A seventh-place finish looks beyond us this season but while we all agree the Toffees belong in Europe, there’s a case to made that, in the context of their longer-term goals, missing out this time might not be a bad thing.
Ask Evertonians of a certain vintage to recall some of their most visceral memories of supporting the club and many will invoke stories of the Toffees’ exploits in Europe.
That Bayern Munich semi-final that paved the way for Everton’s first and, to date, only European trophy remains perhaps the most dramatic night in Goodison Park history. More recently, the ultimately ill-fated and heart-breaking match against Fiorentina lives on in large part because of a stirring performance but the atmosphere generated by the Grand Old Lady is what stands out.
Then there have been some truly memorable European away days — the final in Rotterdam is obvious but trips from near and far to Alkmaar, Nuremberg and Kharkiv have left indelible imprints on the collective psyche of those who travelled and provided pockets of illumination during what have been three mostly bleak decades since the glory days of the mid to late 1980s.
There is, of course, a lot of pain and frustration associated with European football that stretches back to the stumble against Panathinaikos in 1970 that ended one title-winning Everton side’s tilt at European Cup glory, the Pierluigi Collina controversy that denied David Moyes’s team a crack at the group stages of the Champions League in 2005 and, of course, the grand injustice of them all: the Heysel Ban that denied arguably the best team on the Continent at the time a deserved chance to lift Europe’s biggest prize in 1986.
The Premier League may, commercially speaking, be the most sought-after league in the world but it is rapidly becoming a closed shop to those clubs locked out of the “big six” by an ever-widening financial gap. As it did for teams under Moyes and Roberto Martinez, European competition has provided an alternative route to glory — now, of course, the Europa League offers a back door into the Champions League — and added another dimension to otherwise almost futile domestic campaigns for those English sides fortunate enough to gain qualification.
Despite all the reservations over the notion of the word “champions” has been corrupted by Uefa’s flagship competition and how the imbalance in the financial rewards has made the Europa League by far the poor relation, playing in Europe remains enormously attractive and should be the goal for all clubs of Everton’s size and aspiration.
After all, who among us Blues didn’t watch Tottenham’s drama-infused conquest of Manchester City the other week without a desperate yearning to be in their place to go along with our gnawing anguish over the lasting effects of Heysel and our own failure to match Spurs’s ascent from Premier League also-rans to Champions League semi-finalists and bona fide members of the “big six”.
Mixing it up with such exalted company as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus remains a long way away but there was, until this past weekend perhaps, the glimmer of hope that qualification for the Europa League remained open to Everton this season. It was always dependent on Manchester City beating Watford in the FA Cup Final, of course, but the Blues’ draw at Crystal Palace coupled with Wolverhampton Wanderers’ win over the Hornets has probably ruled out a seventh-place finish for Marco Silva’s side this season.
It’s disappointing on one hand because in addition to providing the opportunity for more great memories being in Europe can enhance the club’s standing on the Continent, improve its Uefa coefficient (a key metric when it comes to seeding), and offer a fourth trophy to aim for. There is no question that a club of Everton’s stature belongs in European competition but, on the other hand, there’s a case to made that, in the context of their longer-term goals and in view of the instability that has plagued the club for the past three years, the focus this summer should really be on targeted recruitment, a proper pre-season and progress in the Premier League next season.
For too many teams out side of the “big six”, Europa League campaigns — those that begin in late July in particular — have proved to be mixed blessings and in some cases not much of a blessing at all given their impact on the team’s domestic form. West Ham, Burnley and Everton have all had to forego coherent pre-season preparations to begin their seasons in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League and none of them were the better for it. Ironically, Everton under David Moyes proved to be a rare exception to this prevailing rule in 2008 when they managed to finish fifth in the Premier League despite making it as far as the round of 16 of the Uefa Cup that season but on the whole it’s hard for most clubs to balance the extra commitments.
Silva and Marcel Brands will have their shopping list ready for the close season and the manager has already expressed his belief that money will be made available for signings this summer but it’s not clear at this point just how large the budget will be.
Much could depend on which players leave and for how much. Maarten Stekelenburg and Ashley Williams will be leaving as free agents taking their respective salaries off the wage bill but there is a sizeable contingent who spent this season out on loan who will be returning to Everton, almost all of whom won’t have a future with the club. Kevin Mirallas, Yannick Bolasie and Sandro Ramirez are the three big earners whom the management will be looking to offload to make room for new salaries but while the Belgian could be let go for a nominal fee given that he only has one more year on his contract, the other two might be harder to shift.
And a portion of the funds available could already have been allocated to signing André Gomes and Kurt Zouma on permanent deals which could cost north of £40m. Based on rumours on Merseyside surrounding the Portuguese and the fact that Chelsea’s transfer ban could well be ratified in the coming weeks, the Gomes would appear to be the more likely of the two to stay but whether it’s the French defender or someone else, Everton will need to spend a significant sum on another centre half and a top quality striker at least. That likely won’t leave much left to pad the squad out to the size it would need to be to provide sufficient depth to wage campaigns on four different fronts next season.
So while the romance of Europe and the desire to be in the mix with some of the Continent’s top clubs is strong, Evertonians probably shouldn’t feel too disheartened that seventh place is probably beyond their grasp this season. Not having that extra distraction will allow Silva to focus his efforts on making strong cup runs at home while also making a run at disrupting a top six that, on recent evidence at least, looks like it could be a lot less impregnable next season. Unai Emery has his challenges at Arsenal, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has spoken of the massive rebuilding job required at Old Trafford and Chelsea could well be bedding in yet another new manager.
Everton, meanwhile, can only benefit from the stability of going into Marco’s Silva’s second season with what is now a more settled squad, a recognisable ethos and style of play. A year on, there will be significantly more and genuine depth to the squad in order to deal with the rigours of a European campaign — the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Tom Davies and Ademola Lookman (if he stays) will be a year older and the new signings planned for the coming close season will also have had a year with the club.
If by some twist in the final two games, the Blues end up in seventh and City win the FA Cup then we will, of course, embrace Europe and prepare as best we can for an early start at the end of July. Otherwise, there’s no harm in setting our sights on being where want to be this time next year with greater numbers, a stronger team and a realistic shot of taking the Europa League by storm in 2020-21!