The Importance of Being Everton
Last weekend’s heavy home defeat at the hands of Arsenal sealed the fate of Ronald Koeman and ended his time in charge of Everton. His departure from Goodison Park is one of the least surprising of the season so far. With almost a quarter of the season played, the Toffees sit in third from bottom place in the Premier League table, with no signs of improvement over the last couple of weeks or so, and with the players available at his disposal the problem feels like one that can be rectified before a difficult start to the season turns into a fully fledged, Premier League branded crisis.
For some supporters of other clubs, to see Everton in this condition can feel almost as troubling as seeing one’s own club in this sort of predicament. For all their lack of success on the pitch in recent years – it’s been twenty-two years since Everton last won a major trophy, with one appaearance in the Champions League to show for this century so far – this is a club that is so deeply embedded into the psyche of top division football in England that it’s almost difficult to imagine how the top flight would feel without their presence.
One of the founder members of the Football League in 1888, Everton have only had two spells outside the top flight of English football in 129 years. The first of these came in 1930, two years after they’d won the First Division title, and came despite having scored eighty league goals. If that relegation felt like an existential crisis for the club’s supporters, they needn’t have worried too much. The team scored an astonishing 237 goals over the following two seasons, winning the Second Division title at the first attempt and following that up by winning the First Division title in 1932. At the end of the decade, they assumed the generally unwanted record of being the official champions of England for eight years after winning the First Division title in 1939.
The immediate post-war years, however, were not kind to the club. With the pre-war squad having broken up and money thin on the ground, Everton struggled until finishing at the bottom of the table and getting relegated in 1951. This time, the club remained in the Second Division for being promoted back as runners-up behind Leicester City on goal average in 1954. They have remained in the top flight ever since, an unbroken record only bettered by Arsenal, who have played at this level without interruption since 1919. In those sixty-three years, the club have won the title on four occasions – in 1963, 1970, 1985 and 1987 – and have had the occasional close shave with relegation, most notably in the 1990s, when in 1994 they had to come from two goals behind to beat Wimbledon to stay up and then, four years later, needed a point on the last day of the season against Coventry City to relegate Bolton Wanderers instead.
Those close shaves with relegation, however, have not been the entirety of Everton’s six and a half decades of unbroken top flight football. Under the managership of Harry Catterick, they won the league title in 1963 and the FA Cup three years later, and then, in 1970, lifted the league title again with a team playing a rudimentary form of total football which was directed by the “holy trinity” of Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey and Alan Ball. Kendall, of course, would return the club to such glory days as manager more than a decade later, winning the FA Cup in 1984, the league title and the European Cup Winners Cup the following year, and then the league title again in 1987.
Both struggles and success have been patchy for Everton throughout the club’s history, but there remains a sense of grandiosity and tradition about it which appeals. From the “holy trinity” to the nicknames of “The School of Science” and “The People’s Club” and the latin motto “nil satis nisi optimum” (“nothing but the best is good enough”) hint at a club aware of its sense of scale and tradition, but also one that is aware of the importance of history and romanticism. It has retained traditions such as songs like “Johnny Todd” and “It’s A Grand Old Team To Play For” and the Toffee Lady, who throws sweets into the crowd before home matches. And in spite of occasional efforts on the part of the club to leave for pastures new, Everton remain at Goodison Park, once a World Cup semi-final venue and one of the few remaining English grounds that retains something of the feel of the pre-Premier League era.
The club’s history, however, isn’t spotless. Despite the fact that Mike Trebilcock became only the second black or mixed-race player to play in an FA Cup Final when he turned out for them against Sheffield Wednesday in 1966 and Cliff Charles played a handful of matches for the club during the 1970s, when the signing of ethnic minority players became commonplace in the early 1980s Everton remained curiously inert. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s rumours were persistent that the club had an unwritten policy of not signing black players, and widespread abuse of Liverpool’s John Barnes during a live, televised FA Cup match in 1988 at Goodison Park which culminated in an infamous photograph of Barnes side-stepping a banana thrown from the crowd also helped to cement the reputation of Everton as a “racist club”, a reputation that only started to diminish after the signing of Nigerian international Daniel Amokachi in 1994 and which still seemed to be a problem as recently as the end of the last century and beyond, as documented in this startlingly honest article from an Everton fan site.
On the positive side, however, the Everton fanzine When Skies Are Grey led one of the game’s highest profile fan-led anti-racist campaigns with its No Al Razzismo campaign of the early 1990s, while the club itself was inducted by Show Racism the Red Card into its Hall of Fame in 2004 in recognition of its efforts to eradicate the problem from the club. And it is worth recognising that racism was a problem that blighted the whole of football in England until at least into the 1990s and which continues to an extent to this day. Perhaps a small minority of supporters can never be fully silenced, only drowned out, but it’s also worth noting that the club made headlines earlier this year after banning The Sun from Goodison Park following racist comments made by the odious Kelvin MacKenzie concerning their midfielder Ross Barkley.
But why couldn’t Ronald Koeman make things work at Everton this season? As the first man ever to serve as both player and head coach at all teams of the so-called traditional ” big three” of Dutch football – Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV – and having taken Southampton to sixth place in the table with highest ever Premier League points total of sixty-three, there’s no question that he had the experience to be able to make things work at Goodison Park. Everton is not particularly a club at which the level of expectation is stratospheric – indeed, considering the weight of history, Everton supporters might be considered to have accepted more than their fair share of mediocrity in recent years – and last year’s Europa League place was in the region of where supporters might have hoped the club to have been.
The club’s activity in the summer transfer window, however, felt almost completely garbled. The sale of Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United was unwelcome but probably inevitable. A still substantial £140m was spent during the summer without Lukaku effectively being replaced and with Wayne Rooney’s return after a decade and a half away feeling more sentimental than pragmatic. It’s true to say that Everton’s start to the season was a difficult one – Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Arsenal were all amongst their opening nine league fixtures of the season, with only Burnley other than clubs from those five beating them in the league – but the supine nature of recent defeats against Manchester United and Arsenal coupled with team selections and tactical set-ups which seemed to hint at a lack of direction and an inability to stamp an idenity on a team shorn of confidence by their torrid start to the season.
But there is one person for whom the phrase “it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good” is entirely apposite at the moment, it’s David Unsworth. The academy and under-23 team manager is expected to get until the November international break to prove his worth as caretaker manager and is now a short odds favourite to land the job on a full-time basis. And he might be considered to be ascending to this position at just the right time. Everton’s coming Premier League fixtures are against Leicester City, Watford and Crystal Palace, all arguably winnable matches, and the decision to replace Koeman relatively early in the season means that this sticky start to the season hasn’t quite descended into a full-blown crisis just yet.
Everton have been here before, of course, in 1994 and 1998, and also in 1980 and 2004, when they only finished one place above the relegation spots in the Premier League or First Division of the Football League. There are, however, few other clubs that could realistically be described as a permanent fixture of the top flight of the game in England whilst having delivered so little silverware. Despite what we’re constantly told, though, that record of having played more seasons of top flight football than any other English club matters at Everton, and it’s something that will be fiercely defended by the blue half of Merseyside. Whether David Unsworth ends up getting the nod for the job on a full-time business or whether the other main contender, Sean Dyche, can be prised away from the progress that he’s made at Burnley over the last few years, though, history hangs heavy over Goodison Park. The question that now faces those running Everton is that of whether this history makes the club a grand old team to play for, or whether it hangs around the neck of one of English football’s true institutions.
Photo credit: Flickr user Jon Candy via Wiki Commons.