by Richard Marland
In footballing terms our problems were apparent from the first game of the
season against Aston Villa. Despite promising
performances from our new signings, we never played particularly well. The
lack of width in the side was all too readily apparent and a lack of real
potency upfront was a problem that was to haunt us throughout most of the
campaign. When John Collins missed his penalty and the game ended 0-0 we
just shrugged our shoulders and assumed that the team were just suffering
from teething troubles.
It didn't take us very long to reacquaint ourselves with the lower reaches
of the table. Successive defeats to
Tottenham saw us in the bottom three after three
games and still awaiting our first goal. It was at this point that we appeared
to turn things around. A much needed away victory at
Nottingham Forest heralded the start of
a 10-match unbeaten run. It was largely born of defensive security and we
never played particularly well but it should have given us something to build
The run ended with a comprehensive home defeat at the hands of
Man Utd, which did actually see us score our
first goal at Goodison (at the end of October for God's sake!!), and precipitated
something of a wobble as we saw consecutive away defeats at
Coventry. This took us up a momentous night
Monday 23rd November, is a day that will be etched into the history of Everton
Football Club. We had started to drift down the table again, 17th position,
one place outside the bottom three. We desperately needed the three points
from what would have been our first home victory of the season. The three
points duly arrived courtesy of Michael Ball's penalty against
Newcastle, but it was off the field that the
real action was taking place.
Our summer spending spree had left us chronically in debt, the bank was demanding
money. Peter Johnson took the decision to sell Duncan Ferguson in order to
raise money for the bank. Whilst the game was going on, Ferguson was being
sold to Newcastle. It seems that Walter Smith knew that Ferguson had to be
sold; however, he wasn't aware that it was happening there and then. Legend
has it that he was told, not by Peter Johnson, but by a tearful Ferguson
on the stairs at Goodison Park.
As the news broke, all hell let loose. The selling of a crowd hero and the
current captain was bad enough, to find out that it had been behind the back
of the manager just made it worse. Within an instant Peter Johnson had made
his position at Everton untenable. Presumably Peter Johnson was going to
continue to blunder on, however, Walter Smith saw to that, by facing up to
him and delivering the ultimatum that it was "either him or me". Peter Johnson
left with his tail between his legs and with the stated intention of selling
his interest in Everton Football Club.
Whilst there was widespread delight at the apparent removal of Johnson it
didn't leave us looking too comfortable in the short term. We had lost our
captain and most experienced forward and, to make matters worse, the money
generated from his sale had gone straight to the bank and none of it was
available for team building. Walter Smith had clearly been unaware of the
parlous state of our finances, he had initiated a team strengthening program
which assumed that more money was going to become available. He had strengthened
some areas of the team, but there was still much to do be done, particularly
down the flanks. To make matters worse, he had lost an integral part of the
team, and an already struggling attack was left in the hands of some teenagers
and Bakayoko, a young African struggling to adapt to the British game.
Initially we coped fairly well and many were lulled into a false sense of
security. Yet another priceless away victory, this time at
Charlton, followed by a home draw against
Chelsea and a home victory against
Southampton, saw us approach the Christmas
period from the relative security of 15th place and with a nice 7-point cushion
from the bottom three. Our next series of games consisted of three easier
home games interspersed with tricky away fixtures. The home games presented
a golden opportunity to drag ourselves a long way from trouble, it was an
opportunity we failed to take.
First up was Derby County on Boxing Day. They came
without any great ambition and looked to be happy to settle for a draw. A
combination of Walter's ultra defensive approach and a lack of attacking
threat saw Derby get what they wanted through a sterile 0-0 draw. We then
had a heavy away defeat at Tottenham before it
was Leicester at home. Like Derby before them,
they came with an unambitious approach but, yet again, we failed to capitalise
as we again showed too much caution and it ended up with another sterile
0-0 draw. Another heavy away defeat, this time at
Aston Villa, saw our 7 point cushion being
The last of what I had seen as our home bankers was
Nottingham Forest. Already cut adrift at
the bottom they were seriously struggling, we should have been able to beat
them with something to spare. We failed miserably, we drew yet another Goodison
blank as Forest caught us with a sucker punch to send us to a 1-0 defeat.
