The Slumbering Giant: Part I - Another False Dawn

Lyndon Lloyd 18/04/2015   Comments  [Jump to last]

It may be reverberating loudest in the echo chamber of social media and finding greater voice in the prose and comments sections of a number of recently-penned articles on fan sites and blogs, but there is a perceptibly growing restlessness among Evertonians at the moment.

It has always been there to fluctuating degrees, of course. There was anguish as Everton slipped from the summit of the domestic game in the immediate post-Heysel years; growing despair as the club flirted with disaster in the mid- to late-1990s; angst at the false dawns of the Walter Smith years, the Kings Dock and Kirkby fiascos; and frustration at the dashed hopes of David Moyes's oh-so-nearly tenure.

Now, however, Everton's precipitous fall from the highs of that tantalising brush against the "glass ceiling" a year ago to criminal under-achievement on the domestic front this season has coincided with the 20th anniversary of the last time a captain of this famous old club lifted a trophy. The passage of two decades without meaningful silverware is a significant psychological milestone but it also represents the longest spell without a trophy (adjusting for the Second World War) in Everton's 137-year history. And the aimless drift towards what will be a welcome end to the 2014-15 season is giving Blues pause and cause for reflection on the state, the status and the future of the club.

We're not alone, of course. Aston Villa, a club of similarly impressive longevity, are once again fighting to avoid relegation from the top flight. Meanwhile, Newcastle United fans are preparing to stage an unprecedented boycott of their home match against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday to send a message to owner Mike Ashley that they have run out of patience with his tenure following the departure of Alan Pardew for Crystal Palace.

So much of George Caulkin's beautifully-written guest article for the website echoes our own Everton experience. Granted, we haven't descended to quite the levels of farce that have played out at St James' Park at times – see episodes like the George Kinnear and Dennis Wise show as prime examples – but a lot of Caulkin's phrases and references like "stoicism from supporters" through "not-quite thick, thin and thinner", mid-table mediocrity and a transition from "a trophy to atrophy" will strike a loud chord with the feelings and fears of many Blues fans.

Newcastle's situation will garner its share of attention, particularly if enough fans vote with their feet this weekend to send an unmistakable message to their board via the visual of a mostly-empty stadium. With John Carver's uninspiring interim management yielding just two wins in 12 matches, the Magpies have gone into freefall since Pardew left, lending a sense of immediacy to their plight. And yet they're only three points worse off than Everton as things stand and their problems appear, on the face of it at least, to be a good deal more easily solved than ours.

Newcastle reside in a one-club city with a billionnaire owner and a partially redeveloped stadium that has plenty of scope for further expansion when the need arises. If Ashley can tempt the right managerial appointment in the summer and open his checkbook to the levels to which he has promised, the picture will likely change very quickly in the northeast. No doubt he is banking on such a strategy.

Two steps back

It's not too dissimilar to where Everton were last year. There was renewed talk of relocation, this time to Walton Hall Park, Roberto Martinez's near-magical first season at the helm came close to earning a crack at the Champions League for the first time in a decade and the record-shattering purchase of Romelu Lukaku for £28m seemed to herald a new, more ambitious phase in the Toffees' recent history. It was a briefly-held notion, though. Uneasiness voiced at the time that the outlay on Lukaku seemed to exhaust the manager's funds, leaving the squad short on the kind of depth needed to challenge on multiple fronts, was shown to be prescient as our domestic season derailed spectacularly with early exits from both the FA and League Cups and a dramatic fall down the table during a winter of discontent.

With the dust settled following the alarming nature of Everton's exit from the Europa League, it's not surprising that a growing number of Blues are weighed with a sense of deja vu and feeling increasingly disillusioned with the club's prospects 20 years on from that last cup success in May 1995 and 28 years since Kevin Ratcliffe hoisted the Toffees' last League Championship trophy. Where is our club going, what are Everton's prospects for returning once more to the pinnacle of the English game, and how long will it take to get there?

