“We’re Fucking Rich!” So the fans sang out at Villa. And it looks like that might just be true. Although no Evertonian expects us to rival the likes of Man City, Man Utd or Chelsea in the financial stakes, the arrival of fresh investment courtesy of Farhad Moshiri, a man with deep pockets and an apparent willingness to spend, suggests a brighter future on the horizon for the boys in blue.
But without wanting to come over ‘all Everton’, and drench incipient optimism with a down-pouring of pessimism, we’ve been here before haven’t we? The sums might have been smaller and the man involved less impressive but back in the 1990s Everton welcomed a financial ‘saviour’ who was supposed to take us to a brave new world.
On the eve of our 1994 showdown with Wimbledon, a game that had the potential to cast us into the footballing wilderness, Peter Johnson became the chairman at Everton, injecting £10m into the club and promising to lift the torpor of the later-Moores years and let the good times roll.
Prior to his arrival, Everton’s principle shareholder, John Moores, was a near-deaf, bed-ridden nonagenarian nearing the end of his life; the club was chaired by a man, Dr David Marsh, without any apparent business experience or knowledge of football; and the financial performance at Goodison could be described as anaemic at best. Set against this and the sense of listless drift that permeated the club, the fans were crying out for a deep-pocketed businessman to come to the rescue.
And by the standards of the time, Johnson seemed a good bet. This was still, just about, the age of millionaires, not billionaires in the top flight. With an estimated fortune of £175m, he offered the prospect of a generous transfer kitty.
More than that, he was a football man, with a decent track record. Johnson had spent years at Tranmere, transforming their fortunes from near bankruptcy and relegation to the Conference, to financial rude health and the tantalising prospect of promotion to the Premier League.
After a stuttering start at Everton (signing Vinny Samways, persisting with Mike Walker, the botched Muller affair), roll the ‘good times’ sort of did. Big money signings arrived, like Ferguson, Kanchelskis and Barmby. Silverware came home from Wembley, taken from the best sides in the country. League form, which had moved from mediocrity to disaster in the preceding seasons dramatically improved to the point where Everton were tipped as dark horses for the title.
Johnson looked to have breathed life back into Goodison. Despite his Kopite affiliations, by the summer of 1996, two years into the Johnson-era, by which point the hamper man owned 68% of the club, few Blues could gripe about what the new owner had done.
We had wanted investment from him and it had duly arrived. Everton had spent £43m (£27m net) on new players. This compared favourably to other big clubs, such as Newcastle (£23m), Arsenal (£21m) and Liverpool (£20m).
Goodison had been dolled up, the commercial performance improved and matters on the pitch were looking good. Although mistakes had been made here-and-there (the brief abandonment of Z-Cars, a few botched transfer deals, Dixie the mascot) Johnson had largely delivered.
But then, almost in the blink of an eye, he stopped delivering. Over the course of the next two seasons, Everton unravelled. A managerial merry-go-round, a transfer policy that moved from generosity to penury to debt-fuelled insanity and an apparent inability to fulfil any promise delivered, left the fans baying for blood.
By the time he stepped down as chairman, having sold the talismanic Duncan Ferguson to Newcastle behind the manager’s back, Johnson was loathed. The club’s debts stood at £18m, relegation now appeared a constant threat and all the optimism and hope of four years earlier had completely disappeared.
There were several major factors behind his failure. Johnson was prone to mistakes and made several during his tenure (persisting with Walker, sacking Royle, appointing Kendall). He also took over Everton just as his own business was going through hard times (his disastrous foray into the frozen chip market with DJ Spuddles being a particular low). And he failed to make Everton commercially successful enough to remove the necessity of constant injections of external capital.
These, and other smaller disasters, ultimately added up to one of the darkest periods of modern Evertonianism, a bleak time that many of us would rather forget.
I don’t offer these memories cruelly, but merely as a cautionary warning. Take away the Liverpool link, and Johnson looked like the real deal. By the standards of the time, when football was still in the early throws of the changes that were being brought about by the Premier League, a man of his wealth and experience becoming involved with the club represented something to welcome.
He had cash, business savvy and football knowhow, three qualities that compared favourably to the many other chairmen investing in the top flight. And yet it all went wrong. His failure, and it was unquestionably a failure, illustrates that new money isn’t always the panacea it promises to be.
At the moment, the Moshiri deal looks good. Our new investor has considerable wealth, valuable experience via his stint with Arsenal and an expressed desire to move Everton into the high echelons of the game. Everton have done remarkably well over the past decade with relatively little money, so it’s undeniably tempting to believe that with a little more we could do so much better.
But, everything Farhad Moshiri represents, Johnson once did too. In relative terms, he was every bit as ‘messiah-like’.
The four divisions, at all levels of finance, are littered with examples of clubs that spent big, that reached for the stars, and that ultimately fell short. With the exception of the super-wealthy, who generally enjoy a permanent lock on the higher reaches of the game, investment for most clubs is a risk. Football is inexact and it’s hard to say what impact money will have.
I hope Moshiri works out. God knows, Evertonians deserve something good to happen. The trophy cabinet has been locked for too long and it’s about time that we gave our former peers a run for their money.
But I remember feeling optimistic back in 1994 and look where that got me. So, I think I might settle for cautious optimism instead, which is probably the best the club could expect from supporters as inured to hope as we can be.
Jim Keoghan is the author of Highs Lows and Bakayokos, the story of Everton in the 1990s, which is published by Pitch Publishing later this year.
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