It was a disheartening series of games, from a position of relative security
we had been dragged back down into the mire.
Our problems were painfully obvious: our goal drought was becoming the stuff
of legend. We had reached February 12 home games and only
three goals! As everyone very kindly pointed out to us, Man
Utd, with their four goals, were the highest scorers at Goodison. Without
a physical presence up front we were floundering. Bakayoko and Cadamarteri
played there for the most part but both were struggling and neither was the
kind of player to hold the ball up and to link the play. It was putting pressure
onto the team elsewhere and we looked to be getting ourselves into real
Something clearly had to change and it was at this juncture that Walter gambled.
For an FA Cup 4th round tie at home to Coventry,
Bakayoko and Cadamarteri were dropped in favour of Franny Jeffers with Don
Hutchison played up front. It was a change that brought instant dividends;
both are intelligent players, Don also proved very adept at holding the ball
up and bringing others into play. Ably supported by Oster and Barmby on the
flanks, we suddenly looked like a balanced side and we started to play a
bit. Coventry were duly despatched 2-1 and it was on to a mid-week home game
against Middlesbrough. The new formation worked
beyond anyones wildest expectations: Don led the line brilliantly as
we ran up a 5-0 scoreline. After the starvation rations we had grown accustomed
to, it was a veritable feast.
It showed the way forward but it wasn't to last. It had been dependent upon
the interplay between a handful of players and we soon ran into suspension
and disciplinary problems that saw us deprived firstly of Don Hutchison and
then Olivier Dacourt. We didn't have anyone to replace them with in the squad
and so we reverted back to type. There was the major fillip of an utterly
priceless away victory at Blackburn, but a
run of four straight defeats saw us plunged back into the relegation places.
The nadir of our season arrived with the Easter Monday game against
Sheffield Wednesday. An utterly wretched home
performance saw us get beaten and suffer the ignominy of a descent into the
relegation places. Easter is traditionally seen as a time when the table
starts to take its final shape. This Easter saw us in the bottom three
on a run of four straight defeats relegation form and I, like many,
felt that we were in real danger of being relegated.
It was time for the team to stand up and be counted. Walter reverted back
to 5-3-2, he brought back Dave Watson to the heart of the defence, but perhaps
most crucially of all he partnered deadline day signing Kevin Campbell with
Franny Jeffers. Campbell proved to be a truly inspired signing, he was precisely
the kind of player we needed: strong, experienced and with a priceless eye
for goal. Coventry were first up and a Campbell
brace saw them off and three points were in the bag. Next up was what should
have been a daunting trip to Newcastle, however,
we couldn't have met them at a better time in an inevitable lull after
their FA Cup semi-final win of the previous Sunday. Another Campbell brace
helped us to a 3-1 victory and an unexpected three points.
Things were undoubtedly starting to look rosier but there was still work
to be done. What was particularly impressive about this run of form was how
focused the team seemed to be on the task. In post-match interviews at Newcastle
they were already talking about the Charlton game. In due course
Charlton were professionally despatched 4-1
with Kevin Campbell getting his habitual brace of goals.
There followed the almost inevitable setback against
Chelsea. (One of the noticeable features of the
season was just how poor we were against the top sides, it was almost as
if the players had conceded defeat before they even started.) With signs
of life below us, we had started to look over our shoulders again, fortunately
we had the perfect opponents for the final home game of the season.
West Ham didn't have anything to play for and
that showed in their very poor performance, however, the way we went about
them was still very impressive as we ran out 6-0 victors. Campbell was, yet
again, in the thick of the action as he bagged himself a high class hat-trick.
