The False Parallels with 1984

By Lyndon Lloyd 07/04/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]

Roberto Martinez may merely be the latest managerial appointment charged with the seemingly impossible task of emulating Howard Kendall's stunning success at Everton between 1984 and 1987, but is perhaps the first since Colin Harvey to be measured so closely with the club's greatest ever manager.

In that sense, the Catalan has become a victim of his first season in charge at Goodison Park — a fifth-place finish, the continued assembly of arguably the best group of players since that trophy-laden purple patch a generation ago, and genuine hope of finally rising back to the upper echelons of the domestic game all seemed possible by the end of 2013-14.

The reality, of course, has been — and continues to be — very different. A difficult and, at times, alarming second term has given way to an even more concerning third season where Martinez appears to have lost his way; in terms of results, strategy, method and team cohesion, everything that was so promising about his debut campaign (at least until the wheels came off at a crucial juncture with that home defeat to Crystal Palace) has largely evaporated. No surprise, then, that on the back of another galling run of results and an abhorrent home record, the calls from supporters for his dismissal grow louder with each defeat.

Yet, while Kendall's legacy weighs like some inescapable monkey on his back, his somewhat distant predecessor's journey to success has become one of straws to which those who can't bear to give up on him continue to cling. Kendall, too, faced criticism and a revolt from the stands in the discontented winter of 1983. Just six League wins before the New Year were evidence enough for the club's most vocal supporters to call for him to be sacked; then Chairman Philip Carter held his nerve, however, and the rest is glorious history.

It might be that Bill Kenwright, being the unashamed sentimentalist that he is, is channelling some of late Sir Philip in standing by his manager. His typically effusive but uncomfortable post-match rhetoric of "what a manager!" following the FA Cup Quarter Final conquest of Chelsea last month was clearly an act in solidarity and support for the beleaguered Martinez. It may also have painted him into a corner should the season continue its apparently inexorable slide rather than mimic Kendall's experience 32 years ago.

Because as romantic as it may be to hark back to 1984 — right down to a possible date at Wembley with Watford in the FA Cup Final — the parallels between then and now are few and far between.

Having assumed control of an Everton side that had finished 19th (out of 22) in 1980 and 15th in 1981, Kendall's task was altogether more Moyesian than Martinez's. His first two full season were notable for progress — an 8th-place and then a 7th-place finish achieved while he added the personnel foundations for the virtually-all-conquering team that would lift two league titles and two major trophies in the space of three years.

As the latter half of 1983-84 demonstrated, Howard's team just needed a catalyst and two of them arrived, one he engineered himself with a now-legendary team talk before the FA Cup tie at Stoke City and one delivered unwittingly by Kevin Brock at the Manor Ground 11 days later. By the time they had cruelly lost the Milk Cup Final to Liverpool, the players say they were convinced that Everton were finally ready to compete and surpass their hitherto rivals from across Stanley Park. In no way could you say that the Toffees of today are ready to follow Leicester City in breaking the hegemony enjoyed by so-called "top clubs" of recent years.

Martinez inherited a team consistently finishing in the top half of the table with an average placing of 7th over the decade before his arrival. An explosive first season where he steered the Toffees to their highest points tally since the first Kendall era, has been followed by marked under-achievement and under-performance since. Where Kendall's first term was characterised by progression, Martinez's has come to be defined by regression, echoing his fortunes at Wigan Athletic. Since the beginning of the 2014-15 season, his win percentage in the league is just 36%; for the calendar year so far it's a 27%.

He has, of course, done some impressive squad-building of his own, albeit without finding the vital balance and blend to round it out as a complete "team". Lacking Kendall's ruthlessness when it came to ridding his side of misfits and dead wood and knowing exactly what elements needed to be added, Martinez's Everton remains the unfinished article — bloated and unproductive in some areas, frustratingly deficient in others; last summer's unfinished business and January's highly questionable "marquee" signing compounding serious issues around fitness, tactics, formations and substitution policies.

The Catalan has spoken this season like his Everton team is tantalisingly close to everything finally falling into place like they did for Kendall after those two transformative cup ties in January 1984. Once perhaps merely elusive, that tipping point has proved to be illusory.

