By Paddy Howlin
I don’t think I will be alone in ranking 2014/15 as one of the most disappointing seasons in recent times.
After the relative highs of the previous season when Roberto Martinez arguably exceed all expectations and came close to qualifying for the Champions League with a record points total in the Premier League era, came what can only be described in my time in supporting the club as a typical Everton ‘bounce’. Another in a long series of false dawns that I’ve come accustomed to in following Everton Football Club in the past 30 years.
This time and for the very first time in my Evertonian life, I don’t see when or how Everton are going to be successful again in my life time. I also fear that the ten years preceding this season will in years to come be looked upon as our most successful period in our Premier League history, not to be repeated or matched again.
Despite the changes in the football landscape circa 1992 with the advent of the Premier League and our club’s inability throughout this period to get any of the basic fundamentals right off the pitch to compete with football’s new order, I always remained steadfast in my belief that football is cyclical (particularly for the traditional big clubs like ours) and Everton Football Club would have its day again and at some point we would turn a corner and be back competing for Titles and Cups. Either we would finally be bought out by somebody who could see the potential our great old club has, or (and probably more realistic in my mind), the arse would drop out of the Premier League and the likes of Sheikh Mansour, Roman Abramovich, the Glazer Family and Fenway Sports Group would pull their money and interest out of football and a level playing field would once again emerge in the English game.
Even when things got as bad as the final day relegation survival clashes in 1994 and 1998, or during the darkest of days watching the ghost of a team representing Everton under Walter Smith, I always had the hope and belief that things could and would get better. After all, even when things were at their darkest, there would be a chink of light to grab at.
After Wimbledon 1994, came the FA Cup win the following season. After the dismal Smith years, came the respectability of David Moyes managing to make Everton a competitive Premier League side once more and who would finish in the top half for seven consecutive seasons before moving to Manchester United. Despite never breaking the glass ceiling, we came tantalisingly close on a couple of occasions to ending our trophy drought under our former manager.
Depending on your view, Moyes either lacked the bottle in the big matches when he needed to be more expansive or he was not given the financial backing at key times to push us on. I personally think it was a combination of the two, not helped by Moyes and Kenwright being as thick as thieves and neither wanting to push the other in fear of what it would expose.
When Roberto Martinez came to Everton in June 2013, I wasn’t convinced and felt it was a huge gamble taking on a manager who had just taken his side to relegation after years of beating the drop and finishing no higher than 15th in the Premier League. I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt though, given he would have far better players at his disposal and he was generally well respected and admired within the game. That alongside a list of other far less compelling candidates at the time (Stubbs, Weir, Neville, Mackay, Lennon and Rangnick), probably made him the only viable choice. In hindsight, Bill Kenwright staged managed this process remarkably well and went for the easy option, an available manager from down the road who had also just won an FA Cup. I doubt any of those candidates had any chance of getting the job and Kenwright’s mind was made up on who he would bring in as our new manager following our FA Cup Quarter-Final defeat to Wigan in March that year, when Martinez tactically out manoeuvred his beloved David Moyes.
After a slow start, Martinez got Everton playing with a style and purpose once he put his own stamp on the team with the deadline day signings of McCarthy, Lukaku and Barry. Whilst I’ve never fully bought in to the fact that the Martinez style was any more expansive than what David Moyes offered, he was a welcome antidote for many in terms of having the belief and courage in his team to go to places like Old Trafford and the Emirates and take games to his opponents. When it worked, it was fantastic as shown in the amazing back to back performances in December 2013 at Man United and Arsenal. However when things didn’t work, it would often go spectacularly wrong as witnessed in a heavy defeat at Anfield in January 2014 and a dismal end to the 2013/14 season, when at the time most of us felt we had just ran out of steam, rather than our Manager being tactically found out.