We were now mathematically safe and what a relief it was.
If our late-season goal-scoring form led us into a false sense of security,
we had one last reminder of how far we had to go when we put in yet another
wretched performance away at Southampton
on the final day. Many observers rated it the worst of the season, and, when
you consider the abundance of choice for that ignominious distinction, that
was saying something. In a way, it was an appropriate result for us.
It stopped us attaining an unrealistically final league placing, and prevented
us ending the season on an undeserved high.
In a roundabout way, we ultimately got to where we deserved to be. At the
start of the season we would have hoped for more, but once the money ran
out and we were forced into the sale of Dunc, survival was the only realistic
ambition. Our problems are there for all to see the most glaring
being the problem of actually getting the ball into the back of the net.
Our eventual goals tally was just about respectable, but take away our
late-season burst and it looks very pallid indeed.
Cleland: 6 Don't
understand Walter's aversion to using him. Cleland doesn't appear to be top
drawer stuff, but I thought he was a competent right back who was OK defensively,
used the ball quite well and could get forward.
O'Kane: 5 Has barely
got a look in which is sad because I think he is quite talented and potentially
the best right back on our books. Clearly there is a problem somewhere and
for whatever reason Walter doesn't like him.
Ward: 5 Nothing
more than a squad player and in that role has done OK for us. He has the
right attitude and that is clearly getting him the nod ahead of more talented
Weir: 6 Come in at a
difficult time and has been somewhat thrown into a struggling side in what
is possibly not his favoured position. I for one am going to give him a little
bit more time to settle in before giving final judgement. There are encouraging
signs there, he defends quite well and looks relatively comfortable on the
ball, there's still some way to go to totally convince me, but lets see what
he does next season.
Ball: 6 Has played
too much football over the last 18 months and that is clearly showing. His
performances have definitely gone backwards from last season, but he hasn't
been bad, just not as good as he is capable of. Is starting to come in for
some undeserved criticism, people are tending to forget that he is still
a very young player and that maybe their expectations of him are too high.
Still an undoubted talent, here's hoping he gets a proper rest this close
Short: 6 His worth was
shown to us in the three straight wins that saved our bacon. His brand of
committed, uncomplicated defending was just what was needed. Longer term
he is no answer, too wooden and I always worry about his leadership, or lack
of it. For a senior pro he doesn't seem to be too much of a leader out on
Watson: 7 Unbelievable
stuff. The simple virtues of using your head and keeping it simple. The number
of games in which he should have been skinned but wasn't is incredible. Our
reliance on him to organise our defence is somewhat worrying but Thank Christ
he is still around to do it. As the T-shirt says "If only everything in life
was as reliable as Dave Watson".
Materazzi: 7 A
qualified success in my book. A very accomplished defender, at times he has
looked imperious. He has good technique and can time his tackles to perfection.
Having had a season to adjust to the Premiership, next season he could be
devastating (if he's still around), and could be one of the very top defenders
in the country. What has gone against him this season has been his indiscipline
and the way in which his form deserted him in the pressure of a real relegation
battle. Prior to his sending off in the Coventry game there were signs that
he was getting his discipline under control, he had gone a number of games
without a booking.
Dunne: 6 Has
made a major step towards becoming a first team regular this season. Hasn't
always looked convincing, particularly when he has been stuck at right back,
and has shown his naivety at times. But I have had the feeling all season
that the Goodison hierarchy reckon that he is going to make it and have left
him in there to find his feet and learn his trade. Prior to his injury I
really thought that he was starting to look the part. I fully expect him
to be one of our first choice centre backs next season.
