The Slumbering Giant: Part IV – Soul Searching

Lyndon Lloyd 04/05/2015   Comments  [Jump to last]
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What do you want from Everton Football Club?

It's not an idle question. Why we support this Grand Old Team, what we aspire Everton to be and how we want our club to go about it are all fundamental to a resurfacing debate over the future of this 137-year-old institution and its place in the rapidly-changing modern game.

How you answer the question will likely be affected by a number of factors – your age; your generational ties to the Toffees (if any); your proximity to Liverpool; how often you go to the match and the lengths you go to do so, etc. It might also be determined by what you wish to get out of following the club – be it purely to indulge a love of the game and a tribal sense of belonging; for the camaraderie and the familiar routine of the match-going experience; the simple desire to support a team towards success (or, at the very least, enjoy enough memorable experiences in the pursuit of success); or all of that and more.

Even with Blue-tinted spectacles set aside, we follow a truly special club, one that helped launch the professional game in 1888, was there 104 years later to found the Premier League, and often lead this country through the 20th Century with an enviable list of footballing “firsts” in between. We have a history rivalled by few – the quintessential top-flight club – with enduringly close ties to its community and its working-class roots.

We’ve played in the same stadium since 1892, have won the League title more times than any other English team bar three and are helmed by a true-Blue Evertonian who, if nothing else, knows the soul of the club and whole-heartedly understands the Everton experience. Much may have changed since the Premier League revolution took hold but the spirit of fair play, honour and sporting valour embodied by club legends like Brian Labone live on in a club that is fundamentally decent. This is our identity. A small part of what is Everton.

And yet, woven into that tapestry of Everton’s history has been a culture of success and the pursuit of excellence encapsulated by our treasured motto. From Bill Dean, Ted Sagar and Tommy Lawton to Roy Vernon, the Holy Trinity, the Golden Vision and Neville Southall, Goodison Park has been graced by some of the finest footballers to have ever played the game. The School of Science was as much a contemporary expression of the beauty of our team’s on-the-field ethos as it was an embodiment of the club’s natural and historical inclination towards excellence. Howard Kendall’s wonderful blend of technique and heart that swept almost all before it for three wonderful years in the mid-1980s threatened to establish a dynasty for many more beyond.

Since helping to usher in the Premier League era 23 years ago, however, Everton as a club has abandoned its place among England's elite and the size of the task in getting back there appears Herculean. To borrow a passage from a similar exercise in soul-searching by a Tottenham fan on the DearMrLevy.com site, all this romanticism “doesn't all translate from the echoed poetry of the past to the petulant pomp of the present day.”

The footballing landscape has changed irrevocably since we last won the League and has shifted to a dizzying degree even since we last lifted the FA Cup. In that time, as the power and the silverware has come to be dominated by first just four and now five clubs, just one outside of this quintet has won the Premier League and it took the free spending of Jack Walker to achieve it. Just three clubs (including the Blues in 1995) outside of this five have won the FA Cup.

Parts I, II and III have touched on the ways that Everton might find their way back among the English game’s elite: continue on the path of slow and patient progression established by David Moyes and, hopefully, to be resumed again next season under his successor, Roberto Martinez; use the new broadcasting cash bonanza to speculate a bit more on transfers to accumulate better prospects of success; instill more energy and drive into the club’s commercial activities to once more match our peers; or build a new stadium to help generate more revenue from corporate sponsorships, entertainment and matchday ticket sales.

None of them are quick solutions to our lengthening trophy drought and exile from the upper echelons of the domestic game but they offer hope, enough to have kept the majority of the fanbase in tow over the last decade despite just one Wembley final, an agonisingly close call with Champions League qualification 10 years ago, and a couple of tantalising but ultimately fruitless forays into the last 16 of the Europa League. This from a club that, again, won the title on average once every 10 years before the Premier League era, that was at the forefront of the world game for so much of its history in terms of infrastructure and innovation, and was poised to potentially become a lasting force at home and on the Continent in 1985.

