COLM'S CORNER, #61
Colm Kavanagh provides a thoughtful preview of Everton's prospects for Season 2001-02 in the FA Barclaycard Premiership
WHAT'S ANOTHER YEAR?
Never as relieved to see one season ending, another feared relegation averted, one eye was already fearful of the next season - which is now but days away. I have to admit that the fear has abated somewhat since we last kicked a ball in anger (that's a spherical object, not Michael). It always does, as pre-season fervour sometimes overrides more reasoned argument. Can we really go from being annual cannon fodder to candidates for European qualification over the coming months? We'll soon find out.
During the course of the summer, I've managed to cast a beady eye over the plus and minuses of every other team and reached the conclusion that we won't go down this coming season – but I say that with little or no conviction.
Thank God the Premiership is nowhere near the product it is hyped up to be! Gone are the days when pre-season would be ideal for recharging the battery for the long haul ahead and convincing yourself that this year would be the year when things would pan out somewhat better. You'd be a fool to think we could possibly upset the apple cart and qualify for the Champions League (when was the last time you genuinely believed we had a chance of winning the big one?) but I also think nowadays that you're equally as misguided if you think we can challenge for one of the UEFA Cup spots. Those days are gone - at least for the moment.
As a recently recruited member of the band of clubs known as "selling clubs", we have but one aim this year and that is to survive. It is as simple as that. Everton Football Club, on the pitch at least, appear to be playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette. The goal is a new home on the Mersey waterfront. The aim is to survive choppy waters until that dream is realised – and then hope to see the goalposts shift for the Club on and off the pitch.
Fact is we have sold two of our better players over recent weeks – even if one of those departures has yet to be ratified. Two players who just might be pulling on England jerseys come next summer when the World Cup begins in Japan and Korea. Envious eyes no doubt will be cast their way should that happen.
We've sold quality and – although we're in the process of strengthening other areas of the first team squad with the income accrued from their sales – it is never a good sign selling your very best players. Indeed, it gives off the opposite vibe and makes the long haul back that little harder.
How can anyone climb a greasy pole without slipping further behind? How can others perceive us as being ambitious when we continually sell our better players?
We go into this season with Alan Stubbs a welcome addition to the defensive fold. It is a pleasing bonus for Blues that Alan is "one of us". Aside from the emotional jargon, Stubbs is a very accomplished central defender and should prove to be a good replacement for the now retired Richard Gough.
Actually, if all goes well on the pitch for Stubbs, then he is ideal captaincy material in time to come. We can but hope that we will witness a fully fit Alan Stubbs in Royal Blue this term. Good news stories surrounding Blues players have been pretty thin on the ground in recent times...
Judging by the pre-season calendar, I expect to see Walter Smith persist with a flexible (?) 5-3-2 formation. No, not eight defenders in the side – although he just might plump for that scenario on occasion!
With a dearth of creativity in midfield, I half expect to see the likes of Niclas Alexandersson and Idan Tal (when selected) running up and down the flanks like demented demons, supplementing both defence and attack. Whether that actually happens or not remains to be seen.
A big season lies ahead for Alexandersson. For starters, we need him fit and available. A central midfield pairing of Scott Gemmill and Mark Pembridge does not quite compare with a Keane - Veron axis but they did prove themselves to be our best pairing last term. Until the time comes when we've clearly got a better option, I would hope to see Smith persist with them.
Two seasons ago, Everton surprised everyone – themselves included no doubt – by finishing third top scorers in the League. This happened despite injuries in the second half of the season to Francis Jeffers and Kevin Campbell. Our midfield then had infinitely more fluency than is evident today but I still retain a sneaky suspicion that, when things go right in any given 90 minutes this year, we can actually punish teams. On the downside, when that vital engine splutters then are we in trouble or what?!
Therein lies the rub for many Evertonians – which has greatly divided opinion on where we stand today as a Club. What Everton will we witness more often than not? A side throwing caution to the wind, going hell for leather, particularly at Goodison – wing wizardry, courtesy of Messrs Alexandersson and Tal, firing one ball after another in from the wings for the towering Duncan Ferguson, reminiscent of better days? Or a stoical continuance of last season's efforts where entertainment was a misunderstood word left outside the main entrance into Goodison Park.
I'm not expecting much from Everton this year. I'm tired of having my pre-season ardour thrown back in my face come the end of September. We've seen that happen on too many occasions in the past – one false dawn following another.
This year? Well, not as fearful as I was a few months back but that scenario may well return if we do not make a satisfactory start to the season. We really have played with fire over recent years, teasing that flame. Bemoaning our luck comes natural to most Blues but truth be known luck has played a major part in maintaining our position amongst the so-called elite. Ask Wimbledon or Bolton Wanderers about Everton's luck and you'll get a prompt answer!
If we get off to a sticky start then you can be sure the heat will be turned up a degree or ten. It's a scenario I don't even want to think about. Last season was one we all want to erase from the memory. If we can manage to keep a healthy distance between ourselves and those scrapping for oxygen down in the bowels of a relegation scrap then that will suffice. For yet another year, eh?
Many tend to think that, going into the new season, we've got the best squad assembled for a number of years. I'm not so certain about that. I see nothing greater than a mediocre side capable of sporadic form – consistently inconsistent if you like. The cracks are there for all to see, throughout the entire side.
Tell me we're hunky dory for goalkeepers? Three keepers on the books and we've doubts about them all. Walter wants to bring in another keeper, Magnus Hedman. Is he the answer to our keeping frailties? Will Chris Woods bring out the very best of Hedman? I doubt it!
A keeper is only as good as the four in front of him – or five as Walter Smith prefers. Keeping Stubbs and Weir fit for the season may be a challenge in itself. We badly need that to be the case as cover is thin. Peter Clarke may yet force his way into the picture but that seems unlikely at this moment in time.
Midfield is where everyone has identified problems. How low have we stooped if we're thinking of the self proclaimed Guv'nor, Paul Ince, being the missing link? I dread to think of the consequences if we do indeed chance our luck with Ince. You reap what you sow. and Ince is trouble...
Up front, three into two does not fit – so whose ego takes a battering? At the minute that's an easy one – it's the consistent Tomasz Radzinski. Consistently injured. Not the most auspicious of starts to his days as an Everton player but no doubt he'll get opportunities aplenty once injury sidelines either Duncan Ferguson or Kevin Campbell. I dare not say both!
We've more reason to be fearful than cheerful this coming term. That should not be universally condemned as being negative or pessimistic. It is a fact. We are a struggling side but a crumb of comfort is that we are not alone in that category. Remove the top six or seven sides in the country and that tag can apply to the vast majority of the also-rans who cling onto Premiership status for dear life.
Retaining Premiership status has never been so important considering the financial implications brought on by relegation. We won't be relegated. But we won't be too far away from a nervous run in next April. Get your prayer books out now and put it to good use – a long winter lies in waiting, ready to bite.
Putting the neck on the block and preparing to look a twat next May, here's where I reckon all will find themselves come the final day of the season:
1 Manchester United