Unsworth: 7 The
much derided Unsworth. In the light of our subsequent cash shortage maybe
we can quibble about the amount we paid for him and wonder whether it could
have been better spent elsewhere. But none of that is Unsworth's fault and
shouldn't disguise the fact that on the whole he has done an excellent job
for us. OK maybe his distribution could be better, but at least he is prepared
to bring the ball out of defence, and often our lack of midfield movement
has meant that he has run out of options. On the positive side, he has defended
well, he has used his pace intelligently to clear up dangerous situations,
and he has done a job for us in midfield and left back when asked. I'm an
Unsworth fan, I concede his limitations, but in terms of commitment, heart,
and defending ability he's been excellent for us this season.
Collins: 6 A
lot of hopes were pinned on him and ultimately he has failed to deliver the
goods consistently. He has struggled to come to terms with the pace of the
premiership and has never looked convincing. There are mitigating factors,
it is unclear how much his toe injury was affecting him, and he often got
caught in possession simply because he was holding onto the ball in the hope
of getting some movement further up field. I would be interested to see just
how he would do in the side as it was playing towards the end of the season,
I'm sure he would have looked a totally different player with the movement
of Jeffers and Campbell to look for.
Dacourt: 7 No
questioning his ability, he looks to have all the attributes to make a really
top class midfield player. However, like most he has managed to blot his
copybook this season. In Ollie's case it has primarily been his indiscipline,
he has undoubtedly been the victim of some very harsh inconsistent refereeing,
but he hasn't helped his cause by the number of unnecessary fouls he has
committed, often in instances where he hasn't needed to make a tackle. Almost
definitely on his way out, and after his ill timed comments in the lead up
to the West Ham game I think that that is quite right.
Hutchison: 7 An
excellent season for Don. As Kendall told us, the guy is a Premiership player.
Took a little while to convince Walter but since then has been a mainstay
of the side, whether in attack or midfield. Has been a leader on the field
and has been very important to us this season. Only black mark against him
is his discipline: too many bookings, which really must get brought down
Grant: 5 A big
disappointment this season. I've always been a big Grant fan, I think that
in terms of natural talent he is as good as I have seen in a blue shirt.
He has got it all, great touch, at ease on either foot, good passing ability
and great vision. His career has been badly disrupted by injury and I always
had the feeling that all he needed was an injury free run in the side to
truly establish himself. This season he has had that injury free run but
failed to deliver the goods. It wasn't that he was especially bad, he just
failed to impose himself and you were left with the impression that it was
all rather passing him by. I still believe in Grant's abilities, he is still
of an age where he can come good but in terms of Everton it rather looks
as if his opportunity has passed him by.
Gemmill: 7 A revelation.
An unheralded arrival - the usual guff about what are we doing buying a Forest
reject - but that missed the point that we were buying an experienced midfield
player for buttons. Gemmill was that age at which he was stagnating at Forest
having been there his whole career. Like Hutchison last season the move to
a club like Everton was probably one he didn't expect to get and he has taken
his opportunity with open arms. Has performed really well for us and played
a big part in our late season revival.
Looking to be a major mistake. At his best he is an unpredictable
player who will beat the whole of an opposition team to score a wonder goal.
That chance rarely came in a struggling Everton side and his shortcomings
were cruelly exposed. His touch on the ball is rubbish and he was frequently
on a different wavelength to his colleagues. Once Ferguson was sold he wasn't
the kind of player we needed and he ended up being the wrong type of player
at the wrong time. I really feel for him but I don't foresee any future for
him at Goodison. At least he contributed those two priceless goals at Blackburn.
Hutchison's brief tenure at centre forward had already shown the
kind of striker we needed - someone who could hold the ball up, bring others
into the play and give us a physical presence up front. Everton and Campbell
proved to be a match made in heaven, we needed his type of player and he
was desperate to get out of Turkey and to remind everyone back home what
he was capable of. I'm sure even his wildest dreams wouldn't have come up
with what he ultimately happened. His scoring record has been nothing short
of sensational and more than that he has linked intelligently with the midfield
and Franny Jeffers. He is a much better player than I thought he was and
he MUST be bought.
