The Slumbering Giant: Part 2 - Twenty-Year Itch
As the face of English football is irrevocably changed by capital forces, Everton survives as a club with community ties and a modest long-term business plan. But can we ever compete again on this footing?
23 February 2015
It is 28 years since Everton last won the League title and football is unrecognisable from that last triumph – one that, on average, Evertonians used to enjoy once every decade but which now feels as far off in the future as that ninth Championship in 1987 does in the past. The rapidly changing face of the game has spawned a movement – one borrowed from the Continent and co-opted by fans in England where the rapid modernisation of the game is demonstrated most starkly – that seeks to harness the disaffection of the modern fan. But in a world where corruption runs rife to the very top of the sport's governing body and the product that is England's top flight is snowballing in popularity and value, any expression of demoralisation at modern football feels very much like shouting into a hurricane.
Yet, on both the macro level of the world game and the micro level of the Blue half of Merseyside, the power still resides with the match-going supporter. Once the lifeblood of English clubs, the financial contribution of the Premier League fan might soon become irrelevant in terms of their contribution to their club's top line in the face of eye-popping increases in television rights revenue, but their role in that marketable product that is the Barclays Premier League remains vital. After all, what does the image of half-empty stadia do for the EPL TV "show"? Football without fans is nothing, as the slogan goes.
For Everton, a club still rooted very much in the community, with a comparative under-performance on the commercial side to its peers, selling out Goodison Park and driving merchandise sales to supporters remains a key part of its business for the time being. In what has been an incredible let-down of a season, perhaps one of the most impressive of Everton's achievements has been the sell-out crowd for last weekend's home game with Burnley. To quote another slogan, "we go the game, it's what we do"... Even with hope and expectation of a new dawn under Roberto Martinez significantly dampened by serious disappointment on the pitch this term, Blues showed up in their droves for what was essentially a match with little meaning beyond our team's quest to at least finish the season in the top half and a mild interest in the plight of near-neighbours pluckily trying to beat the drop back to the Championship.
Despite the increasing feeling of futility at Everton's prospects of ever breaking that proverbial glass ceiling and dismay at the ever-widening disparity in the domestic game, fans keep showing up in their numbers. It helps, but it's only part of the equation and, as Management Consultant, Joe Beardwood, explained at this week's Shareholders Association Forum, the rest of that non-media revenue pie remains a key performance indicator for Everton and a key differentiator between our club and its former peers against whom we are now visibly under-performing.
Nevertheless, those robust attendances speak to a commitment and affinity to the institution that is Everton FC, the culture of following our chosen team no matter what, and the weekly tradition of simply going to the game as thousands of Blues have done before us. That love and those traditions, both for this 137-year-old club and for the "beautiful game" in general, are being sorely tested, though, by disillusionment with the rampant commercialisation, corporatisation and inequity of the modern game – particularly in the Premier League – and Everton's own descent to seemingly interminable mediocrity.
There appears to be – though it's incredibly hard to gauge – a growing tension between a contentment with this familiarity and Everton's lot as a perennial member of the top flight helmed by a true-Blue Evertonian on the one hand and the more restless elements among us on the other who yearn for the days that the Toffees were indisputably one of the country's elite clubs and are struggling to see that ambition reflected in the corridors of power at Goodison.
As highlighted in Part I, the confluence of this season's reality check and the 20th anniversary of the last time the Blues lifted a trophy is reigniting the debate about what is holding Everton back and what needs be done to wake the slumbering giant. Just how far can and should Everton go to regain the club's place at the top of the English game and at what cost to its very soul?
Everton is a big club that hasn’t acted like one for many, many years, having rested on its laurels in late 1980s and failed to properly respond during – and in the immediate aftermath of – the Heysel ban. In the context of the club's historical status in the Premier League, the brush with disaster in the mid-1990s, the asset-shedding of the earlier 2000s and the Destination Kirkby farce, the current regime is actually doing a largely acceptable job. Over the past eight years, Everton have been increasingly well-run under the auspices of a by-the-numbers Chief Executive whose focus appears to have been on keeping costs under control, maintaining a lid on players’ wages and, now, using the influx of cash from the broadcasting deals, reducing the club’s overall debt burden.
The accusation levelled frequently at the current Board is that it lacks a cohesive business plan when a more accurate charge might be that, as it pertains to the day-to-day efforts towards building a team capable of challenging at the top, it hasn't employed a sufficiently ambitious, aggressive or grandiose one for the liking of a good many supporters. A strategy of incremental progress centred around frugality in the transfer market, a tight rein on wages and tying the team's best players down on long-term contracts – coupled with the ability of the management to keep the team "punching above its weight" – has kept the club tantalisingly close to the Champions League gravy train, allowed for a couple of close calls with Wembley triumph but ultimately yielded no trophies.
