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Everton Season Review, 1996-97
|Roller Coaster Ride||Player Ratings||What Went Wrong?||Where Now?|
The Roller Coaster ride that is following Everton was starkly shown in season 1996/97, from the heights of Newcastle on the opening day, Southampton in November, to the embarrassment of York, Bradford and yet another unseemly scramble to avoid relegation. Along the way we managed to lose our manager and a good part of our squad, and ended the season with the national media poised to serve the last rites on us.
At the start of the season, most supporters anticipated a Top Six placing, at the time this didn't seem unrealistic. Our early confidence was helped along by an extremely encouraging start to the season, a rousing 2-0 defeat of Newcastle, Shearer et al, followed by a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford. The media started touting us as Championship outsiders, and everything looked rosy. This feel-good factor started to dissipate with our now traditional black September; admittedly it wasn't quite as bleak as previous seasons but it was still bad enough and did contain yet another cup embarrassment at lowly York.
It took until late October to see a turnaround in form and this coincided with the arrival of Nick Barmby and the inclusion of Tony Grant. With Barmby and Grant linking well and Gary Speed finding his feet after his summer arrival we started to see a level of football seen all too infrequently at Goodison. The height of this renaissance was the 7-1 demolition of Southampton, a startlingly good performance in which everyone clicked. Once again we were being touted as Champions hip outsiders and personally I really thought that Barmby and Grant were going to be the catalysts that would take us on to a higher plane.
Despite an ominous setback against Sunderland, this momentum was carried through to mid-December. A victory at Derby took us to 6th in the table above Man Utd and, with a string of home games over the Christmas period, we looked set fair to make a serious push for the top reaches of the table. Alas it wasn't to be, a few injuries to key players Hinchcliffe, Grant, and a run of injuries and suspensions to our central defenders, showed the lack of depth to our squad and brought about a club record 6 straight league defeats. We stopped the rot with a 2-0 home victory against Nottingham Forest, but this was an isolated blip.
We soon had another FA Cup embarrassment to contend with, comprehensively out-played by First Division strugglers Bradford City. Suddenly the pressure was mounting on Joe Royle. Despite strenuous efforts in the transfer market all we had to show for our endeavours was Claus Thomsen and Terry Phelan, and a growing list of players "out for the season" Tony Grant, Andy Hinchcliffe, Jon O'Connor. Combined with the sales of Kanchelskis, Limpar and Ebbrell, things were starting to look a little alarming.
We were in free fall down the table, our squad was cut to the bone, and we were having difficulty bringing in replacement players. For Joe Royle, the final straw came on transfer deadline day, having suggested that he anticipated three signings before deadline day the day arrived and he had three deals in the pipeline Flo and Eftevaag from Brann and the rturn of Barry Horne. None of the three arrived; instead deadline day saw the departure of Joe Royle himself.
The exact reasons for his departure are unclear, both Royle and Johnson insist that it was by mutual consent. Whatever, it left us in increasing difficulties. We'd missed out on the fresh blood we desperately needed and lost our manager into the bargain. Dave Watson steeped into the breach as caretaker manager. A resoundingly popular choice, Dave had the total respect of everyone players and fans alike. It was undoubtedly the correct decision, this was no time to bring in an outsider, it was time to regroup and rally round someone who had proven himself as a born leader.
The remainder of the season was about scraping together the necessary points to avoid relegation. It wasn't pretty but, with the paucity of our squad, it was all we were capable of. We had to rely increasingly on youth: Richard Dunne had an impressive run of matches at the heart of the defence; Michael Branch had his first consistent run of games for us and weighed in with a couple of crucial goals; and Michael Ball had a number of appearances where he proved to be another outstanding prospect.
We had to endure a number of exceedingly nervous games, a 1-1 home draw with Leicester City followed by an incredibly important home victory against Tottenham. We also had an extremely satisfying 1-1 derby draw, a vital point for us and a spoke in their title aspirations. However, despite this, we were unable to move away from the relegation skirmish. Most of the teams around and below us kept on picking up vital points, a 3-0 reverse at Sunderland hardy helped our cause. We were finally put out of our misery four days before the end of the season when Middlesbrough failed to pick up the win that would have kept them in with a chance of overhauling us. Back in the day's of us being touted as Championship outsiders it seemed impossible that we would end up reaching the final week of the season still faced with the threat of relegation. But happen it did.
