Colm Kavanagh provides an excellent pre-season prognosis to go with our pre-season special, while over at Evertonia.com, Lyndon Lloyd was saying much the same thing.
COLM'S SEASON PREVIEW
And so, the moment of truth finally draws ever nearer. A new season
around the corner. Is there anything as monotonous to a football
addict than the long drawn out minutes of the summer off-season
cricket, replacing football, players jetting off to the sunspots in far
flung places. Not a sniff of news in the back pages concerning the
Club. I hate it.
Well, the summer just gone will surely go down as one of the most remarkable in Everton's history. Did we miss something in the summer madness? Was there a conveyer belt on Goodison Road ferrying those surplus to requirement out and welcoming in those whose aim it is to restore our name among the elite of the domestic game?! Was there ever a pre-season like this one? I don't think so....
The one transfer to catch the attention of the media has been the arrival of Paul Gascoigne. Now, you know, I know, and every Blue knows that Gascoigne's role at Everton will be to come off the bench when called upon, to give the team an added something when needed. Do you think the media see it thus? As if! To the media Gascoigne IS Everton.
Wherever he goes this year, you can be well assured the clicking cameras and scribbling hacks won't be far behind. Get used to it, one and all our name is going to be filling up more than column inches on the sports pages. It'll be a Trojan effort if the Club manage to keep Gascoigne off the front pages. Anyway, welcome to Everton Mr Gascoigne we hope you fit in well.
The wholesale changes, in midfield, have sparked an outbreak of unbridled optimism amongst Evertonians. One word CLASS appears to rest with ease upon the shoulders of Messrs Nyarko, Gravesen and Alexandersson, whose arrival has softened the blow of losing previous heroes (no laughing down the back please!) John Collins, Don Hutchison and Nicky Whatshisname....oh yeah.....Nicky Barmby. (I'm informed that the recent player of the season at Goodison prefers being called Nick - so Nicky it is.) Pre-season showings indicate that Walter Smith has come up trumps with the pairing of Alex Nyarko and Thomas Gravesen as the drive behind the midfield. Reid - Bracewell revisited anyone?
Now, before we set off on a rampage up the league table and gatecrash this European League-Cup, a cautionary note:
Our second half to last season was very disappointing. With injuries to key players came a dearth of goals by the side. Five league wins since January is hardly the sort of form to inspire supreme confidence for the coming year. Only Wimbledon, Derby County, West Ham, Watford and Bradford finished second best over ninety minutes, yet we march into this season with the confidence, the swagger of a team that's about to sweep all aside? I'll reach for my David O'Leary bible of football jargon and vow to take it one game at a time.
At the end of the day, the loss of Kevin Campbell proved to be a body blow from which we couldn't recover last year. (O'Leary mode switched off!) Who knows, if he had avoided his injury, we might be relishing the prospect of a European campaign this season. Campbell's continuing loss is a blow to our ambitions for this year, no matter the quality of midfielders we've managed to recruit.
In the absence of Campbell the onus falls upon the young, but rather brash shoulders of Francis Jeffers. Such a talent. Dare I suggest that Jeffers is one of those rare breed of footballers who excites every time he receives the ball. It's time though for Franny to grab the bull by the horns. If he has the head sorted then there's no reason why he shouldn't have chances aplenty to go to the Gwladys Street in search of adulation, another keeper scooping a ball out of the opposing net!
Francis - 'tis time to remove the last of the cotton wool. The stage is all yours mate. Convince your manager firstly though young Jeffers that you are indeed the man to do the business on the pitch. It may prove easier to score 30 league goals for Franny! If he gets a game like....................
Of course we are anticipating a helpful hand from our new midfield in the allocation of goals scored this year. If Jeffers and Co take it upon themselves to give William Ralph Dean's record a good run for its money then we won't complain (although, no doubt, there'll be one or two!) but, for the first time since the exit of Gary Speed, I reckon we have the potential in our midfield to see an even distribution of goals.
