Goodison Forever

Lyndon Lloyd 23/05/2015   Comments  [Jump to last]
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By 5pm on Sunday, we will know whether or not Everton have secured 10th place in the Premier League by, essentially, either bettering or matching West Ham's result at Newcastle. It's a far cry from last season's fantastic 5th, achieved with a higher (or equal, depending on the outcome of their game at Hull) points tally than Champions League-bound Manchester United will achieve this time around.

Whatever happens against Spurs, though, it will be the club's lowest league finish in a decade and will represent another sobering assessment of the club's current status two decades on from our last trophy. And, as revealed by the Echo yesterday – and coming in the wake of Joe Beardwood's recent assessment presented to the Shareholders Association – Roberto Elstone's measured programme notes regarding the proposed stadium development will further crystallise the notion that Everton FC remains some way short of tangible progress in its attempts to bridge the gap to the top flight's big five or six clubs.

There is little need to read between the lines of the Chief Executive's comments because there is an implied and honest admission that relocating Everton to Walton Hall Park – or anywhere else, for that matter – remains beyond the club's financial capability at present. That won't come as news to many; the funding aspect was always going to be the biggest stumbling block to any relocation proposal; contributions from Liverpool Council together with the sale of stadium naming rights and other sponsorship agreements would be an important component but the bulk of the monies would need to come from Everton. As Elstone rightly admits, there is a significant danger in Everton assuming too great a burden of debt pursuing a scheme with no guarantee of commensurate returns.

The CEO's comments constitute a tacit admission, therefore, that despite the publicity last summer surrounding a potential ground move up the road – merely a box-ticking exercise required to publicly outline the club's intent to build on the land in partnership with the local authorities as part of a wider regeneration scheme – the realisation of such a project is many, many years away at best.

With those expectations realigned and with the years and energy expended on three ground-move proposals in mind, the time has come for Everton to abandon plans to relocate and focus instead on the redevelopment of Goodison Park. It's a decision that should arguably have been taken in 2004 after the collapse of the Kings Dock – certainly after the Destination Kirkby debacle – but a point has been reached where the question has to be asked: How much more time dare we waste chasing an impossible dream?

It's a pertinent question because, for the first time in decades, the redevelopment of the Grand Old Lady is actually a viable fiscal option for the club thanks to the mushrooming broadcast revenues that will firmly establish Everton among the top 20 richest clubs in the world. The bonanza currently being enjoyed by Premier League clubs presents a historic opportunity for the club to set in motion a phased, affordable plan for the reconstruction of Goodison Park.

Our neighbours, even with the vastly superior financial backing of their American owners, came to the same conclusion regarding their future, of course, and construction of their new stand is already underway. A long-term plan of land procurement and the purchase of property around Anfield has borne fruit with an improved structure that will add 8,500 to Liverpool FC's capacity. Clearly, had Everton pursued a similar strategy in the area around Goodison Park, the club would already be on the road to resolving the increasingly burdensome stadium issue.

While the club have categorically stated that redevelopment of Goodison isn't feasible, there are many fans – this writer included – who believe that, with the right will, determination and imagination, a phased construction strategy is not only possible but makes vastly more financial sense than building from scratch somewhere else. While transfer values and player wages have continued their perversely stratospheric rise, the costs of construction and materials have remained grounded in the real world, allowing for the patient incremental development of the four sides of the ground over time.

Everton are pulling in an additional £33m per season from the current television rights deal, a figure that could increase to as much as £85m each year between 2016 and 2019. While some of that will, as a matter of course, end up in the pockets of players, their agents and other clubs in the form of inflated prices and salaries, there should be plenty of scope to combine a targeted player recruitment strategy and the continuation of the club's sound wage structure with a phased redevelopment scheme that would allow the club to remain competitive in the Premier League while moving towards to a more secure financial future.

Of course, rebuilding Goodison is not without its considerable challenges but it remains possible. Goodison For Everton certainly thought so 18 years ago when Peter Johnson first floated the idea of moving Everton away from Walton and provided their own feasibility study – part-funded by one Bill Kenwright no less – to prove it. Architects Trevor Skempton and Tom Hughes offered similar studies around a 50,000-seater ground completely within the current stadium's footprint to counter the hierarchy's insistence that staying put was not an option.

The tight footprint and density of buildings around three sides of the ground do pose huge logistical issues but none of them are insurmountable, particularly when you look beyond the existing footprint where other possibilities exist.

One might entail moving a significantly larger Park End Stand further towards Stanley Park, pushing the car park back and, with Council assistance, routing Walton Lane through an underpass underneath. That would allow for the pitch to be moved southwards as well and allow for a redeveloped Gwladys Street stand to be built without exceeding the current height and overhang regulations for residents.

Another more complicated and more costly option that has already been mooted would involve rotating the pitch 90 degrees and building over the school, which the local authorities have already said could be relocated if absolutely necessary. That would be a massive undertaking, tantamount to relocation elsewhere, but would require no development on a green-field site like Walton Hall Park.

These are architectural and engineering questions that could be solved by the right minds, though, and if the financial conditions for such a strategy have ever existed for the club, it surely is now. The will has to be there, however, and that has to come from the Chairman and Board of Directors who must surely now realise that the Arsenal model, predicated as it was on all the advantages that club enjoys in the nation's capital, is not so readily transferrable to Everton's situation.

Redevelopment doesn't necessarily preclude the kind of leisure, retail and entertainment possibilities that initially attracted involvement from the likes of Robert Earl and Philip Green – realistically, how much scope is there for that at Walton Hall Park anyway? – but it's absolutely essential now that the needs of Everton Football Club and those of its supporters were placed above outside interests and that we, as a club, start to look after ourselves. There is no sense in moving a mile down the road and further away from the city centre to try and replicate the magic of what we have at Goodison Park if it risks plunging us back into unmanageable debt.

The emotional argument for staying put is an obvious one. We've been in this hallowed spot for 123 years in a stadium that for decades was at the forefront of the domestic game, staging a World Cup semi-final and playing host to most of the club's legendary players and achievements. That sentimentality seemed trivial to many in the face of the bright lights of a brand-new development elsewhere but it can and should now underpin the drive to keep Everton FC in L4, lest we waste precious more years going around in circles.

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