone to Qatar gone.

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It’s the 60th minute against Watford. Richy is about to make his return after an extended period out injured. But something just feels off. Instead of being greeted by cheers and applause when he comes on the pitch, fans are upset that Anthony Gordon is coming off. Richy scores within minutes to put us up 2-1, and you could tell everyone felt that’s where the storyline was supposed to end. Fifteen shambolic minutes later, it’s a 5-2 loss. I know at that moment the season is over, truly lost. 

And then just days later, the nail in the coffin. Dom’s had another setback with his injury. The club won’t even commit to saying how long he’ll be out—just “a number of weeks.” Whispers that it could be until after Christmas.

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My life is a waking nightmare is how I’ve started describing it to close friends. I’ve been living off rice cereal, boxed mac and cheese, s’mores pop tarts, plain rice or pasta—the only foods I can tolerate eating that don’t make me gag. The pounds are flying on. Panic and anxiety is off the charts. I’m not able to unwind after work by cooking myself a healthy meal. I can’t treat myself to takeout or enjoy a meal out with friends. I can’t make myself my traditional match day breakfast to watch Everton matches on lazy weekend mornings, or pop by the local Everton bar to meet up with other Blues, since any establishment that serves food smells like rotten onions. On top of being triggered by smells in my environment, I’d also been experiencing phantosmia, or an “olfactory hallucination” where even without a trigger, I’d smell an electrical fire underneath my nose, often for days at a time.

Since the pandemic had started, Everton was always there for me in tough times. I’d watch match highlights, dissect the training videos, laugh at social media posts, read every article I could. But now, my life was crumbling around me, and I didn’t even have highlights videos to rely on, since highlights were few and very far between. From the end of September to mid-February, Everton would take six total points from their 15 league matches. 

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Three months with parosmia have come and gone, with no end in sight. Everton is dropping down the table like we’re holding an anchor. A whisper from my mom, who has started watching Everton matches along with me: Is anyone talking about relegation yet?

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It’s December. Thinking about Rafa B is actively raising my blood pressure. The club is a shambles. The fans are protesting. The football is excruciating. 

But now something else is wrong: I’m starting to get wildly out of breath from going up the stairs to my apartment, my heart racing way out of proportion to even light exertion. I’m doubling over and sucking air from doing a simple strength exercise at the gym or a warm up lap at hockey. I didn’t recognize myself in my own body. I did not feel like myself. 

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I’m watching the Brighton game on a tape delay, without knowing the result. No one had spoiled the match for me, but I’d gotten a few texts that suggested I might need to buckle up. It was meant to be Dom’s triumphant return. But it just wasn’t right. That’s not Dom, I kept thinking the whole match. That’s not Dom, he doesn’t look right at all. He stepped up to the penalty spot and my heart dropped. Oh no, I texted my sister, please tell me Dom doesn’t miss this. A grimace emoji in response. 

For months people had been saying, “Everything will be fine once Dom is back!” Then Rafa B left him out there ~a full 90 minutes~ on his return from serious injury (and devoid of the creative supply lines that Rafa B had personally chased from the team!) desperate to try to get a result after managing the tactics so poorly. I would rage about this for days afterwards. A criminal offense, I shouted into the void*, playing him a full 90! One of many! But watching Dom, I felt it in my bones, having been living it myself for months: this was someone trying to do their job while they were not at 100%. 

*The American Toffee Podcast Discord

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I’m crying again. Only this time, it’s actually about Everton. My first favorite player—the one who made me sit up and take notice only 15 minutes into watching my first match—is gone. And for what? Even now, it still feels like a thousand daggers in my heart. I, a grown adult, cried actual tears down my face when Lucas Digne left Everton. How had it come to this? 

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I’m dogsitting for a friend. I’ve been streaming the first half of the Norwich game from their house. Agent Keane has turned in an own goal, and in the blink of an eye we are down 2-0 to Norwich. To Norwich! Every day for the last two and a half months has felt like rock bottom, but surely this MUST be it. A text from my sister: What if you lose to Norwich and DON’T fire Rafa?? 

Turns out I didn’t have to contemplate the answer for long—it finally happened. And yet. I couldn’t even feel happy about it, even as I’d been repeating for months: I want this man out of my club. I had no faith we’d get the next appointment right. The constant churn of managers would keep setting us back, rinse and repeat to infinity and beyond. But ultimately, I really just couldn’t feel happy about anything.