Stasis

So as Evertonians greet the 20-year milestone since our last trophy with a mixture of resignation and apathy on one end of the spectrum and frustration and growing restlessness on the other, more and more fans are asking if there is sufficient ambition, energy and resources being applied in the current regime to maximise and optimise towards bridging the gap every part of an institution that was built for success and retains the potential for it even after three decades of relative stagnation.

This is after all our club. Not only are we entitled to question those in charge, it is our responsibility to ask whether the Board has a plan and a vision for Everton beyond the current strategy of either making piecemeal progress or treading water until the right buyer comes along to take the club over... assuming that is even something Bill Kenwright wants.

How long do we wait under a Chairman that does not personally have the riches to make us competitive with the biggest clubs and whose “24/7” search for either investment or a buyer has come up empty for the past 10 years? How much more patient should we be with the rest of a Board that clearly has no interest in investing anything into the club beyond the money they spent to acquire their shares?

If their aim is not to ultimately make money from the club, why was the possibility of a rights issue (that would have diluted the holdings of the majority shareholders) not explored when it would have been more advantageous to do so? Why is there no obvious sign that they are using their collective business acumen to improve the club’s commercial performance?

The longer time drags on with no apparent movement on the ownership issue, though, it fuels questions over whether the Chairman is either simply holding onto his “trainset” because he either can’t let go or is fearful of doing so (if you owned Everton, wouldn’t you be?), is committed to seeing through a new stadium that he believes would transform the club, or is looking to maximise the profits for himself and his partners on the Board from a potential sale. Certainly, as Everton's financial statement, as quoted in the Combined Authorities evidence to the Destination Kirkby Inquiry, stated,

“...the willingness or abilities of the Club’s Directors to sell all or some of their interests to attract an investor who or which might have the ability in financial terms to fund a new stadium in its entirety or at the very least the shortfall...this is not an option, as the current Directors have no intention of selling any of their interests in the Club”.

With plans afoot to move the club to Walton Hall Park in the next few years, do we assume that this is still the case?

Against the backdrop of this stasis, Kenwright’s rhetoric has for years oscillated between soundbites about finding a “billionaire” for Everton and simply attracting investment and there is an obvious distinction between the two goals. And if the emphasis has been on the latter, that is clearly the more difficult of the two to attain. As Joe Beardwood recently posited, with no guarantee of a return, investment without overall control would be tantamount to a donation – no one other than the most die-hard and philanthropic Evertonian would plough millions into the club with no expectation of making anything out of it.

That leaves the option of a wholesale takeout by an individual or consortium with bottomless pockets as the only viable alternative and every new story about a potential takeover of a Premier League club by billionaire interests from the Middle East, the Far East or America is used as a stick with which to beat Kenwright for his assertion a few years back that “no one is buying football clubs these days.”

There have, of course, always been interested buyers but we might never know how far their inquiries went or why they failed. According to rumour, lying somewhere in a filing cabinet on Merseyside is proof of just how far down the road Sheikh Mansour got with negotiations with Everton before he switched his attentions to Manchester City. Randy Lerner is also believed to have approached Kenwright before eventually taking the helm at Aston Villa. And a broker for a global venture and investment firm making an approach on behalf of wealthy Middle Eastern clients in 2009 said that he came away from unproductive negotiations with the club with the feeling that Everton were “setting hurdles that effectively put them out of the running with so many prospective purchasers” and that “either [a sale] is not their true intention, or their lawyers are not accustomed to working in this commercial space.”

There will undoubtedly have been others and, of course, not being privy to these negotiations or only knowing one side of the story, we as fans can’t possibly know whether these proposed takeovers were viable or whether they’d have been right for the club at all. And as the demand for England’s league continues on its upward trajectory and the money that can be generated from successive broadcast deals continues to grow, there will be other interested buyers wanting a piece of the pie.

Selling our soul?

This cuts to the heart of the Everton dilemma in the current environment of the Premier League. If we all collectively say enough is enough, that the current regime is taking us nowhere and new owners are the only solution, are we fully appreciative of the risks that lie in the alternatives to the club’s future, its character, its identity and its very soul?

