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A long slow descent into fiscal oblivion
 by Paul Holmes 



Its fascinating when you witness managers interviewed on, for example, Sky Sports News after a training session.  Picture the scene: the filming is generally set with the backdrop of a whiteboard blistered with league and club sponsors, directly behind the manager.  Are we truly the only club that hosts these meetings in an aging Portakabin at a crumbling facility with, other than the occasional pearls of wisdom uttered from David Moyes, an unreliable and increasingly temperamental Dimplex style portable heater providing the only bit of warmth?  It illustrates so much that is missing and brings into sharp focus the fact that our club is really built on sand.  The financial foundations have been gnawed at so systematically and remorselessly that our safety mirrors, in a parallel fashion, that of the Upper Bullens Stand.

Everton have truly reached a new low, both on and off the pitch, this season.  The Emperors New Clothes strategy has finally been exposed.  We are, as an entity, practically finished.  It is increasingly obvious just how invisible and detached our self-proclaimed club owner has become over the past season...  the reason?  There's nothing left to sell or mislead; no big stories; no Kings Dock; no 50 years uninterrupted; no 125-year anniversary; no Moyes and no Rooney; no academy; no pointless association with a sponsor who continues to pay less than the market rate for the exposure; no big tent (someone from the board has already hired it for a holiday in Talacre in the summer). 

In short, there are no more good news stories to be peddled to deflect from the realization that the board is as morally bankrupt as the club is financially.  Cue Graeme Sharp laughingly stating it`s all Peter Johnson's fault.  With no investment suggested over the next season, it is perhaps inevitable that the gravity of our demise to Nationwide football next year will finally become the major talking point.

Looking at the Premiership table, with Leicester, Leeds, and Wolves all but gone, it's obvious that we will survive this season, again.  Is it still termed a successful battle versus relegation, or have we moved on?  Having said that, if the Magnificent Seventh is the new strap-line indicating the level of the Club's ambition, then perhaps a fitting one for this season should be the title of a film that depicts useless crooks planning their next big thing.  Every sucker in the project's got a Bellini eh, Bill? it might make for a good musical!

The signing of one or two journey men in the summer will not rectify the situation.  Even if we acquire one or two young quality players for an outlay of circa 6M (dreamland obviously), Everton as a team still requires far more surgery.  We haven't let a good team get old; we've allowed a wretched squad to dictate and determine the club's immediate future.  In all areas of the pitch, we are deficient.  Taking away the renaissance of Martyn, the slow burning emergence of Yobo, and the exuberance of Rooney, there is little else there to hang a future on.  Yes, yes Kilbane has done well; McFadden is worth all of his 1.5M spread payment (he's our Dalglish, you know!); Gravesen has a good first 15 minutes now and again; and Hibbert crosses well one in every five attempts

Our judgement of what standards represent a good player, or an average one, is severely impaired.  We have been subjected to such paucity of ability for approaching nearly a decade, we as fans have collectively lost all objectivity.  We are fond of mocking the quality across the park but, other than Rooney or Yobo, who would get into their squad?  None.  If the whole Everton squad was for sale, which players realistically would be coveted by any other leading premiership outfit?

The previous manager believed that, in order to compete, three or four quality players needed to be added each season.  How the club churned out of the undesirables was another issue.  Fact: Everton have signed one quality player of note in the past three seasons... or is it longer?  Yobo cost somewhere in the region of 4M.  Young, untested; that's obviously the market rate.  Davis was supposedly 5M; again, thats a decent benchmark as to the price of emerging quality.  The only bargains out there could also be considered risks.  Without the emergence of Rooney and his impact at quite vital stages of this season, we would be battling relegation with Leicester.

Again, it is a measure of our fall from grace that already the interest is magnified on the negative issues whether Gravesen and Radzinski will extend their contracts or leave rather than the positive news of intended new signings.  The incredulous player contract situation that Everton have allowed to become manifest is increasingly worrying.  The Club is not in as much control as it imagines, or perhaps likes to project.  Gravesen and Radzinski can go, or stay, depending on how content they are with the contracts the Club offers.  If dissatisfied, they can begin to negotiate with other clubs.  They hold the cards; not the club.  Their combined resale value in the final year of their contracts is less than 1M.  Similarly, all other players nearing the end of their contracts can walk, most being happy to earn another two or three years' more salary from very undistinguished careers in a lower league.  If, as suggested, Everton offer these two players in particular contract extensions of between 12 and 18 months, then they can expect a rapid refusal to such an insult.  Their respective agents have already secured options for them away from Everton; that much is certain.

How the Everton Board has allowed this situation to emerge illustrates gross incompetence.  Everton could lose up to 12 of their current playing staff over the next year.  With no money to replace these players, just where will players of equal or past ability come from?  Without a considerable cash injection, the questionable quality of the playing squad currently available could spiral into free fall.  We should remember that finishing seventh released no real funds of consequence for the manager; finishing seventeenth will therefore release zero.