Despite breaking our transfer record in the summer of 2014 with the permanent signing of Romelu Lukaku and arguably having our best squad of players in a generation, we went in to the 2014/15 season underprepared in terms of having the foresight to invest in to key areas of the team that needed bolstering for a dual campaign both domestically and in Europe (i.e. a goalkeeper, a central defender and left/right sided attacking midfielder). In terms of our fitness we were way below par of our Premier League rivals, often looking done after an hour or so of a game, right through until after Christmas. Tactically we were rigid and the School of Science brand of football that Martinez was credited of bringing back, had transpired in to a bland, slow paced, one dimensional, uninspiring game plan not too dissimilar to what was served up by Walter Smith in his later years in charge. Defensively we were a complete shambles, often a set piece or an unenforced error away from a defeat in every game. It appeared all of the good things that David Moyes had embedded in to our club over a decade where quickly being stripped away, piece by piece.
Christmas 2014 was my nadir in supporting Everton Football Club. I’d sat through bad spells before (Gabriel 1993, Walker 1994, Royle 1997, Kendall 1997/98, Smith 1998/99, 2001/02 and Moyes 2003/04), however traveling as far south as Southampton, as north to Newcastle and as east as Hull that festive period took me to the brink. Not even the pride of my son leading out the team at Newcastle as mascot could disguise the loss of faith I had in the club following a dismal run of form. The performances, the tactical ineptitude, fitness levels resembling a pub team and general lack of belief of everyone involved with the club from players to fans was something I’ve not felt before in all my time in supporting the Blues. I don’t think I’ve recovered since and apart from a spirited performance against a Manchester United side in transition and a last minute winner at West Ham, I’ve struggled to recapture my Everton mojo.
Looking back, my love and enthusiasm for the game had been wavering anyway over the past couple of years, with the catalyst probably being the disappointment of losing the 2012 FA Cup Semi Final. I was finding it hard to get excited about watching a sterile Premier League, with the leading clubs doped up to the eye balls financially in comparison to ‘plucky’ Everton. Despite this resentment and lack of interest in the Premier League as a whole, my love and interest for Everton remained, until that horrible Christmas period and the questions and doubts started filling my head.
Over the past few months, I’ve spent many a night wondering where it has gone wrong for me and why with each match, I feel that I’m losing my belief and passion for Everton Football Club, something if you had asked me 12 months ago, I would have laughed in your face at. I don’t know if after 30 years the cumulative effect of false dawns and the realisation that we are never going to win the Premier League or have a similar spell of success like we had between 1984 and 1987 in my life-time has finally hit home or if it is just a blip brought about by a really disappointing season where the quality of football and entertainment on offer has been poor.
Sitting in my seat in the Lower Gwladys Street this season has been a sombre and dull experience for the majority of games. The brand of football served up has unquestionably impacted on the atmosphere at Goodison Park this season and the amount of games where we have failed to get a shot on target to even test the opposition keeper, never mind score, has been frightening. It got so bad, I found myself in the Sunderland game reading the programme cover to back in the first-half, such was the poor entertainment on show on the pitch from both sides. For the first time in my Evertonian life, I could think of 2 or 3 other places where I’d rather be than Goodison Park on a match day.
Even going to the away matches this season (Wolfsburg aside) has been dull and insipid. I was fortunate to see all but one of Everton’s away wins on the road this season, however despite this there was very little in terms of entertainment and excitement. Even a last minute Jagielka equaliser at the Kop could do very little to get me really excited. It was still going to be at least 16 years since tasting a win at Anfield, a statistic almost as bad as not winning a trophy for two decades. If anything, coming away from these away games often brought more questions than answers in my mind to ‘what is the point’? After travelling to London for the West Ham game recently, I seriously contemplated staying in the pub in Central London that I was drinking in before the game, rather than jumping the Tube to Upton Park. I turned up 5 minutes in to the game. Those who know me, know that this just isn’t me.
So where has this sudden loss of faith and interest come from I ask myself? Like all deep rooted things in life, there is never a single or easy answer. It’s multifaceted and I doubt I really know what is going on in my own head at the moment. Falling out of love with football in general is one thing, but losing my faith in Everton, that is completely something else.
