David Prentice: Everton FC's thought turn to next season
CRITICS always complain that it's the PFA Awards which are handed out too early in the season. Perhaps Everton officials may wish to reconsider the timing of their end of season awards, too.
Steven Pienaar adorned the cover of the matchday programme at Goodison Park yesterday, proudly holding his Player of the Season title.
No-one even hinted at doing anything against Portsmouth to compromise the integrity of that award.
But the Goal of the Season decision would have come under serious scrutiny.
Not the recipient.
Diniyar Bilyaletdinov would still have carried off the handsome trophy. But yesterday's sublime strike - seconds from the end of a typically end of season snoozefest - surely eclipsed his Goal of the Season winning effort against Manchester United.
Some fans had already taken the decision to head for the watering holes of Walton when the fourth official held his board up showing only four minutes remained of Everton's season.
Their embarrassment possibly wasn't quite as acute as the Croatian referee who showed a yellow card to Mladost FC defender Goran Tunjic for 'simulation' last week - the red-faced ref quickly realising tragic Tunjic had died of a heart attack - but when those fans caught up with Match of the Day later in the evening it wouldn't have been far off.
Bilyaletdinov's celebrations showed that the strike meant plenty to him.
After a season spent having a look at the peculiar freneticism of the Premier League, and a full summer's break behind him, who knows what the Russian enigma could produce next season?
But then that was pretty much was the theme at Goodison Park yesterday.
The last match of a football season is traditionally a time to look back: to reflect on what went right, or wrong, to thank players for their efforts over nine months of toil and to take stock.
But not Goodison Park.
Two teams gathered for a meaningless final match of the season - looking forward not back.
Portsmouth's focus was the short-term future - next weekend's FA Cup final.
Evertonians, however, are already looking even further ahead.
There is optimism amongst the blue half of Merseyside that this squad is capable of impressive achievements.
There is a belief that their side can repeat the second half of the season form throughout a full 38-match campaign.
And there is a hope that overworked physio Mick Rathbone can be spared the kind of injury crisis which wrecked the opening few months of 2009/10.
It was typical of 2009/10 that the final act of an enjoyable campaign should see the skipper, Phil Neville, sidelined following minor surgery.
But with only Marouane Fellaini and Dan Gosling on the long term injured list, and Tim Cahill sat in the stand with a minor knock, Everton's squad strength was more than sufficient to cope.
It was significant that the men who made the difference entered the fray as substitutes.
Johnny Heitinga added a drive and an impetus which had been missing for much of a dreadful second half, and it was Bilyaletdinov's supreme 93rd minute strike which clinched all three points.
That took Everton to 61 popints - the highest tally in the Premier League era for a side failing to qualify for Europe. Indeed Everton's form in the last eight matches of the season has them in a Champions League place.
But it's the form since Christmas which has provided even more cause for optimism.
After a late, scrambled 2-0 defeat of doomed Burnley left Everton still in the bottom half of the Premier League at the halfway stage of the season, the Blues had a modest 22 points from 19 matches.
Yesterday's last gasp victory ensured Everton ended the second half of the season with a further 39 added.
That's an impressive haul.
That kind of points gathering spread over a full season would have seen Everton comfortably clinch third place - even despite silly dropped points at places like Villa Park, Birmingham City and at home to West Ham.
And it's why, without the extra draining commitments of the Europa League, Everton are daring to dream of something special next season.
"I think the way we have been playing, everyone has a great deal of optimism because of the way they have seen the team play," said manager David Moyes.
That wasn't always in evidence yesterday but then that was the tone of the closing act of the 2009/10 campaign.
It was a season which promised much, but ultimately delivered nothing more than further promise.
Evertonians are already looking forward to 2010/11, and it's understandable why.