The Sword of Damocles

By Lyndon Lloyd 14/05/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]

The chop – when it finally came – was painfully overdue... but there can't be an Evertonian left who didn't feel that, by the end, it was the only merciful thing to do to relieve Roberto Martinez of his managerial duties before the final home game with Norwich City.

A brace of horrible results away from home at Leicester and Sunderland in the space of the past week had made the Catalan's position untenable, driving home what had been a growing acceptance among supporters that his tenure was on an irrevocable slide.

In truth, the realisation that Everton's new era under Farhad Moshiri would begin in earnest without Martinez at the helm had been reached a lot earlier, the seeds sown in the wake of the debacle at Anfield where the former Wigan boss's helplessness at the disaster unfolding in front of him was laid bare.

The desire to at least allow him to see out the season before calling time on his tenure was, ultimately, trumped by the imperative to spare him the ignominy of a toxic Goodison Park atmosphere on Sunday where fed-up and frustrated fans had pledged to make their feelings known if no announcement was forthcoming by then.

In the end, protests planned for the end-of-season awards night (sensibly postponed – read: cancelled – even if the notice was a little short) and for that final match were headed off by the only decision left to make: Cut ties and move on.

A season that, just like the previous one, had held so much promise for the Toffees and their ambitious but frustratingly intransigent manager, was already over; the inquest into quite where Martinez had gone so wrong when his first season had gone so right was well underway.

Indeed, his debut season had been almost spectacular and the achievement of a record points haul, achieved with a fearless air that included a memorable Premier League double over Manchester United and a trouncing of Arsenal at Goodison Park, was celebrated progress from David Moyes and his reinforced glass ceiling. The alarming drop-off in Everton's fortunes and results in his second and third seasons that followed, however, will no doubt ensure that – while he delivered some wonderful moments – history might not look too favourably on Martinez's tenure overall.

He leaves the club mired in the bottom half of the table for the second year running, having achieved just one more victory in those last two league seasons combined than he did in 2013-14. A record of a mere five home wins since April 2015 was the obvious symptom of the team's problem under the man from Balaguer but results away from home, so impressive until the final stretch, masked the flaws in his methods until they too began to unravel.

By the end, there was nothing more to say or write about Martinez's Everton that hadn't already been said or written by commentators from the fanbase to the general media alike; his intransigence over his deep-rooted footballing philosophies, forged over fires of admiration for Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola but unbending in the face of the realities of life in the English Premier League, was ultimately his downfall as the players became detached and the fans' frustrations eventually boiled over.

It's impossible not to feel some sympathy for Roberto, even if there are those who insist he could have walked way rather than stand defiantly under the Sword of Damocles to the bitter end. As his recent interview with Jamie Carragher showed, his confidence in his ability to make it work at Everton was undimmed and he no doubt felt that, with fresh capital to come in the summer from Moshiri, he could re-shape the team into a winning outfit again. Why walk away while there was still hope?

The change he brought to Finch Farm when he first arrived, sweeping in with an optimism and enthusiasm for the club, its history and its potential that had been long lost under Moyes, cannot be overstated. The club's relationship with its fans changed almost overnight, reflected by Alan Myers's brief stint as the open conduit between the communications department and supporters, unprecedented invitations to fan groups to interview the manager at Finch Farm, and light-hearted initiatives like the "Bring Me Sunshine" video which seemed to epitomise the new atmosphere.

Martinez was also a terrific ambassador for Everton, as a television pundit at home and abroad, as a speaker at events like last year's BlazerCon, or taking time out to engage with supporters on pre-season tours. Anyone who saw his touching embrace with Margaret Aspinall on the pitch before the Bournemouth match recently would admit that there is so much to admire about the man. He "got" Everton, understood its traditions and its place in the city, and made moves that his predecessor wouldn't – like inviting club legend Howard Kendall to Finch Farm for a long-overdue visit. For all of that, you desperately wanted him to succeed with the Blues.

Unfortunately, though, it was on the pitch where it became apparent that Martinez wasn't quite cut out for the Everton job. His time at Goodison became almost a self-fulfilling prophecy; the realisation of fears that eventually his methods would erode the defensive rock on which Moyes's teams were founded and that Everton would become nothing more than a glorified Wigan… albeit without the silverware that he was able to land in his final campaign with the Latics.

