© Tony McArdle - Everton FC

Football

Everton are still leaving their fans feeling blue

They’ve got brilliant supporters, a great history and loads of potential, so why can’t Everton FC be the club they want to be?

“It could get toxic here today,” opined a journalist who covered the Everton beat ahead of their last home league game against West Ham. Everton were 18th in the league with only two wins from their opening eight games and a run of four straight defeats. The Toffees’ away form was (and is) abysmal – the joint worst in the league – but one didn’t sense despondency as the 39,000-and-something sell-out crowd made its way to Goodison Park for an early kick-off. The sun occasionally showed its face as autumn leaves fell, the streets outside the famous old ground were packed with noise and colour and the smell of fish and chips or hot dogs. Walking to a football game is one of life’s great pleasures.

Goodison is one of the few grounds that has barely changed in the Premier League era, a cramped Wrigley Field for the romantics who love its wooden seats and latticed blue steelwork on white boarding. The old ground has more character than many a new Premier League bowl, but its idiosyncrasies can be a hindrance. There are too many stanchions obstructing the view, too few executive facilities to bring in the revenues they do for rivals. And it’s too small.

Traditions are endearing, though, from the Sixties Z Cars theme tune that greets the players to the song played at the end: “It’s a grand old team to play for... We don’t care what the red side think, what the hell do we care?” Goodison has the air of a throwback; others have moved on. How many major stadiums have a pub and people living within 30 metres of the main stand? Nearby Anfield, maybe, but while Liverpool bought up land around their home in order to expand it, Everton will leave all this for a 55,000-seater stadium by Liverpool’s World Heritage listed waterfront.

The stadium designs look superb in the rendered images and such is the demand for tickets Everton will likely fill their new home as they did the old. A full 32 years since they last won the league, Goodison Park has been 95 per cent full on average for 15 years, but they’ve yet to get planning permission or confirm funding. Goodison remains home for now, loved by home and away fans. Images of heroes of yesteryear abound, including Dixie Dean, Bob Latchford, Joe Royle and Graeme Sharp. Three more of them stand in a Holy Trinity statue outside the church of St Luke, which cuts between the stands. Alan Ball, Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey stand proud above fresh flowers reading “Dad” near where a young man sells the Blue Watch fanzine and fans go into a church hall full of football memorabilia that won’t appeal to tourists.

But Everton have been poor this season. Injuries to central midfielders, a lack of goalscorers – striker Moise Kean, 19, has been bought for the future – and poor form from individuals, such as £45 million Icelandic playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson and Brazilian forward Richarlison who excelled last season, are among the reasons. Everton have spent heavily but too many players have disappointed. André Gomes, a hugely gifted midfielder, is good when Everton shine. Lucas Digne, another big-money signing from Barcelona, has impressed enough to be captain.

© James Williamson - AMA

Manager Marco Silva, who is dull with the media, is also seen as uninspiring by fans. “We have a history of hating our managers,” Graham Ennis of the longstanding When Skies Are Grey fanzine says. “Liverpool worship their managers like they’re in a cult. We tend to just to view ours as c***s. Howard Kendall (who won two leagues with superb sides, plus the Cup Winners’ Cup) escaped it for two years, but it’s always been like this.”

Silva was told that he should be challenging for a European spot this season, not flirting with relegation. Everton did beat West Ham 2-0, the first goal a tricky effort from the balletic Brazilian Bernard, the second a wonderful strike from Sigurdsson who’d entered the field to a muted reaction.

© NurPhoto

An early goal averted much of the pressure which builds on a side from nervous fans, but it was a game played in an atmosphere so tense that you could hear the players shouting at times, punctured by lone cries of “Come on you Blues!” or a more rousing “Everton! Ev-er-ton!” after the goals. Evertonians know their team is vulnerable, and it shows, but while they defeated West Ham, the league table isn’t encouraging.

“People expected us to finish between 6th and 10th,” Ennis points out. “Sixth being a good season, tenth being a bad one. I still think this can be a good season. Everyone is inconsistent.”

Well, apart from Liverpool, the European champions.

© Alex Livesey

Ennis does not want to talk about them. “Other than to say that while they’re clearly good, they’re not as good as they think they are. I wish teams would get at them more, like we did last season.” Everton drawing against Liverpool last term helped stop Liverpool winning a first title since 1990. Small mercies.

Everton have finished 7th, 8th and 8th in the past three years. Ennis wonders if the tide has turned against Silva and he won’t be able to get it back. “Roberto Martínez’s charisma and understanding of the club bought him more time, but Silva doesn’t have that.” No manager can be quite as unpopular as Sam Allardyce, however, who was at Goodison for 26 games in 2017-18, though he still led them to eighth.

Ennis has a point about their inconsistent rivals. The table is tight and Manchester United jumped from 15th to seventh with one win at Norwich last week. Everton can jump too, but not once have they come back from a losing position to win a game under the man who joined them in 2018 amid acrimony from Watford.

“Stats like that start off as a joke but become a millstone, a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Ennis warns. “We go 2-1 up at Brighton and everyone goes, ‘Here we go.’ They expect us to concede, which we do and lose 3-2.”

© Christopher Lee

Those away fans continue to be one of the biggest, loudest set of travellers in the land. They don’t do the self-aggrandising of some Liverpool fans; the grandiose flags which claim that supporting a football club is some kind of higher calling. But they don’t see any wins either. Everton have scored three away goals and have no away wins all season. This is way short of way they want to be.

Ennis’s answer is simple: “If Everton are to be where they want to be then we should stop buying players who’ve failed at big clubs.”

Everton need a trophy. At the advent of the Premier League only Liverpool had won more league titles than Everton’s nine. Manchester United and Arsenal have surged past them, but they’re still England’s fourth most decorated club in the league. They’re also going through their longest-ever trophy drought with no silverware since the 1995 FA Cup final victory over Manchester United. The only trophy they’ve never won is the League Cup, though a key victory over Watford this week moved them into the last eight. Silva would be best advised not to dismiss this competition as previous Everton managers have.

But first, the league and Saturday’s game at home to another failing grand old team, Spurs. Win and Everton go above them. Lose and the pressure will rack up still further.

Everton vs Tottenham Hotspur is on Sky Sports on Sunday (KO 4.30pm).

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