As much as I’d probably like to, I can’t really blame Roberto Martinez for my current Everton malaise. The man comes across as a decent bloke who may well have thought the Everton job was going to be a lot easier than it really was after a good first 6 months at Goodsion. I personally think the Everton job is far too big for him and I have serious doubts after what I’ve seen this season if he has the ability or will to adapt his philosophy and I have to question if he is the right man to take the club forward. Time will tell if he will swim or sink. Personally I’d give him until Christmas to prove his worth, because we should really know after two and a half seasons in charge if a manager is going to cut it or take you down. This isn’t a modern day phenomenon, the most you typically got in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s at a top club was three years.
My fear is next season will be another uninspiring mediocre mid-table campaign where we will be lucky to avoid a relegation battle, if we don’t invest in key areas of the team and replace aging players in the squad such as Osman, Piennar, Howard and the departing Distin. The signs are currently we won’t do this to any great extent this summer, which indicates to me that the Board may already have their own doubts about the current manager and his ability to spend the little cash we have wisely.
I don’t really want to turn this in to a piece blaming Bill Kenwright or the other faceless people in the background he has bought to the club to enable him to stay in control either, as this is a debate for another day and by far more knowledgeable contributors than myself. However the way the club has been ran (and to be fair to Kenwright not just during his 16 year tenure, it goes way back to the John Moores era), does play a significant part Everton being unable to compete for honours such as the League title and being successful on the pitch and why I seriously question where the club is going.
I’m certainly no pro-Kenwright apologist in any shape or form, but I can see both points of view when it comes to our Chairman. Kenwright is an Evertonian through and through and is running the club with the very best of intentions and teams like Leeds and Blackburn (both sides who have won the league since us) would give anything for. However there is also the argument that I’m probably more in tune with, that believes Kenwright is slowly killing the club as a top flight force, by holding it back and we are absolutely no further forward in terms of having any sort of credible business plan or vision to take the club forward than when he bought out Peter Johnson in December 1999. Be careful what you wish for by all means (particularly when there is no apparent interest from elsewhere, though you also have to question why given the money involved in the Premier League today), however stagnating and holding our head just above water without any plan, ambition and most importantly of all the actual means to move us forward is equally as dangerous, particularly when there are no assets other than players left to trade in.
Perhaps I’ve just come to an age when I’ve realised there is perhaps more to life than modern day Sky financed football? When on a recent holiday with my family in Ibiza, I introduced the excellent BBC Match of the 70’s and 80’s series to my 9 year old son. Granted, there was always a team dominating proceedings (unfortunately for us it was predominately them lot from across the Park), however there was always a chance that a club like Derby, Leeds, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Southampton, Ipswich, Watford or Everton could challenge or actually win the title when they had a good squad and it was ‘their year’. There have always been wealthier and larger clubs since the foundation of the Football League, but the playing field was fairly equal and you could break the ceiling if you had a talented home-grown side, unlike today.
I also introduced my son to old clips of Saint & Greavsie. It was really difficult to get across to him that when I was his age growing up in the mid to late 1980’s that this was all we had each week to catch up on the football world. As amateurish as it now looks today compared to the likes of Football Focus, Match of the Day 2 Extra, Soccer Saturday etc, it had an innocence and was of its time – before Murdoch’s money and corporate hospitality took over our game like a cancer. Granted, it was far from innocent on the crumbling terraces and outside the Stadiums at the time and there was a reason gates where at an all-time low across the country, however the game felt like it was ours and anything was possible if you could put together a team of eleven good players.
Looking back through rose tinted glasses of that period of my life, when I’d go to Goodison and then rush home on the 26 bus to see Granada Goals Extra with Bob Greaves, probably has had a lot to do with my current state of mind.
Perhaps it’s the 20 year anniversary of not actually winning a trophy that has finally pushed me over the edge? For a club of our size, stature and fan base to go so long without a major honour is a scandal. The wait between 1987 and 1995 seemed massive at the time, however the latest drought is pure agony and there is no sign of it ending anytime soon. Worryingly there is a generation of our fans who do not know what it tastes like to win a trophy and think a top 6 finish is the best we should hope for.