If there is a middle way between the boom-and-bust approach that torpedoed the likes of Leeds United and Portsmouth and the leap into the unknown represented by a billionnaire takeover, Everton have been straddling it fairly well in recent years. But it's an inherently slow-moving, long-term strategy that risks the club being left far behind the current "big boys" and their gargantuan budgets if it fails. Just enough progress each year to keep the status quo ticking along has held dissenting voices in check. The arrival of a new broom in the form of Martinez – as a “Continental” appointment with inside knowledge of British game, his appointment was as daring as Kenwright was ever likely to be – and the influx in TV money that enabled the acquisition of Romelu Lukaku for a record-shattering £28m offered hope that this patient strategy might finally provide the final leg up into the top four.
The notion that the Blues have been "one or two players" short of genuinely being able to compete remains a mirage, though; a reality never fully realised because of financial restraints, the consequent reliance on an ageing squad and loan players and the widening gap between ourselves the resources of the monied elite. The signing of Lukaku was a statement of intent but, in concert with new contracts and increased salaries for existing players, it exhausted the war chest; without further quality additions last summer, there was never going to be sufficient depth to cope with injuries and the constant squad rotation due to Europe that ultimately scuppered the campaign.
As difficult as it is to crack the top four, though, it is possible with the huge jump in TV revenues to build a team capable of knocking on the door again if you have the right manager shopping in the right markets, cultivating enough talent at Academy level and employing the right tactics and systems on the field. The jury will likely remain out on Southampton and Ronald Koeman until next year when the footballing world gets to see how they fare in the Dutchman's second season (particularly if they qualify for Europe) but the model being applied on the South Coast, one of talented but affordable signings and youth product, is such a potential blueprint for clubs aspiring to challenge the hegemony of the "new Big Five" without a multi-billionnaire backer.
Martinez, of course, has the potential to be a long-term hire with the necessary methods and vision to revolutionise Everton and rebuild the team from the ground up along similar lines. In the absence of a tycoon owner, the Ajax model of developing an entire stable of top-class young players groomed to play with the perfect blend of flair, technique and versatility is another far-horizon approach that could be a sustainable alternative.
Nothing would be more satisfying than if Everton to pull something like this off and crack the top four on our terms, with the current ownership and without the need to usher in a faceless tycoon with no ties to the club. It's a long shot, though; it would be a triumph over almost all odds, and the question of course is: does Martinez have the scouting network, the nous, the force of will and the character to pull it off? Any more seasons like the current one and no one will have the patience to find out.
Appetite for Disruption?
The retrograde steps made this term are not only giving rise to a more pessimistic outlook among Evertonians but they're also sharpening the focus on the Board, the club's commercial acitivities, the infamous "24/7 search for investment" and the thornier issue of the stadium question as the Blues enter a third decade without silverware.
So, too is the plight of Liverpool FC whose own relative under-performance has aroused local media scrutiny into the failings at Anfield this season. "What’s gone wrong at LFC?" scream headlines questioning whether it's the players, the manager or the club's owners who should be to blame for the fact that Brendan Rogers has become the first reds manager since the 1950s not to win a trophy in his first three years at the helm. Granted, Liverpool are bona fide members of the old "Sky Four" and the new big five, have been Champions League regulars, won the modern equvialent of the European Cup as recently as 10 years ago, and, as such should be challenging for the Premier League title. But their last Championship triumph was only two years more recent than ours and there have been times in recent years where Everton has had the superior team.
Furthermore, in relative terms, Everton's under-performance this season has been more stark than Liverpool's — out of both cups at the first hurdle for the first time in history, 25 points off last season’s points tally and battling to finish in the top half of the table after eight successive top-half finishes. Our progress to the last 16 of the Europa League has masked bigger problems, not least a lack of expenditure last summer that left the club without sufficient depth in quality to truly compete on multiple fronts.
That has led to calls for the Liverpool Echo to ask tougher questions of the Everton Board but they are limited in how far they can go. Owned by Trinity Mirror, who publish the club's match programme and offiicial magazine, they have a clear conflict of interest that precludes real scrutiny of the inner machinations at Everton. Added to which, the regime at Goodison has shown known no qualms in restricting the access of the Echo's journalists to players and club staff when they have been overly critical in the past.
There may even be some of the internal wrestling of conscience that exists among the fanbase as a whole over just how much criticism should be levelled at Bill Kenwright in his capacity as custodian of the club to which we're all devoted.
It means that any push for real, accelerated change is probably going to have to come from the fans themselves, to raise the clamour and increase the pressure to a degree where neither the Board nor the local media can ignore it any longer. The lack of appetite to challenge Bill and the Board from supporters, however, has become just as frustrating to some as the press' soft-peddling.
Whether it's due to faith in – or a hesitance to be critical of – the Chairman as a fellow Evertonian; fears of being accused of "Kopite" behaviour; contentment with the slow upward curve of the club's fortunes since the nadirs of 1994, 1998 and the Walter Smith regime; a general distaste with the frivolities of the modern Premier League; or just not knowing how best to channel their frustrations, Evertonians as a constituency remain fairly muted over the questions of ownership and the direction of their club.
What then of the other alternatives?