Because the Lerner example is just one of a litany of takeovers of English clubs that have either fallen short of expectation, failed outright or led to galling changes to the fabric of the clubs concerned by new owners showing scant regard for their traditions. The sheer depth of the pockets of Mansour and Roman Abramovich have and will continue to ensure that they can throw enough money at their manager du jour to buy big-name players that City and Chelsea will be able to compete for silverware year in and year out.

They are in a minority, however, and there is a lengthening list of cautionary tales that would fall very much under the cliched “be careful what you wish for” mantra where Everton are concerned: The chaos of successive ownership changes at Leeds United, whose future remains as uncertain as it was five years ago; the Venkys debacle at Blackburn Rovers; Vincent Tan’s needless and heedless meddling with Cardiff City’s heritage; likewise Assem Allam’s bid to change Hull City’s name in the face of vehement opposition; Shahid Khan’s struggles at Fulham; the mess going on at Newcastle United under their billionaire owner, Mike Ashley, with dubious stadium and shirt sponsorship deals and declining fortunes on the pitch; and Portsmouth, who were declared insolvent and rescued by a supporters trust.

Even Fenway Sports Group’s feted takeover at Liverpool has failed to translate their success at restoring the Boston Red Sox to a long-awaited title into reviving the fortunes of the reds across Stanley Park. The lesson of millions of pounds thrown down the drain on hugely inflated transfer fees for mediocre players under Kenny Dalglish has not been heeded under Brendan Rogers, who has perpetuated the same flawed strategy.

If there is a lesson from the recent history of ownership changes in the Premier League it’s that only those with the most to throw at player purchases have had a genuine shot at winning the title. Even Arsenal, as well-run and restrained a club as there is among the “big five” have struggled to mount a serious run at the title, although they do remain perennially competitive on a sustainable model.

Still, it feels that with the bastardisation of football in the modern age that the only choice is to throw your lot in with the unknown quantity of a foreign billionaire in the hope of buying success. And there is a reflexive flurry of excitement as soon as someone with billions to their name is mentioned in connection with the Blues but even then you have to wonder whether that is what we really want. At what cost to our identity, our traditions, our values and what it means to be Everton?

At its heart, Everton is still a club in the image envisioned by the Football Association in 1892 when it insisted that fledgling institutions over which they presided remain clubs in their culture; an enduring institution that will hopefully survive this current era of excess and promiscuity. One where the chairman will personally fund buses to away matches, players will subsidise away tickets by way of thanks for fans’ support, and a walk around the club’s Finch Farm training complex will reveal the warmth, familial closeness, community, openness and heart that beats at its centre.

Do we want to “do a City” and suddenly be transformed into one of the richest teams on the planet; to be run at the whim of an outsider sheikh or oligarch with no affinity to Everton FC, its fans or its traditions? To be able to sign a bog-average defender for £40m like Mangala and go through managers at a rate of one every couple of seasons until you find one capable of delivering the biggest trophies? To waste £50m on a failed signing like Fernando Torres and become so spoiled and unappreciative of silverware that half your fans will leave Wembley before the presentation of the FA Cup just to beat the traffic home? To lavish £300,000 a week – more than a good proportion of your supporter base will earn in 10 years – on a player like Wayne Rooney and still not be anywhere close to winning either the Premier or Champions Leagues? To see the stands at your home matches increasingly populated by tourists, part-timers and glory-hunters?

If staying true to your club’s roots by taking a slow and deliberate path appears more and more fruitless with each passing season, though, is there a place for such nostalgia and stubborn romanticism? Nothing would be more satisfying than seeing a patient, agile, modernised and Corinthian Everton – a beautiful term coined by a reader in an earlier part of this series – building its way back to sustained success. But in age where an Arab sheikh can plough well north of £1bn into building a team in the space of a few years, it seems like an impossible dream.

A Middle Way

While little has changed in terms of real ownership in the club for 15 years many of the questions posed above will have to find resolution eventually. Bill will turn 70 in September and while he could well have another couple of decades left on this mortal coil, it’s unlikely he will always have the energy to helm the club in the face of the massive expectation we as a fanbase still have, exclusively manage the transfer negotiations (as he currently does), and deal with the stress of trying to relocate the club to a new stadium after 123 years at Goodison Park.