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I wasn’t sure what to make of Frank. I certainly knew who he was, but I’d never really seen him as a player. My strongest association with him was from this clip from Sport Relief 2012. And are you feeling confident today? I kept thinking to myself as it seemed more likely that Frank would take the wheel.

But in truth, I didn’t have the time or the energy to devote to the new manager search or to thinking about what the Lampard era might bring. I was drowning at work. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t manage my time. Every moment felt consumed by panic, by what I couldn’t eat, by how awful everything smelled, by how much weight I was gaining, by how limited my exercise was, by how much I just wanted my old life back. And all the time wondering: Could everyone tell? My Zoom camera had been off for ages, lest people be able to see on my face what was, to me, so obviously written there—that I was losing control and was deeply unwell. 

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It’s the beginning of March. I’ve waited for months for a specialist appointment to be told for not the first or last time with a shrug: “Just wait, you’ll probably feel better eventually.” I sat at my kitchen table on a Thursday evening, flipped on an out of office message, turned off my computer, and cried, because of course I cried. I was heading out on a planned vacation, and not coming back to work. Acknowledging the boatloads of privilege that came with this opportunity, my job had been fully supportive of me taking a medical leave. Mostly I was crying because I was finally admitting to myself how much I really needed help. (*In my therapist’s voice* Reframe this to: I was finally taking steps to take care of myself and prioritize my health.) I watched the Wolves match a few days later from vacation in California. Jonjoe Kenny got a red card and we lost, because of course we lost. 

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From my leave, I couldn’t actually believe what I had been working through for months, often crashing on the couch with exhaustion an hour after waking up. But I now had the time and space to go to doctor appointments, start working with a dietician, prioritize rest and recovery. 

The whole thing feels like stops and starts. Some good days, some bad days. Some positive signs, some soul crushing reminders of how bad everything was. It feels the same on the pitch. Some good days, some actively embarrassing ones. Some good performances still ending in bad results. It’s starts and stops for Dom—in for a few games, out for a few games, fans starting to turn on him as the goals are nowhere to be found, saying it’s clear he can’t be bothered, even as it’s so clear to me that he’s simply not fit.

We’ve just beaten Newcastle in the 99th minute on Iwobi’s incredible goal (or, as I shouted to anyone who would listen, Dom’s incredible assist). It’s scenes at Goodison. But inside, I don’t feel anything, and this is what I’m trying to describe to my therapist: when something happens that you know in your heart should make you feel happy but instead you just feel numb. 

Then we go and lose away at Palace, because of course we do. 

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We are going down. It’s the first time I’ve said the words out loud. I’d believed for most of the season we’d probably finish 15th to 17th, and while it wouldn’t be pretty, we’d never truly be in the relegation picture. But we’ve just lost to Burnley—we’ve just lost a “must-not-lose” match. After being up at halftime. On the NBC broadcast, Danny Higginbotham is saying he firmly believes whoever loses the match will go down. I texted a friend: We are going down. If I just keep saying it now, will it make it easier when it eventually happens? 

It was becoming obvious that I wasn’t actively working, and as a result, I ended up telling more people why, not always answering delicately when people would ask how I was doing. Do you want the short answer or the honest answer? I would often reply. But I’m opening up and choosing to tell people: I am actually not doing very well. But I’m doing what I can to try to be better. 

Did saying it make it easier?

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The actual drop into the relegation zone came after losing to Liverpool—because of course it did. It was the second time I truly doubted, after watching Burnley come from behind in the last seven minutes of the match to beat Watford that Saturday. (Because incredibly, genuinely unbelievably, we all were spending our time watching Burnley matches and caring about the outcomes.) But there was no getting around it. We were in the relegation zone and five points back going into the Chelsea match.

And then: Blue smoke bombs. The Goodison Gang in full voice. A dog hoisted above the crowd. Richy grabbing a blue flare. A Pickford save that defied logic—and then another. Seven cursed minutes of stoppage time, extending agonziginly into eight. The absolutely unwavering Spirit of the Blues, come to life.

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It’s the very next day. I’m crying in my car in the parking ramp of the doctor’s office, for the second time that day, because of course I’m crying. By the middle of the week I’ll have ended a two-month journey through the medical system, countless doctor’s appointments, each one basically declaring me healthy by every metric and telling me to just be patient. 

For whatever reason, this flipped a switch inside me. I knew going into my leave that taking time off would not cure my parosmia or my exercise intolerance. But hearing the doctor at my final scheduled appointment telling me, again, there was nothing to do but wait and hope for the best, for whatever reason just set my resolve. There was nothing else to do but simply keep putting one foot in front of the other, and keep trying to feel the best that I could each day. 