Jeffers: 7 A
simply glorious talent. He's got pace, good touch on the ball, good awareness,
excellent movement and to cap it all he's a good finisher with the instincts
of a natural goalscorer. He's got everything to become the complete striker,
something I've not seen in my 25 years of following Everton. Lets hope that
we get the opportunity to nurture him next season, to be able to drop him
when the inevitable dip in form comes or when he simply gets knackered.
Undoubtedly a decent striker but his abilities and potential pale
alongside Jeffers. Still he's a young player still learning his trade who
can only get better. Has pace and great strength, he also has the ability
to turn his man quite brilliantly, I fondly remember his performance against
Leboeuf and Desailly. Needs to curb his "enthusiasm" which saw him getting
booked far too often for a striker.
Team: 5 Let's face it this has been an awful season. At our
best we have been no more than competent, the biggest victories, Middlesbrough
and West Ham, owe as much to the ineptitude of the opposition as to our own
performance. There have been any number of truly awful performance, Notts
Forest at home and the second half against Sheff Weds are the two that
particularly stick out for me, but I'm sure others will have their own particular
"favourites". The only really good thing you can say about us is the fact
that we survived a traumatic season with our Premiership status intact. The
players deserve some credit for digging us out of a hole largely of our own
making, some spirit and endeavour was on show when it really mattered.
Player of the Season Over the course of the whole season there
aren't too many candidates. In terms of ability, Materazzi and Dacourt have
been our best performers, but they have both blotted their copy books with
their disciplinary records, and some distinctly lacklustre displays. Barmby,
Watson and Campbell are all worthy of consideration but despite their influence
haven't really played enough games to be considered as a player of the season.
For me our three most consistent performers over the whole of the season
have been Myrhe, Unsworth and Hutchison they have all performed well but
it is Don Hutchison who has performed the best of them and it is he
who gets my vote for player of the season.
Any successful Football Club requires boardroom and financial stability.
Look at Arsenal, Man Utd and Chelsea they have all got their financial
infrastructure in place, obviously much more than that is needed for success
but without it you are doomed to failure. So, all we are doing in the meantime
is treading water, hoping that we don't go under, and hoping that someone
will sort out the business side of Everton Football Club.
Despite the constraints the club is operating under I personally don't see
total disaster awaiting the team. It is to be hoped that, eventually, all
the off-field stuff will get sorted out and that, once again, the manager
will be given a realistic war chest with which to build a better Everton
future. But, in the meantime it is a case of make do and mend. To sell off
what we can live without and to trust Walter's acumen in the transfer market.
Walter already appears to be adopting a "worse case scenario", that being
little or no money to spend this summer along with the added need to generate
money from transfer outgoings.
Selling your better players is never a pleasant situation to be in, but that's
where we are. It now becomes a case of "Who can we live without" and looking
at the squad from that perspective. With Walter still being relatively new
to the club it was always inevitable that there would be players who are
deemed to be surplus to requirements, players who he doesn't rate, or players
who he simply doesn't like, doesn't trust or whatever. There are a number
who seem to fall into this category - Oster, O'Kane, Ward, Grant, Farrelly,
Branch, Phelan - and whilst some of these players are quite talented they
have all been peripheral figures this season and we have more or less proved
that we don't need them.
However, that doesn't appear to be enough, we aren't going to get too much
for the players listed and the dual need to satisfy the bank and raise at
least some transfer cash dictates that we have to raise some serious money.
That seems to lead us to Dacourt and Materazzi, both talented players and
both players we should really be endeavouring to keep. But, looking at the
squad they look like the two most likely sacrificial lambs. There have been
whispers that Materazzi wants away, Dacourt has been practically shouting
it from the rooftops. Neither of them have looked indispensable this season,
just witness the number of games we have had to survive without them, and
we do have cover in their positions. It seems sadly inevitable that both
will go. Personally I will mourn Materazzi more than I will Dacourt, but
losing Materazzi and Dacourt is infinitely preferable to losing, say, Ball
So, what does that leave us with? We clearly have enough centre halves to
be going on with. There are big question marks over the footballing qualities
of the centre halves we have but defensively speaking we should be OK from
a choice of Watson, Gough, Short, Unsworth, Dunne and Weir. We also have
the players to shore up the flanks - Ball on the left Cleland or Weir on
the right, there are obvious shortcomings from an attacking point of view,
but defensively they are all capable of doing a job.
