During his 3 years and 8 months as Everton manager, Walter Smith
led a curiously charmed life with the national press. Barely a whisper
of criticism was leveled at him for Everton's alarming slump in
performance and league placing since November. Now that his dismissal
has been confirmed, journalists, the League Managers' Association
and some Everton fans are bemoaning Bill Kenwright's decision as
cruel and unwarranted.
Perhaps the list of managerial casualties before him, the boardroom
turmoil of the late 1990s, the catalogue of injuries, and the shoestring
budget with which he had to deal had afforded the dour Scot immunity
from blame for the current crisis at Goodison Park. Whatever the
reasons, it is clear that few people in the press empathised with
the growing discontent the fans felt towards Smith's recent record
and the standard of fare served up on the pitch, discontent that
boiled over into outright calls for his head as the club slid towards
the relegation trapdoor.
As outsiders, the obvious target for the media has been the Board
of Directors. While they must share their share of the blame for
disorganisation in other areas at the club, the blame for performances
on the field this season rest with Smith and the players. And much
has been made of the burden of expectation that Everton's beleaguered
fans place on their team and those in charge of it, with the supporters'
expectations also being held responsible for Smith's premature exit.
That merely serves to illustrate how deeply the media misunderstands
the collective psyche of the Goodison faithful. And how would they
or could they comprehend when they pay so little attention to Everton
Football Club as a whole these days?
The simple fact is that we as fans understand the financial shackles
that are tying the hands of the club's administration and preventing
us from competing with the game's elite. No one is expecting Everton
to be challenging in the top 5 of the Premiership and, given the
injury crises and the departures of some star players of the past
two seasons, we aren't surprised that the team has had such a hard
time trying to attain a berth in the top half of the table.
What angers the fans so much is the complete dearth of direction,
imagination, enterprise, guile and determination in Smith's teams.
What the Goodison faithful wouldn't have given for some passing
football, a clever free-kick or corner routine, or a daring formation
with two wingers over past few months. And saying that he didn't
have the players to do it just doesn't wash because they showed
very early on that they had the makings of a good side.
Since the ritual collapse in November, Walter Smith offered up
nothing but one-dimensional football executed by players playing
out of their natural positions with no hint of a settled formation
or line-up. It is a supreme irony that he often complained about
injuries preventing him from fielding a consistent lineup, but spent
the last weeks of his Goodison reign swapping his better performers
in and out of the starting lineup from one game to the next.
Tactically, he proved what Rangers fans have been saying for years,
i.e. he is utterly clueless, delaying crucial substitutions until
the last 10 minutes of the game (the team's performance in the 0-0
home draw with Leeds United two weeks ago improved tenfold with
the introduction of Ginola and Gravesen with 11 minutes to go; how
different things might have been had those changes been made at
half time after Dominic Matteo had been sent off?), employing defenders
as strikers and playing left-backs over on the right.
His teams often didn't get going until the second half and
often not even then! starting most games looking like the
players had never met each other and had no idea what their responsibilities
were. If there was a plan, it didn't look like it. While his counterparts
in the opposition dugouts were often hives of activity in their
technical area, Smith for the most part remained apparently passionless
and withdrawn from action on the pitch. His trademark post-match
description of every defeat as "disappointing" made it
look as though he didn't care about the standard of football his
team had just served up, and it soon began to grate on supporters
who demand passion from everyone connected with the club.
Despite his early successes against the financial odds, the signs
have been there for a long time that Smith was not the man capable
of returning Everton to the upper echelons of the domestic game,
despite his best intentions and the faith installed in him by Bill
Kenwright. Even with a more or less fit squad at his disposal, Smith's
team was prone to wild fluctuations in form and results. Surprise
demolitions of opposing teams when everything seemed to have fallen
into place were followed by weeks of under-achievement and failure
to build on those successes.