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Is happiness actually possible? The moment is actually shocking to my system. I legitimately can’t remember the last time I’ve felt like this, but there it is: pure joy. Everton are coming to Minnesota, where I was born and raised. I’ll be able to go home for a visit to family and friends this summer and watch Everton in person. 

…Is happiness actually impossible? An excruciating draw at Watford. A devastating loss to Brentford. Again from being ahead at halftime. 

Originally tweeted by Marva (@MarvaMSK) on May 15, 2022.

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It’s halftime of the Palace match. It’s my second day back at work. It’s my third true moment of doubt. I’m furiously texting friends: This is it. We’re going to lose. We’re going down. 

And then: What did I just watch? A right-footed center back bringing the ball down with his left foot and curling in an outside of the boot left-footed shot? Even as one of the staunchest supporters of Michael Keane, I couldn’t bring myself to be happy. Surely this was just a false hope, meant to lift our spirits before crushing them once and for all.

And then: Richy scored, because he had promised us we would get out of this mess. But I still couldn’t allow myself to believe. A draw won’t send us down, but it won’t keep us up, I thought, miserably.

And then: It had to be Dom. It was always going to be Dom. After an entire season where, as silly as it sounds, my own plight had felt so linked to his. After I’d just started taking some baby steps back in the right direction, just as he’d started to finally look like himself on the pitch again. A perfect ball in, a signature diving header, and Everton. Were. Safe. 

I screamed, I laughed, I clapped—but I wasn’t crying, at least not yet. I’m watching the post match interview, as the singing and partying on the pitch continued. It was the look of absolutely shattered relief all over Dom’s face that got me, with Keano shaking his head and whispering “No, never” when Dom called fans out for questioning his commitment. I paused the video, because I was crying, because of course I was crying.

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Seventy-two hours later, the season is over. I’ve been playing the goals, the tunnel access, the absolute scenes on repeat for days. I’m crying again, because of course I’m crying. Because now it feels like I’ve gotten confirmation what I’d suspected all along, since August: Dom and I really had been on this journey together. 

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I can’t help but think now that, as Iwobi said, We Made It, Hallelujah! What would have happened if I followed a team that, god forbid, actually won matches? Would I have just used football as a distraction to paper over the much deeper struggles I was having? Would I have been able to acknowledge just how bad things had gotten and seek the help I needed, or would I have just hidden in the fleeting joy from highlights packages and happy post-match Instagram posts? 

And I know, ultimately, that two things are true: It’s just football, but it’s also more than football. I’m sure there are plenty of people who support Burnley, or Watford, or Norwich enduring their own struggles only to then watch their teams go down, just as I’m sure plenty of people who enjoyed a season mostly of highs on the pitch didn’t find the same joy replicated in their own lives. To quote Dani Rojas: Football is life. But football is also death, and football is football. But football is mostly life. 

I am doing better. I am not cured, but I am doing better. I’m working again. I was recently able to eat some tiny pieces of broccoli cut into pasta. On a good day, I can jog slowly without my heart and breathing going out of control. On a bad day, I physically can’t get out of bed from fatigue. I’ve joined a four-year research study to learn more about long COVID how to help people in the future. The researchers were explicit: This wasn’t treatment, and I wouldn’t see any benefits for myself. But given the chance to do anything to help another person not have to go through what I have, I did it in a heartbeat.

Despite these thousands of words as evidence to the contrary, I’ll never be able to fully express what this season meant to me, and the support I received from family, friends, my job, therapy, and yes, the Toffees. When I think about moving forward, I think about all the Evertonians doing whatever they could to drag this club across the finish line. It just couldn’t help but feel they dragged me there, too.

We go again, as the players often say. Or, as my mom texted me out of the blue the other night: I have this feeling that Everton will remain our inspiration til the end of our days: In the end, it all works out.

For more resources on parosmia and other smell disorders, check out AbScent and Fifth Sense.

For more on long COVID research studies in the USA, learn about the Recover program and find one in your state.


For more on mental health resources in the USA, visit NIMH.

Genuine thanks and appreciation to:
Paddy Boyland & The Athletic staff; Adam Jones & The Echo staff; James, Alex, and Ryan & The American Toffee Podcast; Men in Blazers. Everyone who covered Everton in some kind of professional capacity this season deserves an award. Something on par with the Florida Cup?

Also shoutout to my Arsenal & Man United supporting friends for putting up with my constant lamentations and endless barrages of messages about Everton.

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