Niclas Alexandersson has already shown a healthy liking for hitting the back of the net. The Swedish international also gives Walter Smith the option he used with Don Hutchison from time to time, playing him up front. Dare I say it in a Duncan Fergusonesque (quick Oxford English Dictionary please!) style role?
We have the versatile Joe-Max Moore well equipped to slot in nicely out wide right if need be. It'll be Alex Nyarko and Thomas Gravesen though who will whet the appetite most often. If the pair can remain free of injury and suspension then we can truly hope to see Everton in the hunt for silverware and European football. I suspect Nyarko will receive enough media attention eventually when the journalists finally realise we've acquired a class international footballer to star in the sideshow to the Gazza Story.
Then again, having a midfielder at Everton by the name of Alex? He could only be quality! As ever though, for every leading player there must be someone playing second fiddle. Enter Tommy the Gravedigger, as he has affectionately been titled already. He should endear himself over the coming months with his, errrr, tackling!
The jury remains out on our defensive frailties. It appears we have numbers in depth right across the back line. However, can we honestly aspire to greater things relying on the ageing (that means even older than last year) pair of Richard Gough and Dave Watson?
I really don't expect to see Dave Watson pull on yet another new Everton jersey but how often have we said that over the past number of years?! Richard Gough though, could prove to be a cause for concern after missing all but 45 minutes of pre-season preparation. With his season ending early last year we surely cannot take his leadership for granted, nor should we expect it.
The imminent sale of Richard Dunne to Wimbledon may prove to be a hasty bit of business in the long run. David Weir and David Unsworth look the likely lads in central defence for the long haul ahead newcomers Alessandro Pistone and Steve Watson on either flank. With Michael Ball and Abel Xavier fitting into the equation somewhere it proves we have numbers in depth. Quality though? Ahh, if you say it often enough you'll begin to believe. Sturdy resistance would appear to be an adequate tag for our defence this term.
THE CRYSTAL BALL
So, where shall we find the good name of Everton Football Club this season? Due to the lack of any great quality throughout the league, we should find ourselves, at worst, quite some distance from the mire beneath us. Applying the same source of logic then perhaps we can see a steady progress towards a Uefa Cup spot via the league. Realistically, that should be the goal for the season.
We are as good as, or as bad as, many of the teams who will kick off a new season this weekend with those targets in mind. The trick though is to find a level of consistency and remain on the coat tails of the great pretenders for the duration of the season.
Arguably our best hopes for glory lie in the much maligned Worthington League Cup. We now find ourselves with a squad of players, cover in almost every position, giving Smith the option of resting players if he feels it is necessary. Last year when we exited the Cup at home to Oxford we were in no position to pick and choose whoever. This year though we should prove to be stronger, even when resting certain players as is the fashion these days.
A chance to win the one remaining domestic trophy eluding the Club would be nice for both team and fans. Ao make sure you place your free bets!!! As for the league well, can anyone see the Club finishing higher than sixth or seventh? I'd quite happily settle for such lofty heights a pleasant change from recent seasons.
Anyway, the countdown to the kick off moves nearer with the first of many questions and prayers! about to be answered:
Can we put an end to our Elland Road hoodoo?!
The Man Above (an Evertonian by the way) He says Yes.
After the what has been arguably the most exciting close season in years, Everton gear up for the 2000-2001 season with a genuine sense of optimism for the campaign ahead. While no one is under any illusions that Walter Smith's men will be anything approaching Championship contenders, it certainly promises to be an interesting season.
As this preview is being drafted, the return of Duncan Ferguson is dominating Everton news but until he signs, the biggest talking point surrounding Everton in the media this season will undoubtedly be Paul Gascoigne.
Signed on a free transfer from Middlesbrough to a strict contract that allegedly protects Everton from any off-the-field embarrassments he may cause, a fit-looking "Gazza" will at the least attract the media spotlight back to Goodison Park. However, the hope is that he will use the Goodison stage to reignite his career and provide the Premiership with one last demonstration of his incredible natural ability.