Perhaps the best illustration of this was the run-in to the end
of the 1999/2000 campaign, Smith's best season in almost four years
at Goodison. Having followed up the 5-0 thrashing of Sunderland
on Boxing Day with a series of disappointing, possibly complacent
displays that didn't see them win a league game for another 6 weeks,
Smith's Everton seemed to have found their form with a mesmerising
4-0 pummeling of West Ham at Upton Park. The result put the Blues
in 7th position with 12 games to go and thoughts of Europe in the
minds of the expectant supporters. Maddeningly, they were to win
just two more games all season and threw away a top 10 finish on
the final day of the season when a 2-0 home defeat by Middlesbrough
consigned Everton to 13th place.
In retrospect, that three month spell when the likes of
Barmby, Hutchison, Jeffers and Campbell were producing the goods
on the field and a more or less settled side had the club's best
finish in four years in their sights encapsulated the failure
of Smith and Archie Knox to motivate the players from week to week
and get them playing to a consistent game-plan. It seemed as Smith
was canny in the transfer market but unable to produce a winning
side from the players at his disposal.
Indeed, Smith's greatest strength appears to lie in his ability
to spot a good signing. Kevin Campbell, David Weir, Gary Naysmith,
Marco Materazzi, Olivier Dacourt, Thomas Gravesen, Tomasz Radzinski,
Steve Watson, Jesper Blomqvist, Niclas Alexandersson, Tobias Linderoth;
all examples of good players whom Smith signed in his time at Everton.
However, in most cases, he failed to get the best out of those players
and the combination of bad performances, financial constraints and
player ambition led to many of his high profile squad members leaving
the club for pastures new.
It is ironic that one the chief defences of Smith's rein has been
the lack of funds made available to him to strengthen his squad
while his talent in this area meant that he actually assembled a
decent squad of players that, once again, looked to have finally
turned the corner in the autumn of 2001. An unbeaten start to the
season saw Smith's side top of the Premiership after three games,
but his side's embarrassing attempts to overturn 9-man Tottenham
in front of the Sky cameras at the end of August foreshadowed equally
dismal performances against Manchester United, Liverpool and Crystal
Palace the latter the last in a series of cup humiliations
by lower division opposition under Smith's tenure part of
a 4-match losing sequence.
Again, things seemed to be looking up in September when Everton
lashed five goals past West Ham with no reply, but they registered
just three wins between then and the end of the year. The arrival
of another injury crisis that decimated Smith's squad was chiefly
to blame for the downturn in form in the winter, but the manager's
dogged insistence on playing defender Steve Watson up front instead
of playing Joe-Max Moore a striker by trade didn't
offer any offensive outlet and it only increased concerns about
his tactical ineptitude.
It wasn't the fact that Everton weren't heading for a top half
finish that precipitated the fans' calls for Smith's sacking, it
was the stark realisation in Smith's last three games in charge
that they couldn't see where the next win was coming from. Even
when faced with a "cup final"-type situation as
was arguably the case against 10-men Leeds and at West Ham recently
his team played even worse; not the sort of motivational
skills you need for a last-ditch battle for Premier League survival.
At times over the past 4 years, Walter Smith looked like he was
the man for the Everton job. After all, he did take control of a
team that had just survived relegation by the skin of its teeth,
bought wisely and guided the club to safety in his first season.
There were spells when his team played the best football since Colin
Harvey's reign a decade ago. However, instead of fostering a style
of football befitting the legend of the School of Science, his team
has got steadily worse, and the coaching and management staff must
bear a large part of the blame for that.
Time will tell if the current crop of Everton players, stuffed
as the squad is with internationals, are capable of so much more
than recent performances have suggested, or if Smith really was
the problem. Judging by the fact that the former Rangers man failed
consistently to get the best from the array of talent he had at
his disposal at varying times of his Goodison tenure, in the long
term his departure will probably be seen as the right move. But
no one is expecting everything to be rosy in the Everton garden
any time soon, no matter who is in charge but we'd settle
for Premiership survival and the accolade of being the first English
club to play 100 seasons in the top division.
©2002 ToffeeWeb, 13 March 2002
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