Most of the answers lie in the deeper, thornier issue of the boardroom stasis at Goodison Park and, given that little has changed at that level in the last decade, it's worthwhile exploring first the more immediate issues surrounding the first team squad and Martinez's management, both of which have been a source of grave concern for a lot of supporters this season.

The Catalan certainly earned significant capital in terms of supporter belief in his first season in charge as he drove Everton to a record points tally for the Premier League era. From the backroom and the press room to the boardroom and the terraces, Martinez was lauded as a breath of fresh air after 11 years of David Moyes's focused but flat-lining evolution at Goodison Park and it felt in those first 12 months as though we had finally found the man to take us to the level that had eluded his predecessor.

We all recall the highs of the win at Old Trafford, the sight of an Everton team passing an Arsene Wenger side off their own park, the impressive, swashbuckling home wins in the reverse fixtures against Manchester United and Arsenal, the mercurial talents of Gerard Deulofeu on the flank, and the delights of a marauding Lukaku in full flow up front. Rays of light from a false dawn that blinded many of us to the problems that foreshadowed this season's slump in some poor performances against the likes of Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Southampton in the second half of 2013-14.

If Martinez showed anything, though, it was the power of confidence and how it can propel a team to a succession of good results and keep them in European contention, something he very visibly lost this season as his team has struggled to reach double digits for victories in the Premier League. That he was still citing in March the psychological blow of dropping four vital points in the first two matches of the season back in August smacked as much of excuse-making as blaming the team's European commitments – the Blues performed far worse during the hiatus from Continental competition than when they were competing on both fronts.

More than a lack of belief among his players, though, the manager betrayed a deeply worrying lack of answers, bordering on paralysis, during the worst of the mid-winter collapse, no more so perhaps than at the St Mary's in December where he failed to use a single substitute in an awful 3-0 defeat that triggered a four-match losing streak.

With rumours of squad unrest, tempered mostly by the departure of Samuel Eto'o in January, his apparent loss for answers to his team's malaise over the Festive period, and unease among his players at his mandated but directionless possession game, Martinez appeared to be fulfilling the worst fear of his biggest doubters at the time of his hire – namely that he would eventually turn Everton into another version of the Wigan Athletic side that he took down in 2013. A team stifled by a pedestrian passing game, a rigid, unbalanced formation, and an ineffective substitution policy.

More questions than answers

The recent mini-revival has effectively erased fears the crisis of form could send the Blues into a death spiral of confidence that would suck them into the kind of relegation battle that Moyes banished from the Evertonian lexicon and psyche. But while it has bought the manager more time, it has left questions rather than true answers. Stopping the rot that set in over Christmas entailed a shift, if not in formation then one away from an emphasis on possession towards a more direct approach going forward and a more defensive posture than Martinez is renowned for. Even then, frailties at the back, exacerbated by a lack of genuine depth of quality at centre half and the mystifying – not to mention infuriatingly hypocritical (given his treatment of Joel Robles earlier this year) – decision to select Antolin Alcaraz for the second leg in Ukraine, were exposed ruthlessly by Dynamo Kyiv as they destroyed our European dream.

Given that Everton haven't truly played the "Martinez Way" since the away defeat at Arsenal at the beginning of last month, there's a certain level of uncertainty hovering over the team at the moment. Have we entered some sort of limbo that can only be resolved by a squad clearout of the kind the manager insists isn't necessary or a change in management altogether? Is Martinez indeed adapting and evolving his philosophy to include a more mixed way of playing, or has it simply been a case of the players shedding the dogmatic at-all-costs adherence to passing and possession and simply going back to basics to grind out results?

Before supporters can truly believe that Martinez (who is still a young manager at just 41) is becoming more appreciative of the changes required to move this team forward, they will need to see more willingness on the Catalan's part to mix up the set-up of his team and to respond to events on the pitch with more proactive substitutions. His failure to address a glaring need for changes up front that led to an ultimately disappointing 1-1 draw at Swansea was a case in point and, together with what appeared to be a collective lack of genuine desire to drive home the win, it summed up some of the main causes of fan frustration with performances on the field of late.