Answering the calls from many supporters for the hiring of a specialised team dedicated to aggressively ramping up the club’s commercial activities and formulating a vision for the club as a business for the next decade would be one step but sooner or later, he will inevitably have to think about his succession. With few signs that his daughter, Lucy, would be a natural heir to the Everton throne and no apparent appetite from the likes of Jon Woods (68 himself) or Robert Earl to take any leadership role, future ownership of the club is likely to come from an outsider.

But who? The £125m price tag that was apparently placed on the club around three years ago has, no doubt, been a significant impediment to potential buyers of the club, particularly when you factor in the additional cost of a new stadium or the redevelopment of Goodison Park. It makes for a prohibitively large investment for all but a small group of buyers which tends to be dominated by super-rich individuals looking for a play-thing and would almost certainly transfer ownership of the club away from its roots.

Of course, that entire premise is predicated on the notion that the Board have to or even should sell the club at market value – indeed, how many Evertonians believe they have done enough through their custody of the club to warrant such massive returns on their initial investment?

There have been, and no doubt will continue to be, high-net-worth individuals (perhaps Blues themselves) with a vision and a plan for Everton who could head up a takeover bid by a highly motivated and competent consortium but can’t compete with explosion in the value of Premier League clubs on the back of the ballooning broadcast deals. A sale like Peter Johnson's, designed to recoup the current directors' initial outlay (even with a small profit) would dramatically widen the pool of potential buyers and give them far more leeway in what they could achieve.

Given a head start by only having to pay a fraction of what the club might conceivably be worth, the funds and commercial expertise from a consortium of this type could be combined with a partial supporters trust model (which, for example, could help fund a new stadium or the redevelopment of Goodison Park) that would put Everton on the road to a Bundesliga-style fan-ownership model (one which might not be viable in the short run given the massive funds needed to compete with the resources of our rivals at the top end of the Premier League) over the long term.

So, as he passes into his eighth decade, a more reflective and altruistic Bill might come to see the merits of such a middle way between the current grind against the capital forces at work in the Premier League and the leap into the unknown that a wholesale takeover by a faceless billionaire would represent. One where any profit motive from his ownership of Everton that he might harbour is replaced by a desire to safeguard the character and future of the club by easing the handover to responsible new owners and perhaps transferring a greater share of its ownership to the fans. The older the Chairman gets, the more sense it makes for him to create a legacy and this would be an enduring one.

On the back of the retrograde step that the 2014-15 season has come to represent and its coincidence with two important anniversaries – our last silverware 20 years ago and the 30-year mark since we lifted our only European trophy – the coming summer and the season beyond could have an important bearing on supporter sentiment.

Will Roberto Martinez be handed the funds to undertake significant reconstruction of his squad or is his unambitious rhetoric of late a reflection of a fiscal policy aimed first at debt reduction and the servicing of “payday loans” originating in the Virgin Islands? Will the rising tide lifting the collective Premier League boats take transfer fees and player wages to such obscene levels that the effects of the rise in revenues on the Blues’ ability to compete is diminished or wiped out entirely?

And if Martinez proves incapable of taking the club again to knocking on the glass ceiling and the top four or delivering a trophy... if the current strategy of progress by increments continues to promise much but deliver little in the face of the broader realities of the top flight... if no clearer vision is articulated from the Board beyond paying lip-service to the search for a buyer and the distant promise of a new stadium... then will there be sufficient appetite from Evertonians as a collective to overcome the apathy and the sense of futility that has set in during our club’s slow somnambulic decline from its former status as a towering force in the English game to demand a change?

While the club remains healthy and in the Premier League, with a vibrant community, large latent support and an unfailingly committed match-going core, the dormant potential of this club remains significant, just waiting to be tapped once more. The nagging fear remains, though, that it is going to take something extra than the current status quo to awaken the slumbering giant. The question is, what will it take, how long will it take to arrive, and can we afford to wait?

« Part I: Another False Dawn | Part II: Twenty-Year Itch | Part III: Treading Water

(Cover photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

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