Southall 6 Up until Bradford, he was doing fine, then Joe Royle dropped him for Paul Gerrard and he was never the same again. When he was eventually recalled by Dave Watson he looked nothing like as assured as he had done before he was dropped. His dropping was one of the few decisions Royle made that I could see no sense or logic in, it just created uncertainty in a crucial area of the team at a critical stage in the season, and had a lasting effect on Southall's confidence. Still on the whole this was another good season for Nev as he continues to defy the years.
Gerrard 4 Less than convincing. It's too early yet to judge him but he didn't look too secure, he also had a bit of a nightmare against Man Utd where he cost us two goals. Jury still out.
Barrett 7 Put in a season of admirable consistency. Yes he has his faults distribution, passing etc. But I consider the man to be a good defender who is very difficult to get past. Was one of the few to come out of our run of 6 straight league defeats with any credit as evidenced by a string of man of the match awards.
Hottiger 4 Clearly marking time awaiting his return to Switzerland waste of space.
Hinchcliffe 6 Prior to his injury, I didn't think that he'd been playing at his best, but he'd clearly been doing better than I had realised. Even whilst not at his very best he still gave us a lot of shape and security down the left, and also a high number of goal assists. Badly missed.
Phelan 6 The revelation of the season. Arrived amidst much muttering but has quickly won the fans over with his enthusiasm, work rate, commitment and no little skill. Has clearly decided to take his chance with open arms and over a full season would have been worth an easy 7.
Ball 5 Hasn't looked out of place in his few outings, and that includes the Merseyside derby. Looks to have pace and excellent temperament, an exciting prospect.
Watson 6 There is a suspicion that his age is catching up with him. At times he has been excellent, at others he has looked less than secure. Still doing the job though.
Unsworth 5 Has been horribly inconsistent. At times he looks like he might be approaching his best, but then will have a nightmare. His low point was the first half against Arsenal were he was simply abysmal and quite rightly substituted. He then came back into the side and showed his character with some reasonable performances. Many accuse him of being overweight and of losing his pace, I don't agree with this, what he has lost is his confidence and the yard that is in your head, the extra yard that you get from reading the game.
Short 5 Can look quite accomplished at times, at others rather wooden and statuesque. I have my doubts as to whether he can really cut it at this level.
Dunne 6 Has given a series of mature, competent displays. Surprisingly quick for someone who looks frankly ungainly. He also has good feet and has given a few hints that he may be something of a ball player. His main asset though is his calmness , it looks like nothing could faze him. Another genuine prospect.
Parkinson 7 Another excellent season from Joe. Continues to be very, very important to us. As a defensive midfield player he has few peers in the Premiership, what he needs to add to his game, though, is an attacking threat. Seems to lack the confidence to carry the ball forward like Viera or Keane would do, defensively he is their equal in attack he isn't.
Grant 6 More cameos from Tony only this time they lasted for entire matches, notably the run of form he had around the Southampton game. Has already shown himself to be an excellent passer of the ball, with superb control and vision. Reportedly he is also a good dribbler but we haven't seen too much of this. He is crying out for a decent run in the team but keeps on getting thwarted by inopportune injuries. He was outstanding in the Southampton game and put together a run of man of the match performances. His season effectively ended in the first 15 minutes of the Sunderland match when he was quite cynically kicked out of the game by Kevin Ball and Paul Bracewell. He hobbled through that game but his ankle had been done and his effectiveness reduced, eventually he had to give way to his injury. Grant has all the constituent parts to make a great player, he just needs the chance in the team to see if he can really make it, lets hope he gets that chance next year.
Thomsen 4 Very unimpressed by our underachieving Dane. Not a particularly good tackler and has generally been anonymous. In mitigation we perhaps should remember that he had only just recovered from long term injury when we signed him and the combination of regaining match fitness and finding his way in a new team that was seriously struggling may have contributed to his poor performances. Let's hope there's more to Mr. Thomsen than we have seen so far.
Speed 8 After a relatively slow start in which he was never actually bad just never especially good, he found his feet in late October. Since then he has been consistently good and by far our best player. He has contributed the goals that we had hoped for and has shown commendable work rate, tackling ability, good passing and perhaps most pleasing of all a pride and a passion which I didn't realise he had. He is also becoming something of a leader on the pitch, and is now being mentioned of as a future Everton captain. My player of the season (along with most other people's it would appear).
