As 1983 drew to a close, Everton Football Club was in a state of crisis. On New Years Eve, with just over 13,500 people rattling around Goodison Park like marbles in a tin box, they played out a dismal goalless draw against Coventry City which was seen by the nation that night on Match Of The Day. Two and a half weeks later, a late goal from Adrian Heath at The Manor Ground saved the club a draw against Oxford United in the quarter-finals of the League Cup. According to legend, Heath’s goal also saved Howard Kendall’s job, and this subsequently changed the history of the club. They won the replay against Oxford comfortably and, while they went on to lose in the final of that competition after a replay against Liverpool, they did win the FA Cup with a victory against Watford at the end of the season. A year later, they were the champions of England and the winners of the European Cup Winners Cup.
At the time of Everton’s impending crisis at the start of 1984, it was almost fourteen years since their last major trophy. At the time of writing, it is a little over sixteen years since Paul Rideout’s goal won the FA Cup for the club against Manchester United, their last major trophy win. Everton Football Club continues to exist in the shadows of the Premier League, and how David Moyes can break a cycle of Premier League mediocrity that was punctuated only by a surprise fourth place finish in 2005 is a question without an easy answer, for the difficulties that Everton have the look of being distinctly intractable. After only Arsenal, Everton are the longest-serving members in the top division of English football, having been there without having been relegated since 1954. Such an achievement, coupled with the club’s subsequent history of occasional silverware since – an FA Cup here, a First Division championship there – brings with it a shared sense of identity and history amongst the Everton support, but the harsh realities of football finance are blocking a repeat of anything bar the most occasional of repeats of past glories for the time being, at least.
Perhaps the key to Everton’s travails over recent seasons has been a familiar gripe in modern Premier League football: the ground. Goodison Park is one of English football’s historical homes, but some would argue that the club cannot continue to develop with it in its current form. It holds 40,000 people, but herein lies a problem. Goodison Park is in one of the less wealthy areas of Liverpool, and this has a knock-on effect on the clubs financial performance in a broader sense – although it only holds 5,000 people less than Anfield, Everton’s gate and match-day income is less than half of that of Liverpool’s (£19m compared to £43m last season) and the club’s annual turnover compares even worse – £79m, in comparison with Liverpool’s annual turnover of £185m. As such, Everton has been running at a loss for several seasons, and there seems to be no obvious way in which this trend can be reversed.
The biggest problem for Everton with regards to a new ground is that the benefits might not even be as great as we might expect. Planning permission for their proposed new ground in Kirkby, on the outskirts of the city, was rejected towards the end of 2009, leaving the club somewhere between a rock and a hard place. To be built in conjunction with a major supermarket, this was a potentially affordable development for the club, but the cost of a new stadium without this sort of commercial partnership would run to hundreds of millions of pounds, and the funding required for any such development now would cast a very long shadow over the club’s financial future. Even if they were to find themselves in a position to be able to build a big, swanky new stadium, what sort of financial benefit the club would gain from it may be questionable, unless it could seriously raise its game in terms of increasing its commercial revenue. The club has stated that, “Any club which can boast a stadium which is modern, fit for purpose and capable of expansion does represent a more attractive proposition to potential investors”, but there are no guarantees that this would lead to anything solid and, even if they were to find themselves in a position to start planning to leave Goodison Park in a concrete sense, the likelihood of this happening within the next three or four years seems remote, to say the least.
What the Kirkby proposal did manage, if nothing else, was to split the club’s support. Oddly, they put the question of whether to move there in the first place to a public vote, which came out 59% to 41% in favour of the move. Such divisions remain to this day. Groups such as Evertonians For Change are agitating for, well, change, but the sort of change that they are agitating for seems to heavily favour the involvement of new, billionaire (or, preferably presumably, multi-billionaire) owners or investors. Quite where people like this are going to suddenly materialise from is not an easily answered question, though, and quite why they would wish to pour – for the sake of argument – half a billion pounds or so (to make a dent in the cost of a new stadium and rebuilding the first team squad) into a club which seems unlikely to yield much of a return at any point in the immediate future is a question which remains, broadly speaking, unanswerable.
None of this means that there aren’t issues with Bill Kenwright and the current directors of Everton Football Club, though. The club only manages to make only £2m per year more than Fulham in terms of annual turnover, and this sort of money is highly unlikely to provide the supporters of the club with much to cheer about in the cold, icy climate of modern Premier League football finances. Over the course of almost two decades, Everton have given the impression of having failed to get to grips with these new financial realities, and it is, therefore, perhaps time for the club’s supporters to come to terms with an unpalatable truth: that the good days are not going to return any time soon in anything other than fits and starts unless they are the beneficiaries of a Manchester City-sized slice of luck. Kenwright & Co are, to the extent that anybody is, responsible for the club’s financial uphill struggle, but Everton supporters waiting for a quick fix to this predicament may be waiting a while for it to turn up.
Set against these ongoing financial constraints, Everton’s performance on the pitch last season has to be seen for what it was. Their seventh place finish was a considerable achievement, and it included results which hint at a team that is capable of even better on its day. A league double against Manchester City, four points from six against both Chelsea and Spurs as well as a home win against Liverpool, however, have to be offset against some poor results against more lowly Premier League opposition, including just two wins from six matches against the three relegated clubs. This was, to an extent, mirrored in the domestic cup competitions, where the League Cup saw them knocked out on penalties by Brentford, whilst the FA Cup saw them follow up a penalty shoot-out win against Chelsea by losing at home to Reading. A lack of consistency, in other words, cost them dear in the cups, while demonstrations of their potential in the league saw them recover from a poor start to a perfectly respectable final league position.
This summer, though, there has been little for the club’s supporters to cheer. It has been all quiet on the transfer front at Goodison Park this summer, and the club’s rejection of a £10m bid from Arsenal for Phil Jagielka will provide cold comfort if a higher bid for the player is subsequently accepted. However, the overwhelming feeling to come from the club is that there doesn’t seem to be any immediate prospect of the financial position changing dramatically for the better. Considering the club’s tricky financial situation in recent years, though, they have at least managed to side-step the close calls with relegation that seemed to come every other season during the 1990s and they have a talented manager who is plenty capable of bringing out the best in his team. Perhaps the best that Everton supporters can or should be hoping for should be limited, for the forseeable future, to a domestic cup run or two and Premier League security. Ultimately, more than anything else, Everton’s greatest achievement has been that uninterrupted fifty-seven year run in England’s top division, and if the club can maintain that comfortably and occasionally give itself a chance of winning a cup, then that would be a fitting continuation to the lengthy tradition of Everton Football Club – a grand old team, indeed.
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