The Burden of the Past

Jim Keoghan 21/09/2016  19 Comments  [Jump to last]

Expectation is everything in football. When a side like Hull starts the season expecting a fight against relegation, anything better is deemed a success by the fans. Similarly, when Arsenal's supporters begin a campaign demanding the title, finishing 4th is seen as something of a failure (even if most clubs would give anything to enjoy such an outcome).

The expectations of fans can fluctuate season to season, often shifting with what is seen as the club's innate potential. Doubtless Leicester City supporters now expect a higher level of success than has been the case in the past. But underpinning these often fleeting spikes are longer-term attitudes, forged by experience, and which quickly reassert their hold if temporary hopes prove to be flawed.

In the Leicester example, decades of yo-yoing around the divisions has conditioned supporters to the reality of relegation. A poor campaign this time around will surely see those long-held expectations of mere survival once again grip the hearts and minds of the faithful, as dreams of further silverware and adventures in Europe dissipate in front of their eyes.

What are the expectations of us Evertonians? With the Moshiri millions, a new manager, and the prospect of a new stadium, we should be confidently looking towards a bright future. But our expectations of what Everton should be capable of are often weighed down by the past, specifically the recent past.

I recently wrote a book on the 1990s (Highs, Lows and Bakayokos) and was interested by how much that particular decade shaped the expectations of Evertonians in the years that followed.

As a fanbase, we've long been a slightly pessimistic bunch. When you've had two title-winning squads broken apart by World Wars, had your best-ever side undermined by a European ban that was nothing to do with your club, and possessed neighbours who seemed to have the devil's luck, it's very hard to see the silver lining amongst the clouds.

But despite the ingrained pessimism, a generation ago we collectively aimed high. In the modern-era, between the 1960s and the mid-1990s, Evertonians believed that the club should be shooting for the very top. The title remained a realistic aim. We considered our club to be a part of the elite, capable of challenging for the top prizes. So, even in the erratic 1970s, the challenging early 1980s and the mediocre late 1980s and early 1990s, the expectation was that Everton should be up around the top.

Such expectation meant that a mid-table finish was disappointing, that a season without silverware was an opportunity lost, and the prospect of relegation almost unthinkable.

And then came the 1990s — a time of tremendous change, both at the club and within football as a whole.

For about 10 years, 1994-2004, the threat of relegation became a near-annual concern for Evertonians. Try as the club might, despite new owners, new players, new managers, the gravitational pull of the bottom three rarely released its grip. Like a modern-day Sunderland, the axe appeared to hover over Everton's head almost every season. It conditioned the fans to the threat of the drop, making mid-table mediocrity the Promised Land for many a Blue. The magic ‘40-point' mark entered the Evertonian lexicon; a sad indictment for a club whose fans not long before had thought titles, cups and European football their right.

But, more than just this persistent threat of relegation, the club also slid off the pace when compared to their peers. Give or take a few blips here and there, Everton had been part of the game's elite, certainly in financial terms, since the foundation of the Football League back in 1888. That changed, perhaps irrevocably, in the 1990s. Former peers, such as Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal raced ahead, grabbing the riches provided by the globalisation of the English top flight, the largesse provided by Sky, and the increased money offered in the Champions League.

During the 1990s and beyond, if you got yourself a big stadium, a sophisticated commercial department, and maintained a position at the top, there was money to be made on a level thought inconceivable just a few years earlier.

And it was the kind of money you needed if you had any notion of wanting enduring success. Wages rose exponentially and transfer costs soared as more and more cash was pumped into the game. For those who successfully boarded the gravy train, all of this could be accommodated. But for those that didn't, it meant that the gap between you and the elite became ever more yawning.

To breach it, you'd need a sugar daddy (or daddies). This was why you got the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea swelling the ranks of the elite, becoming part of the handful of clubs that were realistically capable of challenging for both the title and the limited number of European places available.

From the 1990s onwards, membership of the elite mattered like never before. Frustratingly for Everton, the club chose exactly this time to balls everything up, as organisational incompetence, poor appointments, and a succession of bad seasons led the club to slide off the pace.

So what did all this mean to us Evertonians? Mentally, I think it limited our horizons, imposing a glass ceiling on our thinking. We'd lost our elite position, so even when the club recovered under Moyes, finishing in the top four was rarely expected and the title not even considered.

Of course, part of this was rooted in financial reality. Until Leicester proved the exception, clubs outside the financial elite simply never crashed the party. But part of it was also an inability to believe that we could be more than the sum of our parts. The famously conservative Moyes benefited from this, finding justification for his inability to grasp the opportunities that were occasionally available.

Although financial realities and lack of self-belief altered our expectations, we were equally haunted by the daily reality of relegation that had hovered over us for that 10-year period. The stress of ‘the drop' damaged our collective psyche, making safety hugely important. After Wimbledon 1994, Coventry 1998, and the other seasons when our relegation seemed inevitable, mid-table mediocrity no longer seemed such a bad outcome for a season. Although Moyes banished the reality of relegation, for many Evertonians, he never fully banished the fear of it.

And if you want proof, then look at the past few campaigns. Under Martinez, both last season and the one that preceded it, relegation was never realistically on the cards. The team was too blessed with talent, other clubs much poorer, and the manager — despite his manifold limitations — no Mike Walker. But still, the little voice inside the head of many an Evertonian whispered the word ‘relegation' at our darkest moments. As a club, we haven't been in a full-blown relegation fight for over a decade. But still, that slight fear lingers courtesy of the 1990s, the decade that fundamentally altered what it means to be a modern Evertonian for a whole generation of Blues.

Hopefully, we are at the beginning of a new chapter for Everton. Yes, we've had another transfer window that looks slightly disappointing. Yes, it's still a concern that fresh investment looks conspicuous by its absence. And yes, despite much talk, the idea of a shiny new stadium is just that, an idea.

But our foundations are good, our potential great and it looks like — for the first time, in a very, very long time, the club is starting to be run competently. We survived our ‘Sunderland' years, came through the other side and stubbornly ground our way back into relevance. Now, all we need to do is take the next step and believe. I'm optimistic that Everton can do just that. We need to forget what we were and think about what we can become. The 1990s and the early 2000s might have cast a long shadow but now is the time to step out of gloom and into the sunshine.

Jim Keoghan is the author of Highs, Lows and Bakayokos; the story of Everton in the 1990s. It is out now, available at Pitch Publishing

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