Potential pivots to the campaign arrived in the form of Ross Barkley's injury-time goal at Bournemouth and Ramiro Runes Mori's at Chelsea, precious advantages and momentum squandered by ill-discipline and a refusal to shut up shop. Superb work in the League Cup semi-final against Manchester City — a first-leg lead and then Barkley's fine strike to open up a two-goal aggregate lead was undone spectacularly in the second by poor strategy, suspect decision-making and glaringly Martinez-esque defending. Another potential parallel with '84, a Wembley clash with the reds and a tilt at a trophy, was spurned. In between and either side, hard-earned leads and crucial points have been tossed away in the Premier League as the manager oversees one of the worst home records in the club's history.

The question as to whether Everton could conceivably sack the man who has just delivered them the FA Cup for the first time since 1995 has been pondered this week with many saying the board simply couldn't. On the contrary. No manager should survive on cup exploits alone.

That Martinez does not find himself under the kind of pressure that Kendall, Walker and Smith before him did from Evertonians and the media alike is almost certainly down to Everton's continued interest in the FA Cup. Social media may be reverberating to escalating calls of #MartinezOut and website polls like the one here at ToffeeWeb have delivered pretty damning verdicts in recent days, but until the clamour reaches the terraces and the boardroom, the manager wouldn't appear to be in immediate danger of losing his job.

Lose the semi-final on 23rd April and that could change; win the trophy and things get altogether more complicated. The question as to whether Everton could conceivably sack the man who has just delivered them the FA Cup for the first time since 1995 has been pondered this week on discussion forums and podcasts, with many saying the board simply couldn't. On the contrary.

Because, while ending the club's agonising 21-year wait for silverware — and qualifying for Europe in the process — would be a significant achievement, it can't detract from the very serious — bordering on critical — issues under-pinning successive disasters in the Premier League. As Martinez has shown over the past two seasons, the league and cup can be completely different animals in terms of performance and results but the league is king. Just ask Wigan. That is where sustained success can be built and, save for winning the Europa League, where the only gateway to the Champions League lies. No manager should survive on cup exploits alone.

If the arrival of Farhad Moshiri and the financial muscle he can provide is to herald the kind of seismic shift in Everton's ability to compete once more with its peers then that needs to be mirrored in the club's attitude, self-image and deed. Put bluntly, are we going to start like acting like a big club who will no longer meander along accepting under-achievement?

Mocked for very Abramovich-esque turnover in managers between Harry Redknapp and the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham Hotspur sacked Andre Villas-Boas when Spurs were 7th in the Premier League and with 100% record in the Europa League group stage. They also fired Tim Sherwood when it became obvious that their choice of young manager with an outwardly inspirational air and refreshingly honest take was leading them nowhere.

Liverpool, too, moved decisively to remove Brendan Rodgers when the reds were 10th but labouring under a flawed system, seizing the opportunity to hire someone better when he became available. Manchester City gave Manuel Pellegrini notice of his P45 while they were still competing in four competitions, one of which he has already won. Even Leicester, hitherto a top-flight also-ran, dumped the manager who had pulled off a miraculous escape from relegation (albeit for off-the-field reasons as well) to upgrade to an experienced European coach.

Pleas for patience with regard to Martinez were appropriate last year. The winter slump, the awful results against the likes of Southampton, Hull and Stoke, and, most importantly, the alarming things they said about Martinez's management were harbingers of the gloom that has followed but they were tolerable at the time in the context of possible second-season syndrome. 14 months on, they're one of myriad compelling exhibits in the case against his continued tenure beyond this season.

As we drift into April with a paltry four home wins in 12 months, the quest to end Everton's trophy drought should not be allowed to detract from the Toffees' dreadful league form or obscure the gathering evidence that all is not well in the team in terms of morale or direction. Any FA Cup triumph at Wembley in May should only buy Roberto Martinez more time if it is accompanied by unequivocal evidence over the final eight league games that he can turn things around and steer this team to a sustained challenge for the top four next season. Otherwise, just as it was three years ago for Wigan, it should just be his parting gift before he moves on.

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