Bought primarily to solve Everton's lack of creativity in the midfield, when the chips are down Gascoigne is likely to be used in a "super sub" capacity in the short term, unless he shows Smith that he really has the stamina to last the 90 minutes on a regular basis. In that sort of role, Gazza could be a valuable asset for the Blues this season.
Should Duncan Ferguson make his much-vaunted return to the club he allegedly loves so much, there is both positive potential and danger; potential to provide an all-round attacking capability on the ground and in the air, or danger that Everton will lapse into the long-ball game that blighted the years of relegation struggles in the mid-1990s.
The talent that now exists in what is a completely overhauled midfield would suggest the former; that Everton will resist the temptation to use Ferguson's aerial ability as an escape when things aren't going to plan.
With the likes of Gascoigne, the tenacious Thomas Gravesen and exciting-looking duo Niclas Alexandersson and Alex Nyarko in the Goodison ranks, Everton may finally possess a midfield with sufficient quality to mount a genuine challenge on the top six this season. An added bonus is the goalscoring form these latter two revelations have been in during pre-season during which Everton won five of their eight games. And, of course, there is the added dimension of Idan Tal and the emerging Jamie Milligan as wingers.
In defence, the rock-like Richard Gough - who is also Everton's new club captain - will face a challenge to remain fit throughout the season but with David Weir alongside him and David Unsworth and Abel Xavier available to fill any breach, the Blues have a solid back line. Smith may, however, step up his search for a pacey central defender now that Richard Dunne looks to be on his way to Wimbledon.
Up front, the fans will be anxiously awaiting the return to fitness of Kevin Campbell who still represents the key to Everton's success. With a comeback from injury pencilled in for September, there are still doubts about whether he will be as effective as he was before undergoing surgery on his knee earlier this year. There is little doubt, though, that as soon as he is ready, Campbell will be first choice for Smith if he doesn't manage to draft in a genuine 20+ goalscorer in the meantime.
In the other first choice spot, Francis Jeffers has the opportunity to elevate himself into the upper echelons of England's forwards after a frustrating 1999-2000 season. The 19-year-old was sidelined by injury for a large portion of the second half of last campaign but the stage is set for him to fulfil his talent in what is surely the most promising Everton line-up in years.
Joe-Max Moore's form last season certainly presented a strong case for a regular first-team birth and there is also scope for the impressive American to replace Nick Barmby seeing as he possesses a similar style and surprising skill on the ball.
Should Ferguson arrive, the role of Mark Hughes would surely be reduced to spectator for the most part. The two possess similar styles and there is surely little room for both seeing as neither are prolific goalscorers. And there is a hope that Phil Jevons can make headway towards emulating Jeffers and give his manager even more options in attack.
Overall, it would seem as though Everton are closer to having a complete squad than at any time in recent seasons, and that speaks volumes for the efficiency with which Smith replaced the unsettling elements in his squad, namely Barmby, Don Hutchison and John Collins.
Based on the new squad and last season's progress, the Goodison faithful will expect a top 10 finish and be quietly confident of being among those clubs fighting for a European place this coming campaign.
Neither is unrealistic and as Smith enters his third season as manager and the finances at Everton turn the corner, the time may be ripe for the club to start to deliver. A confident and winning start may be crucial to build confidence and restore the fear that top flight clubs used to have of the boys from Goodison Park.
Buckle up as it promises to be an interesting ride!
1. Manchester United
Other Season Previews
|BBC Everton Preview||Top eight, say the Beeb|
|Sky Sports Everton Preview||Dave Prentice talks to Sky Sports|
|FootballUnlimited Everton Preview||Scott Murray of The Guardian|
|SoccerNet Everton Preview||Dale Johnson (with help from Colm!)|
|Opta Soccer Everton Preview||Simon Fudge fiddles with the stats...|
|Sunday Times Everton Preview||Goal! in The Sunday Times|