by Richard Marland
|Season Review||A walk through the season's few highs and many lows|
|Player Ratings||Individual assessments of each player's contribution|
|Season Preview||A realistic look forward to what may happen next season|
With links to ToffeeWeb Match
When I cast my mind back to last August it seems strange to think that we
were actually confident about the forthcoming season. We had a newly installed,
high profile manager, the purse strings had been opened after a period of
parsimony, and we had a number of high-profile summer signings. With the
understanding that more signings were likely, I guess that our optimism wasn't
totally without foundation.
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 Leicester and 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 upon.
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 Arsenal and Coventry. This took us up a momentous night in November.
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 further eroded.
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 difficulty.
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.
With links to ToffeeWeb Player Fact
Myrhe: 7 There
is no doubting that the guy is a very good, competent 'keeper who has had
a good season. His shot stopping is excellent, his consistency fairly good,
and there are refreshingly few gaffes from him. My only criticism is the
occasional reluctance to dominate his area, but the guy is still young for
a 'keeper and maybe that will come with time.
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 players.
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 season.
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 the pitch.
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 next season.
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.
Bakayoko: 5 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.
Campbell: 7 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.
Cadamarteri: 5 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.
A look forward to Season
It is clear that for next season, at least, we will have to be realistic
about our expectations. The priority is to ride out the current financial
storm with our Premiership status intact, and whilst doing so develop the
team as best we can. Only then can we start to really take the team forward
and attempt to close the colossal chasm that separates us from the top end
of the table. I know many fans have problems with a lowering of expectations,
they will quote "Nil Satis Nisi Optimum", but we have to deal with the realities
of our situation and cut our cloth accordingly.
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 and Jeffers.
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 together.
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.