As such, it was felt at the time of that ill-fated semi-final at Wembley last month Рas it turned out, the final straw for Farhad Moshiri before the belated coup de gr̢ce this week Рthat an FA Cup triumph, were he able to pull it off, risked prolonging what was an obviously failing tenure.

If the first glimmers that Martinez would eventually be undone by his rigid methods and ill-advised team selections can be traced back to that decisive home defeat to Crystal Palace in April 2014, that effectively handed 4th place back to Arsenal, the writing was clearly on the wall by the following winter.

A miserable festive season in which the Blues lost all four of their matches to Southampton (where he famously used no substitutes in an awful 3-0 defeat), Stoke, Newcastle and Hull was a jarring eye-opener for supporters already concerned about the start the team had made to the 2014-15 league season. The manager would later blame the psychological effect on his charges of their failure to hold onto leads at Leicester and Arsenal in the first two games of the season and the team's involvement in the Europa League; however, until they imploded spectacularly in Kiev the following March, the team actually performed better in the Premier League while their European adventure was still in progress.

More telling were the revelations that key players had requested a meeting with Martinez to urge him to relent on his insistence on a patient passing game and allow quicker, more direct service to Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian's acquisition on a permanent deal the previous July had been one of the Catalan's finest moments but he was frequently isolated by a system that failed to consistently support him.

Martinez's unwavering insistence on playing players out of position denied his team balance and limited its attacking fluidity when things weren't going to plan; when he ignored signs like Tim Howard's dwindling form, it cost Everton goals and further irritated a fanbase growing increasingly restless with his methods.

Then there was the apparent ostracism of Sylvain Distin, followed this season by that of Kevin Mirallas, and the effects of the departures of conditioning coach Steve Tashjian and head of medicine Danny Donachie, the latter reputedly as result of irreconcilable differences with Martinez over fitness policies. All isolated causes for concern that would coalesce with the failings of this, his third season, to make the compelling case against his continuation in the manager's role.

For a few optimistic weeks last autumn, when Gerard Deulofeu appeared to have lit the blue touch paper on his second coming with a succession of crucial assists, Ross Barkley was blossoming in the midst of what looked to be his finest campaign to date, and Lukaku was scoring goals at a rate that threatened to supersede Gary Lineker's 30-league-goal haul some 30 years ago, it looked like Roberto's dream was alive again.

But a nagging inability to keep the back door closed, a persistent vulnerability to conceding goals – sometimes in quick succession – giving up leads, failing to see out games, spoke volumes about Martinez's open admission that he wasn't particularly interested in keeping clean sheets, merely outscoring the opposition.

It meant a campaign that hadn't really caught fire – but had the potential to do so as 2015-16 wore on – was critically undermined by results that were as damaging to progress up the table as they were psychologically: the 3-3 draws at Bournemouth and Chelsea; the failure to put Norwich to the sword; the home defeat to Stoke City; the Capital One Cup loss at the Etihad – despite leading 3-1 on aggregate in the first half of that second leg... Everton led in all of those matches but were ultimately undone by defensive failings that had plagued them for the best part of two years.

The upshot was that, in the end, Martinez lost the faith of the players who didn't so much down tools as simply lose their way under his management, something that was evident after the devastating loss to Manchester City in the League Cup in January. They roused themselves in the FA Cup, Lukaku briefly stirring from a slump that set in after the New Year to fire the Blues into the last four; but, by the time that date with Wembley arrived, the wheels had come off the wagon. Nothing illustrated that more than a harrowing night at Anfield last month – as miserable an experience as Evertonians have had to suffer through in living memory.

From that there was no way back. For all his optimism, his well-intentioned vision for the future of Everton, his focus on youth and plans for the development of Finch Farm to support a vibrant Academy, Roberto Martinez simply wasn't flexible or aware enough to adapt to the ever-changing realities and demands of the Premier League. It was his utopian way or the highway and it eventually drove him down a dead end.

It could be a long road but he will no doubt find his way back, perhaps back in the lower leagues or in his native Spain... but for Everton, with a necessary decision having been made and Moshiri in the driving seat, it's time to think big and start moving forward again. Onwards, Evertonians, indeed.

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