Everton could have won the Premier League in a crazy 2015/16 season. Star striker Romelu Lukaku scored 25 goals (up to and including May 11th 2016), John Stones went into the Christmas period as the best centre back in the land and Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu provided so many bursts of inspiration – alongside tangible goals and assists – that they were rightly considered two of the best young players in the Premier League.
Everton could have won the Carling Cup in 2016. A 2-1 victory over Manchester City, in the semi final first leg at Goodison Park, put the tie on a knife edge. When Ross Barkley placed a 20 yarder into the Etihad Stadium net just 18 minutes into the second leg, then, it meant that City needed three goals to win.
Everton could have won the FA Cup in 2016. A quarter final demolition of Chelsea, with a clinical Lukaku inspiring a rocking Goodison Park to its best atmosphere of the season, looked set to kick Everton on into a lively finish to the league campaign and a confident semi final Wembley appearance against old rivals Manchester United.
What happened, then? Nothing… and that’s the problem. Roberto Martinez and his men failed to build, capitalise or use as inspiration any of the very real moments described above and Everton’s season fell apart quicker than paint peeling off the walls of a Bullens Road bog. The confidence and performance levels of the players has sunk so low since Saturday March 12th 2016, that the football club appears to be at its lowest ebb since the late Howard Kendall’s disastrous last term as boss in 1997/98.
It’s a shocking set of circumstances… and circumstances made all the more unfathomable given that it’s just three months since Farhad Moshiri became the club’s majority shareholder and the future looked bright. Maybe it still does. Perhaps Moshiri is about to replace Martinez with an inspiring new coach, get the club’s hierarchical structure arranged properly and provide the funds for a raft of difference-making new signings. Perhaps… but we doubt it.
Because this is Everton. Modern Everton… who perpetuate a club motto that is a millstone around their neck. Modern Everton who constantly look back and never look forward. Modern Everton who rent Finch Farm. Modern Everton who have allowed a situation to develop where Goodison Park – the grand old lady of English football – is an out-of-date relic. Modern Everton who allow a manager to talk about the club in the third person for over a decade, win nothing and aspire to less over the same period and lie to his players on his way out of the club. Modern Everton who replaced that manager with a coach who had recently taken his club down to the Championship. Modern Everton who are distinctly average in everything they do when it pertains to football.
We’re not talking about Newcastle United – Everton FC are English football’s fourth most successful club. Everton FC are a giant of the English game. Everton FC are the team that plays… what, exactly? Beautiful football? For a few months in 2014, perhaps. Since then, it’s been diminishing returns and a hierarchy who are happy to be bystanders to the most fallow period in the club’s history. It’s not just the not winning things that hurts Evertonians – though, in professional sport that pretty much should be all that counts – it’s the not being in with any realistic chance of getting close to winning things. It’s not seeing those in charge of the football club put long term plans in place to attempt to get Everton back to the top. Arsenal fans, similar to blues in their expectations in those pre-Premier League days, quite rightly bemoan their club’s ambitions starting and ending with another season in the last sixteen of the Champions League. Evertonians are currently afraid of not clearing sixteenth place in the league.
The buck stops with the chairman and the manager. That’s a fact. Sure, we could all point fingers at players whose form, attitude and/or temperament has dipped since the start of this season, but footballers are fickle and those who follow the game religiously will need to readily accept that very soon. Stop going the game if you demand loyalty – week-in, week-out – from players, because it’s never coming back. The manager’s office door will soon be a revolving one, too, if the new majority shareholder follows in the footsteps of the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea’s successful attempts at chasing, well, success. The heart of the club will be ripped out as the search for a winning formula takes Everton into a new decade when still only one club can win the league.
Look at Leicester City, I hear you cry. Yes, let’s… new owners, new stadium and a new manager brought in, even when the last one did as required (Nigel Pearson kept the club up, as was his remit in 2014/15), but wasn’t deemed suitable. They’ve won the league and it’s great for football… but it’s not really as big a fairy story as Gary Lineker would have you believe. Nottingham Forest won the league in the first season following promotion and then went on to win the European Cup, too. Where do you see Leicester next year? Exactly. Good luck to them, but they’re hardly a model for Everton Football Club.
And therein lays the cold, hard truth: Everton now look enviously at Sunderland’s stadium. Blues wince when they read that West Ham United have sold 50,000 season tickets. Fans look on enviously as Manchester City travel to Santiago Bernabeu for a Champions League semi final. And men of a certain age wipe tears from their eyes when they see the new main stand at Anfield dominating the Walton skyline.
It’s been over twenty years since Everton won a trophy. But, worse than that, it’s been over twenty years since Everton were proud. The blues have, at best, been the bridesmaids of the Premier League-era and, at worst, been its biggest whipping boys. Football peripherals, such as Frank Skinner and David Baddiel for example, treated Everton like Wimbledon in the mid-nineties and not much has changed, really. Just a generation before, the likes of Saint and Greavsie released best-selling videos about one of the proudest football clubs in the land.
Now, Everton have been left behind. And it hasn’t just happened under Roberto Martinez’s backward step-taking leadership. It wasn’t just caused by the damage done during David Moyes’ decade of impotence. And the rot had set in long before Bill Kenwright and his board proved that desperately wanting to own a football club should automatically disqualify you from owning it. Look at that image again, at the top of this page… that was when the rot set in. Catalysts still mean more than cash at football clubs. Chelesea, for example, started winning things and getting their pride back – with the likes of Glen Hoddle, Ruud Gullit and Mark Hughes – years before Roman Abramovich arrived at Stamford Bridge, with their FA Cup win of 1997 providing that catalyst. Just two years earlier, Everton had a similar opportunity: a new owner, a new manager, an FA Cup win and a European adventure on the horizon. What was missing? That new ground you see above.
On the banks of the royal blue Mersey is where Everton’s future was lost. That ground you see at the top of this page, alongside the cup win of 1995, would have sent the blues off into the new Millennium as contenders, at the very least. It’s an unarguable fact that the club has never contended since. Who is to blame, then… Peter Johnson? Cliff Finch? Liverpool City Council? English Partnerships? Liverpool Vision? North West Regional Development Agency? Bill Kenwright? John Woods? David Moyes? Robert Elstone? Joe Anderson? Roberto Martinez? All can be said to have had a hand in the worst two decades in the history of Everton Football Club. Evertonians can throw blame towards Sky and The Premier League, too, for the revisionism that has seen the blues slip further and further out of the modern ether (when the club finished 5th, in 2013/14, Sky’s ‘top six’ graphic for the following season criminally didn’t include the club’s badge).
Ultimately, though, the buck stops with the blues. Everton FC… whoever that might be: fans point fingers at owners, owners sack managers, managers blame players and players bank their big cheques. It’s an ethereal being, a football club in this part of the 21st century. But, what sticks out as real as real can be today is this: if Everton don’t want to disappear into that ether forever, then someone has to step through the grey skies and let the sun shine in. Someone with, say, a very real 49.9% stake in the club. Someone rich and ruthless enough to make very real decisions about summer transfer budgets, player and manager deals, the stadium saga and the future.
Step forward, then, Mr Moshiri – your legacy at Everton Football Club is busy being born.
Image courtesy Mirrorpix