As Manchester United were consigned to an 11th Premier League defeat of the season at Goodison Park, it mathematically confirmed what has been expected for some time - fourth place and the final Champions League qualifying berth is beyond the defending champions.
Following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and the succession of David Moyes last summer, most fans were realistic in understanding that a period of transition would mean retention of the title won so emphatically in 2013 was unlikely. However, when it was expected that United's place in the Premier League's top four would be safe regardless, even the most pessimistic of fans couldn't have reasonably expected 2013/14 to pan out as it has done.
Moyes has subsequently seen his time at Old Trafford terminated, with United now set for a fresh start in the summer. However, the failures of this season will not instantly disappear and have put the club atop a very slippery slope. As a result, United now find themselves in a position whereby the 2014/15 season will be the most important in club history.
United's history is dotted with long droughts. The club has enjoyed three significant spells of success, each separated by decades of mediocrity and next season has the potential to be a watershed moment for another lengthy period without success if the club doesn't immediately return to at least a competitive level by 2015.
United will go into the new campaign without Champions League football for the first time since 1995. From a financial standpoint, the absence means losing the associated prize money and television revenues that have become such a key component of United's business model over the last two decades. Whilst the club could get by without such incomes for a short time, it would soon cause a problem if it was to become persistent.
A longer absence from the biggest stage would surely also serve to thin out United's army of global 'fans', which would be an additional wound to revenue streams. With diminished appeal for global fans, the club would also become less attractive to the corporate sponsors that have maintained United's position as one of the world's richest sports organisations.
Whilst not financially catastrophic over just a single season, another campaign like the current one could see United begin to fall behind the world's biggest clubs in the long term picture, which would undoubtedly become devastating. If United didn't have the revenue to allow them to pay the going rate for transfer fees, wages, training facilities and infrastructure, realistically there is no way the club could compete, with the only way being down.
Notwithstanding the financial issues, a lengthened period without the pull of elite level competition would also see the club automatically become a far less attractive proposition for the world's best footballers. Whilst some players open to a challenge may still be able to see past the immediate failings to a prosperous future, two years, or longer, out of Europe would serve to compound the issue. Simply, the longer United are uncompetitive the more the club will find themselves shunned by the world's finest talent.
It was arguably the inability to attract players of the right quality that hampered Liverpool in the Premier League for so many years. Individuals like David James, Emile Heskey, Luis Garcia and Ryan Babel and many more were ultimately not good enough to be part of a title winning team.
The days when any club, such as Brian Clough's Derby or Nottingham Forest sides in the 1970s, or even Mike Walker's Norwich in 1993, could mount a serious title challenge with a bit of plucky courage and momentum are long gone. In the modern era, once the descent into mediocrity begins it is hard to reverse and there is a long way back to the top, just as Liverpool have shown. Such is the exclusivity and the level of money at the summit of English football in the 21st century, that a real fall could take a generation or more to recover from.
After just one bad campaign United haven't fallen yet, but their precarious position dictates that the 2014/15 season is more important than any other ever has been. The club don't have to win the Premier League, but a renewed competitiveness and a minimum of fourth place is crucial. Anything less could be catastrophic.
For all the latest football news and rumours please visit www.FTBpro.com