Despite the recent upturn in form, the necessary conviction, the passion and the drive – qualities that, in truth, Martinez's side have lacked throughout the campaign and which would hint at a revival next season – still aren't there and that is chiefly reflective of the man in the "hot seat". Within the confines of his role and the standards he set last season, the manager simply hasn’t been good enough this term. He has spent that faith capital he racked up in his first season and, in many ways, now has to prove himself all over again, which makes the coming summer and the campaign beyond it absolutely crucial for both his immediate future and that of the club.

Planning for the window

How much real capital he will have at his disposal is where we get into the grey area of trying to parse the manager's rherotic and weighing it up against the mushrooming television rights revenue, past expenditure and the perceived strategy of the Board vis-a-vis debt reduction and the potential stadium development. Martinez's budget was framed rather nebulously as "ample" by the club via the Liverpool Echo this past week but it's impossible to know how much he will be given. His recent comments, where he indicated it would be a case of adding just two or three key players to the squad, suggest that an overhaul isn't in the offiing and that will do little to quell fears that the club's hopes of cracking that glass ceiling will continue to go unfulfilled for some time to come.

Whether he has more faith in the players currently at his disposal than a good proportion of the fanbase believe he should or whether he is being constrained by tight purse-strings we can't know for sure, but the size of the kitty will dictate just how much work he can do in terms of squad-building in the off-season. Martinez argued earlier this month that it would have been "stupid" not to opt for continuity from last season and keep the likes of Gareth Barry and Sylvain Distin on permanent deals. Now, having hopefully seen the deficiencies of his squad and how much it is weighed down by players either at the tail end of their careers or playing on borrowed time, will he have the desire, courage and financial ability to make the wholesale changes that are needed? Will the coming transfer window see more of the policy of "making do" that seems to have set in at Goodison or will it reflect ambition and an expression of Martinez's preferred, more expansive style?

A year ago Martinez spoke of the need to draft in six to seven new faces to cope with the demands of Europe; this time, despite the club's laudable moves to tie key players down to long-term contracts, he will arguably need the same – and to actually follow through this time – just to get Everton back to a level where they are capable of mounting a challenge for the top five again. Distin and Alcaraz will almost certainly be released despite their manager's diplomatic hedging at a press conference this past week, but a reliance on the likes of Barry (34), Leon Osman (34 next month), Arouna Kone (32 in December) Steven Pienaar (33 and injury-prone), and Tim Howard (36 and error-prone) to push the Toffees back into contention for European qualification would be folly. More sustainable would be to emulate the emphasis placed on younger, hungrier players by clubs like Wolfsburg who have just one outfield player over the age of 30 and have built a foundation of players in their early to mid-20s that has enabled them to consolidate second place in the Bundesliga and imminent Champions League qualification.

Such a strategy would at least allow for a sustained challenge rather than the need to rely on ageing legs to plug the gaps in the squad but, again, there doesn't appear to be any such appetite for a significant shake-up of the squad at Goodison right now. Unfortunately, while we can't compete financially with those already enjoying a monopoly on the top spots, that kind of radical thinking is what is going to be needed to at least get our noses pressed back up against that glass ceiling. Beyond that, it's almost certainly going to need a big change on a fiscal level to give us the punch to break through it. Regardless of how effortless it's been made to look by a Manchester United side that have looked so ordinary for most of the season, finishing in the top four is supremely difficult (it helps to be able to drop more than £200m on new players in the space of 12 months to drag yourself back onto the Champions League gravy train). Tottenham have battled for years to unseat Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City from the top four and without Luis Suarez's world-class talent, Liverpool are struggling to fight their way back in now.

It's questionable whether the burning ambition to force real change at Everton exists, though, let alone the means to achieve it. While the club has been making slow incremental progress towards cracking the top four over the last decade, there was always a feeling that we were on the cusp of making it. This season's big setback, however, is forcing a realignment of hopes and expectations. Martinez and his players are on the front line in that sense but more and more eyes are being trained on the boardroom which is where the second and much more weighty aspect of the club's future lies.

» Part II Twenty-Year Itch | Part III Treading Water | Part IV Soul Searching

(Cover photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

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