Stuart 5 I feel for Diamond. last season I made him my player of the year, this season he has looked badly out of sorts. This is not all down to him. Last season he played almost exclusively as a striker, this year he has been shunted all over the park as he has filled in at striker, central midfield, right wing and right wing back, is it any wonder that his form has suffered as a consequence? Despite his lack of form he has never given less than 100%, he also managed to raise his game when we really needed it.
Barmby 5 I find it difficult to reconcile the Barmby we have seen of late with the Barmby that arrived back in October. I, like everyone else, was mightily impressed with Barmby when he arrived, he really did look the part. In tandem with Grant and Speed he was instrumental in our glittering form of that time. Since then as the team has struggled then so has he. Let's hope he does better next year as there is no doubting his ability, just the matter of integrating him and Dunc into the same team .
Ferguson 6 Dunc has come in for some stick this season, largely unfairly I feel. He has on occasion touched the heights, Newcastle, Liverpool, and whilst not hitting these heights too often he has rarely failed to be a handful for the opposition . A player like Dunc relies on those around him to function well, he needs some service he needs some support. It's nigh on impossible to look like a world beating centre forward in a team that was playing as poorly as ours. Another factor to consider with Dunc is his fitness, true fitness and stamina, the sort that is required to play in the Premiership, is built up in a cumulative manner year on year. Dunc with his stop start career hasn't had that benefit, however the run of games that he has had this year, will, if nothing else, stand him in good stead for next season. Assuming he shakes of this slight groin strain and can take a full part in pre-season training next season should see a big improvement in things like his mobility etc.
Branch 6 Another exciting prospect. At his best he brings pace and verve to the team. His performance against Sheffield Wednesday was outstanding, using his pace brilliantly to close down and trouble two international defenders in Walker and Stefanovic. At times has shown his inexperience wandering offside, being shrugged off the ball too easily, and also hasn't had the goals return that perhaps he should. Still plenty of time for all that to come together.
Well I think that's everyone, honourable mentions also go to:
A dishonourable mention goes to Andrei Kanchelskis for his lack of professionalism.
Any rationalisation of what went wrong in season 1996/97 goes hand in hand with an appraisal of why Joe Royle left. I personally think that Joe Royle failed on two counts firstly an inability or reluctance to bring in players in the necessary quantity, and secondly an inability to get his teams to play as a passing side.
Personally I don't follow the line that Joe Royle didn't have a plan. I refuse to believe that a manager as experienced as Joe Royle didn't have a plan, he did have a plan, he did have a long term view of where he was trying to take the team, his failing was in his inability to realise this plan and this failing was brought about by his lack of activity in the transfer market.
Basically Joe didn't turn the squad round quickly enough, he had been talking about watersheds for some time yet there wasn't any real evidence of these watersheds bringing about decisive action. Rather belatedly he started to act last close season as he began to get rid of players and to run his squad down to make way for new signings. The clearing out of the dead wood was the right thing to do, older players nearing the end of their contracts like Barry Horne and Gary Ablett, expensive misfits like Samways and Amokachi. The sale of all of these were, I felt, sound decisions, the problem came in that we didn't replace them. I'm sure that had Joe realised the difficulties he would experience in bringing in new blood, then perhaps he wouldn't have sold quite so many players.
Up until December he got away with it, yes the long term aim was to bring in new blood, but the team was going OK, and there was no panic to bring the new players in. He would have continued to get away with it had it not been for the injury crisis that hit us from December onwards. Suddenly the lack of depth in our squad was shown, and our failings in the transfer market were once again highlighted. Despite strenuous efforts and the courting of the likes of Schwarzer, Bilic, Sinclair, Tore Andre Flo, all that arrived were Phelan and Thomsen. Nowhere near enough.
Another line that I don't follow is the idea that Joe Royle was nothing more than a proponent of the long ball game. I refuse to believe that an Evertonian as experienced as Joe Royle didn't know what was required from his side in terms of style of play. Personally I believed Joe Royle when he said that he wanted his side to be a passing side, that that was what their instructions were and that was what they trained for. His failing was his inability to impose that style on his players.