The general perception is that, at the start of the new season, all teams start equal.  Surely this is nonsense?  The league starts where it finishes.  Minus the relegated, strip away the points we start, in a virtual sense, second or third from bottom in terms of ability.  Without a doubt we'll be one of the favourites to be relegated.  It could be very difficult to replicate the enthusiasm witnessed at the start of the last two seasons.  Perhaps this coming season Norwich and West Brom will not immediately become relegation candidates; WBA will be hardened to the task, having experienced the standard required recently.  We've survived this season due to three or four teams being woeful in comparison.  We cannot rely on this next season.

We can expect the usual marketing and PR initiatives from the Club during the close-season break.  How Ian Ross manages to juggle the questions and enquiries on Rooney after Euro 2004, contract talk breakdowns, phantom potential new signings, and sell a credible blueprint for the future is an unenviable task.  His paymasters will ensure he's whipped into shape and gets their message across in timing that will not affect season ticket sales adversely.

What are we to make of the bungling incompetence of Michael Dunford and his immediate staff?  I've no idea as to his CV and his credibility that catapulted him from Club Secretary to CEO.  What is certain is that the position was not advertised widely.  The crass insensitivity in which the announcement regarding the season ticket price hike came was alarming in its brutality.  There have been many suggesting to the Club over the past years that a small hike, over and above inflation on a seasonal basis, would have been received well IF explained to the fans.  To introduce the hike so spectacularly, at the end of such a poor season, is baffling.

Genuinely, there will those that will forego their options due to financial hardship but, given the arrogance and dismissive nature of the announcement, without proper consultation and research, the club really does risk alienating the core support it relies on so much.  It begs the question: Does the board understand its fans, the location, the area?  The majority of the fans at any home game are local.  Merseyside has some of the lowest wages in the country; unemployment is slightly above average and house prices still well below the national average.  To dismiss these basic facts as a pointer for the economic well-being of the immediate catchment area is astonishing.  In real terms, a 2- to 3-a-week increase is not much, a vast proportion of fans choose the finance option to spread the payment to cushion the blow. Perhaps the main body-blow is the junior season tickets rising to 150 they are supposed to be the future!

Is the extra 2M to 3M generated to be used to cover Wayne's inevitable increased wage demand, the shortfall in Sky revenue, or next years payment to the bondholders?  More likely it's already spent.  What is apparent is that its knee jerk, the fans are being taxed, yet again, for the failure and incompetence of the Board.  A 10% hike with an explanation that this may happen over the next few years accompanied by the message that, after intense discussion the option to have increased by 30% immediately had been dismissed as unrealistic by the Board, would have made for much better public relations.  It smacks of the usual out-of-their-depth decision-making by those on the Board that are out of touch. 

What is also most disconcerting is the evident blackmail.  With the statement that 1,000 fans are on a waiting list and you have until the second week in June, the Club appears disinterested.  They have already calculated that at least 25,000 fans will take up their option, so they feel no responsibility to break the news gently.  No rights issue for fear of equity dilution; no sale of equity to reduce stake to raise money.  No, let the fans continue to bail the Board out of the debts they seem unable, or unwilling to control, no matter how many opportunities are explored...

Cause for future optimism?  Moyes, Rooney, increase merchandising efforts, JJB?

Moyes has experienced his most difficult season.  During the very nervy November period, he kept his dignity, blamed no individual players and refused to use injuries as an excuse.  Perhaps our brand of high-energy play has been found wanting this season; after the initial burst, opposition mangers have exposed our weaknesses.  However, Moyes is as good as we could ever get perhaps better than the current board deserves.

His management of Rooney this season has been close to perfect.  And to his credit, he has curbed Rooney's over-aggression, yet Rooney still manages to compete for everything.  Some of the tactics have been questionable, occasionally the substitutions have been surprising.  However, all things considered, he has proved his worth.  It is worth noting that Spurs would prefer a British manager...  Who better than Moyes if they could demonstrate a plan to work too, and provide assurances over transfer funds?  Who could blame him for moving on if he cannot see a future with Everton?  He'll be considering his options very carefully to ensure that his own personal reputation is not tainted by Everton's failures.

When considering how Spurs have, to all intents, been managerless this season, they have the same points as Eevrton.  The performance they failed to put up at Goodison at Easter could result in our survival this season.  What is interesting is the continual speculation regarding Rooney, yet hardly ever do we hear mention of other clubs interested in Moyes.  If the Everton Board retain the complacency and arrogance of recent years, they could be in for a massive shock.  Unlike Rooney, Moyes is not an Evertonian, he is not an impressionable young man fueled by a sense of fanatic loyalty.  He is a paid professional hired to execute a strategy.  If he cannot be given the backing to carry out that strategy, his ambition will create certain unrest.

As for Rooney, we'll all be made painfully aware of the drama of his wage re-negotiation this summer.  It's inevitable that he will move on soon; bring on the pain now and the new season in one blow.  His agent's demands of 13k a week were described as ludicrous last year; if parity with Owen at Liverpool (60K a week) is asked for, it could get interesting...

And as for JJB and the merchandising programme typical of Everton the announcement is low on detail, content and the benefit.  Perhaps that nice Mr Whelan, the JJB Chairman, will give up on Wigan this season, if they don't gain promotion, and turn his attention to Everton?

Straws?  Grasp them.

Paul Holmes
26 April 2004

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