Season Preview 2001/02
Make or break for Walter2001/02 Season Preview
It seems like only the other day that the 2000/01 Season came to an ignominious end with Everton again finishing well down the Premiership table, but a brand new campaign is almost upon us. With it, of course, comes yet another opportunity to wipe the slate clean and hope that the club finally turns this seemingly interminable corner and heads for better days and a return to the "big time".
Unfortunately, the Blues will start this season without three of their most valued personnel from the last campaign: Francis Jeffers made his much-vaunted move to Arsenal pumping £8m into the Goodison coffers; Michael Ball departed for Rangers in a £6.5m deal and Richard Gough brought an end to his highly-successful career after seeing his 2000/01 season curtailed by injury. Gough apart, Everton have once again been the victims of the sickness of greed gripping young players these days; thankfully both Ball and Jeffers were highly saleable assets and the Blues were able to cash in on both players' search for filthy lucre.
In their place, Alan Stubbs has, after so many years being linked with a move to the club he has supported since his childhood, finally become an Everton player and Tomasz Radzinksi who practically forced Anderlecht to allow him to move to Goodison after Walter Smith registered his interest, offers a ready-made replacement for Jeffers.
Defensively, with Stubbs presumably pairing with the dependable David Weir and flanked by Steve Watson and Gary Naysmith, Everton look to be in good shape this coming season. In attack, Radzinski, Kevin Campbell, Duncan Ferguson and Joe-Max Moore provide a variety of options.
In midfield however, particularly given Paul Gascoigne's continued injury problems, Smith's side look as though they will struggle, unless Thomas Gravesen can rediscover the form he showed in glimpses at the start of last season and between Scott Gemmill, Mark Pembridge and Alex Nyarko (highly unlikely in the case of the latter) he can find a steady and consistent partner for the Dane. On the flanks, Tal and Alexandersson provide plenty of width but, on the evidence of last term, not enough consistency to inspire confidence.
It is clear that Smith needs either a creative inspiration to replace Don Hutchison and fulfil the role for which Nyarko was bought or a tough-tackling ball-winner to feed the wide men. At the time of writing, there doesn't appear to be any movement by the manager to acquire either, leaving Blues fans wondering if the engine of the team is going to have enough power to provide the main line of defence and attack in what is surely Walter Smith's make-or-break season.
Smith has not had an easy time of it at Goodison Park (although he hasn't always made it easy for himself either!), due in most part to the financial shackles with which he has to contend since taking over three years ago, not to mention the upheavel of the Johnson controversy and Bill Kenwright's buy-out of the club last year. He also successfully negotiated the potentially destructive injury crisis of last season, unprecedented in scale as it was, but also showed a galling dearth of tactical nouse at times which hasn't helped his popularity rating.
Consistency appears to have been the biggest problem under Smith's tenure, a fact highlighted by the "two steps forward, one step back" 1999/2000 season when the team strung together a run of performances and results worthy of a top 10 finish, but failed at the last with a home defeat by Middlesbrough that saw the team finish in a disappointing 13th position. Crushing wins (e.g. Sunderland 5-0 at home, West Ham 4-0 away) followed by needless defeats were a feature of that campaign and illustrate the need for Smith to attain some level of consistency with his team as a whole and the line-ups he employs.
However, when the team was at its best that season, Everton were playing some of the best football Goodison Park had seen since the days of Howard Kendall's first reign and it showed what the Smith and Knox management team are capable of.
Indeed, Everton have, at various times since Smith took charge, been capable of beating anyone on their day and often have done. The enigma has been their propensity to lose to lesser teams - particularly lower division sides - when an almost full squad has been available and to win seemingly "unwinnable" games when stripped to the bare bones (witness the priceless victories against Arsenal, Chelsea and Coventry last season).
The 2001/02 season offers Smith the chance to prove once and for all that he is capable of managing in the English Premiership and returning Everton to their rightful place among the domestic game's elite. The chances of an injury catastrophe like last season's happening again are slim, so the management team will be judged far more on their ability to manage the team they have assembled.
Walter Smith has faced criticism over the loss of Francis Jeffers and Michael Ball this summer, and while we might never know if his style of management was a factor in their respective departures, it is becoming increasingly clear that the prime factor was money and the ability to get more of it away from Goodison Park.
Smith deserves a season free of upheavel, controversy and an injury straitjacket to prove his worth at the Everton helm. The club are in no position to find a replacement any time soon and there is little to criticise in the summer purchases - the lack of new faces for the midfield aside - so far.
Smith could, however, be facing the toughest playing field since arriving at Goodison, with the likes of big-spending Blackburn and Fulham in the fray this time around. There are never any easy games in the Premiership these days, but that will certainly be true of the 2001/02 season with the real candidates for relegation hard to pick.
Having said that, there is increasingly little to choose from the clutch of clubs outside of the "big six" of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Leeds, Chelsea and Aston Villa who are always there or thereabouts. A good run of results can mean the difference between the edge of the relegation zone to the brink of the European places so consistency - that elusive commodity this far for Smith - will be crucial if Everton are not only to survive but to finally crack the top half of the table.
1. Manchester United