The fact that the Liverpool Echo decided to call an inquest in to Liverpool not winning anything for 3 years after their Cup Semi Final defeat to Aston Villa, but continually chose to turn the other direction when it comes to actively challenge how Everton is run following our trophy drought, spoke volumes and symbolised everything currently wrong with our game. It’s not about reporting the facts on your local football team anymore, it’s all about what stories can get higher ‘click rates’ for their online version of the paper. Everton are no longer a story or of significant interest to waste the time and effort on. That said, when Goodison Park is sold out for 13 of its 19 Premier League games and even after a horrible 2014/15 season they still manage to sell 25,000 season tickets for next year, the Echo can perhaps defend themselves and say ’well what is the story guys?’.
The more I think about it, perhaps it is the apparent apathy and acceptance of mediocrity from my fellow Evertonians is the reason why I think I’m losing my faith in Everton. Don’t get me wrong, I class myself as equally as guilty of this. Despite falling out of love with the game as well as being generally pissed off with Everton Football Club and what it currently stands for, I renewed my season ticket without question for next season for my son and I.
So why did I renew? Well underneath it all Everton is more than a football club to me and as I’ve got older its more about the people intrinsically linked to my match going experience over the past 30 years, than the men running round in Royal Blue who will arrive in one transfer window and quite often be gone in the next one.
Going to the match is about sharing an experience with my family and close friends at least once every fortnight, regardless of what is being served up on the pitch by players and a manager who are just passing through our club. As long as these people in my life still go the game, then Everton are probably safe getting my season ticket renew cash each year. As for going to away games every fortnight, that is perhaps becoming more questionable, given the effort, time and money (plus arguments with Mrs H on priorities in life) that is required for very little in return. I’m getting to the stage in life where I get more enjoyment and fun in watching my son play on a Saturday, than anything Everton Football Club can provide. Maybe I’m just getting some much needed perspective in life at long last?
Perhaps after a summer break to recharge my batteries and we make a few new signings, I may feel different. However, as I’ve got more disillusioned as the season wore on and spoke to others, I know I’m not the only one thinking like this and without genuine ambition and hope for what the future may bring, then there may well be more people walking away from Goodison Park and from their regular match going habit over the coming years as they feel even more disenchanted and removed from what is going on at Everton.
After the length of time I’ve actively followed Everton, I’d like to think that I’m no glory hunter. I’m not saying that if we suddenly started winning trophy after trophy my apathy for the game would diminish completely. It would certainly help to win at least one trophy and taste some demonstrable success with my son. That much I can’t deny. Nor am I saying that we should embark on a period of reckless spending ala Ridsdale at Leeds or what Portsmouth did in the late noughties to help get the likes of me interested again. I do think a good starting point however, would be for the club to make a fundamental decision on its long term future, which unlike fleeting spells of glory it can control and can influence.
The starting point to me is simple and it was a question first muted in 1996 ‘Goodison Park or a move elsewhere’. This debacle has gone on for almost 20 years now, without any significant investment in our current home or a realistic alternative venue being found. Is it any surprise we find ourselves in perennial limbo and can’t attract any investment with this issue being allowed to hang over the club for so long? A decision needs to be taken and then a plan needs to be drawn up and actually executed. This way we can then all move forward and have something to buy in to, rather than waiting and hoping. If there was something tangible I could genuinely believe and trust in, rather than false hope and unrealistic pipe-dreams, then maybe my faith in the club won’t be lost and I’m just having a mid-life crisis in my ‘relationship’ with Everton. Without any genuine or real hope or aspiration however, I really do fear that Everton Football Club will continue to fade out of my life, season by season as the gap widens even more between us and the Sky top four. When you reach the age of 38 and something you have religiously followed and invested in for so long in your life, then that is a truly sad and scary thought.
This piece first appeared in When Skies Are Grey