Moving onto midfield, again we have enough decent players to do a job. Gemmill,
Collins, Hutchison and Barmby are all more than competent players, there
is a lack of pace there, as indeed there is in defence, but they are all
hard working, neat and tidy players. The only obvious area of deficiency
in midfield is a chronic lack of width, especially if John Oster is now deemed
to be surplus to requirements. The only natural width we could get from our
current squad is if Jamie Milligan and Peter Degn can come through, I haven't
seen enough of these players to know whether or not that is a realistic hope.
Finally we come to the attack. Here it is absolutely critical that we sign
Kevin Campbell, or failing that a player of his ilk, someone who can lead
the line, hold the play up, bring other people into play and contribute the
odd goal or two himself. Alongside him we could then play the current jewel
in our crown - Franny Jeffers. With Danny Cadamarteri, Phil Jevons and possibly
Bakayoko as back up, it again looks like we can cobble something respectable
Taken all together it isn't exactly a prospect to set the pulse racing. Lots
of decent, solid professionals but precious little in the way of real excitement.
It again looks like a team that would struggle against the better teams in
the division, those like Man Utd, Arsenal and Chelsea, who attack with genuine
pace and who would have the ability to pass rings round us. But take away
the top few sides and there isn't really much to fear in the Premiership.
Of course there is every opportunity that Walter will be able to bring in
some fresh blood. It won't be like last season where the signings of Collins,
Dacourt and Materazzi really whetted the appetite, it is going to be more
along the lines of his more recent signings like Degn, Weir and Gemmill,
players bought in cheaply under the Bosman rulings. He may also be able to
barter with some of the players who are on the way out. I am fairly sure
that we will see new players coming in but they are going to be astute buys
rather than glamour signings.
So far, Bakayoko apart, I reckon that Walter has done well in the transfer
market. I think that all his signings have already made a positive contribution
to the team. Materazzi and Dacourt look to be stars in the making, Unsworth
has been a solid, reliable performer for us, Weir has shown some promise,
Gemmill and Campbell have proven to be revelations. What is particularly
pleasing is the fact that two of those signings have been for nominal fees,
a pointer to the immediate future of Everton transfer dealings and an indicator
of what is possible in the post-Bosman football world.
A lot of our future success rests on Walter Smith. It is he who has to lay
out the groundwork for a better Everton future. Thus far I think he has done
pretty well. As a man I have been very impressed with him, he brings an air
of calm authority to the job something I find far preferable to the animated
antics of the likes of Strachan and O'Neil. It is also clear that he holds
massive respect within the game, a useful calling card when it comes to
attracting players, dealing with the media and bargaining with other managers.
But, the thing that most impresses me is his honesty and the common sense
he talks in interviews. He has never shirked from the fact that at times
this season we have been desperately poor, but he has said what has needed
to be said without lambasting his players too much.
Walter has come in for some criticism this season. His tactical awareness
has been called into question, sometimes with seeming justification - Branch
at Anfield for example. However, I want to see his performance with a squad
that is more balanced and more of his own choosing before giving final judgement
on that argument. Walter has the experience to know what is required, he
will tread on the toes of some players whose faces don't fit (Spencer and
Thomas), but he is already building a core of players who want to play for
him. Walter may not have the modern thinking that could take us back to the
very top but I believe he has what it takes to turn this club round and to
start the long haul back to the top. Walter still has my confidence and I
remain fully behind him.
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