There have undoubtedly been times this season when we have passed the ball well and looked something like a good footballing side. These occasions have for the most part been against teams who have given us the space at the back to build our passing game Southampton, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and Man Utd away, these were all teams who didn't press up on us, who didn't deprive our defenders of time and space. Against teams who did press up on us, Sunderland and Leeds, we didn't look anything like as comfortable and our passing game broke down.
My personal feeling is that our defence isn't up to the job of playing in a passing team. Only Hinchcliffe comes even close to being comfortable on the ball, Watson, Unsworth, Short and Barrett are not good passers of the ball. This is part of the reason why we have used the long ball too much, not because that was our sole tactic, but because under pressure our defenders didn't have the ability to play themselves out of trouble and so had to resort to the safety ball, i.e. the long hoof in the general direction of Dunc. This of course ultimately comes down to Joe Royle, if the team isn't playing as he wants it to then it is up to him to make it play that way or else get in the players who will play that way. Ruud Gullit apparently has the philosophy that you play my way or you don't play in the team.
So what does all this mean in the context of season 1996/97? The style of play issue isn't the reason why we had such a wretchedly poor season, although I feel it was part and parcel of the reason why Joe Royle left. No, the reason why we had such a wretched season was to do with the slide that was started by our December injury crisis which showed up our lack of squad depth, and the fact that we didn't, or weren't able to, address that problem. The writing was on the wall from December onwards, everyone could see that we were in free fall, that gave us three months up to the transfer deadline in March to put things right. We, or should I say Joe Royle, failed to do that with almost disastrous consequences.
So were do we go from here. Being the eternal optimist that I am I don't think that we are in the fundamental crisis that some believe we are in. The Echo has started to call for a squad clear-out, but I don't see that as necessary. I th ink that a strong case can be made for keeping all of our current squad, obviously not all as first team regulars, but as squad players.
Of the current squad I think that Hinchcliffe, Speed, Parkinson, Barmby and Ferguson could all be component parts of a better future. Stuart, Barrett and Phelan would be useful squad players, and we can live in hope that Thomsen and Gerrard have more t o offer than they have shown so far, that Unsworth can regain his form and consistency and that Short can turn into a Premiership player. We also have Grant who could be on the very verge of a breakthrough, and Branch, Dunne, Ball, O'Connor who look to be players of genuine potential. What is needed is for these players to be augmented by some extra, quality players.
I'm a firm believer in building from the back. The signing of Bilic, if indeed he is the player that everyone says that he is, is precisely the right move. I've already mentioned my belief that a big part of the reason why we don't play attractive foot ball lies with our defence, the signing of Bilic should go some way towards improving that and also to making us better defensively.
After our defence I think that the other area crying out to be addressed is the right flank. There is nothing wrong with the left flank, Speed in tandem with Hinchcliffe or Phelan gives security and an attacking threat down that flank. Down the right flank we have reasonable defensive security through Barrett but no attacking threat since we sold Kanchelskis. In the latter stages of the season it was noticeable that virtually all of our attacks were going down the left flank and nothing down the right. We have to address that imbalance either through a proper wing-back or a right sided version of Gary Speed (eg. Trevor Sinclair, Darren Eadie etc.).
I feel that the return of our injured stars Hinchcliffe, Parkinson and Grant together with the purchase of Bilic and someone like Trevor Sinclair would make an incredible difference to the team. We would regain the shape and balance that we once ha d and we would have a number of players out on the field with good footballing brains Bilic (presumably), Speed, Grant, Barmby, Ferguson and some players with leadership qualities Speed, Bilic (again presumably).
These are what I believe to be the crucial areas for change, but obviously it doesn't stop there. There is still the goalkeeping question to resolve, what attacking formation we adopt how do you accommodate Dunc and Barmby with possibly A.N. Other, and of course the issue of squad depth. When Dave Watson mentioned the need for 8 players he wasn't referring to 8 straight-into-the-first-team type players, he mentioned players with 100 games lower division experience playing in the reserve team helping the youngsters along.
Yes improvements have to be made to our squad, but don't get fooled into thinking that there is no quality in our current squad, we do have some good players here Ferguson, Speed, Barmby, Parkinson etc., and we do have some youngsters of genuine potential Branch, O'Connor, Dunne, Grant. A few of the correct signings in the correct positions will make a profound difference to the team.