CLOUD OVER GOODISON
Mickey Blue Eyes
Appropriately for Evertonians an English winter is upon us. Footy times are bleak, the worst since the dog days of Peter Johnson and Walter Smith. All of it made wretched by the notion we should be doing much, much better. This season we went out of both cup competitions at the first hurdle, we are out of the running for the top half of the league table (let alone the top four) and we now play in the lengthening shadow of relegation. Our only relief - and likely to be short lived - is the Europa League. Only a fool would deny the footy seriousness of it all. Its unexpectedness makes for even more of a shock. I have to say from my perspective this has been the least enjoyable season of all.
I said this in a pre-Christmas half-season review essay:
Our next six matches are against Stoke City, Newcastle, Hull City, West Ham (FA Cup), Manchester City and West Brom. Failure to win at least three of them will probably leave us in dire straits in the league and possibly out of the FA Cup too. By any stretch of analysis that is a catastrophic scenario.
After which I decided to wait until the games were played before I posted a follow-up. I counted the West Ham cup tie as one match based on the replay result. Given previous results, it was, I thought, a fair and sufficient number of games to assess where we stood with Roberto Martinez and his methods and the attitude of the first team squad. Except for City all of the games were eminently winnable. We would then be well over half way through the season and everyone would have a fair chance to show how they responded to an apparent downhill toboggan race.
So, we lost four and drew two......which needs small explanation for those of us who sit through this débacle of a season. This utter football shambles. But really it is the manner of losing that sticks in the mind, not to say the craw. To say manager and players have been found wanting is akin to saying Titanic had navigation problems or Stephen Hawking has a mild cold. The first three of the listed matches were lost in unforgivably puny fashion......as have too many in 2014-2015. The inevitable result is relegation is now a very real prospect, and substantial progress in the Europa League as likely as heat stroke in the Antarctic. This has finally and reluctantly exhausted the patience of even an eternal optimist like me. For many, even after due allowances for injuries and chance, enough is enough. Manager and players have endangered the confidence and trust of a lot of Evertonians. Necessarily, we cling to the hope this is only temporary.
This situation is not to be confused with the problems faced by David Moyes in his early seasons. Whatever opinions are held about Moyesy, nobody could say he ever muttered platitudes about the task at hand; for all his faults - and they were as numerous in him as any other human - eventually he actually saved the club from disaster on and off the pitch. That is the difference between the real world and flakey wishful thinking: those who can, do......those who cannot, mouth. Moyes achieved stability when it looked as distant as another galaxy. After he came in Bill Kenwright said, "This was a club on its knees." By the time he left he bequeathed a team which played quality football in his final few seasons. This was despite financial constraints that would have broken a lesser man. Patience all round meant we were again a stable club. Since then Roberto has been given everything we could afford - much more than his predecessor ever had - but performances plummeted despite that and in spite of enormous support and optimism from the fans. There is therefore no comparison between their respective starting positions.
The worry now is a great opportunity has been squandered, perhaps not to be regained. At least until the next TV deal. Meantime, fans enthusiasm has virtually evaporated, frustration and irritation are rife. This season Goodison has been as bewildered as the manager as the football has all the excitement and aggression of a melted marshmallow. At times it felt as though we watched a croquet match.
After Moyesy left we all hoped for more joyous progression. For most of last season it looked as though that is what we would get when Roberto inspired our record points haul in the Premier League era. Only a stumble in the final weeks prevented it from being even better; but the close-out was an ominous sign of what was to come. Nevertheless, understandably, optimism was rampant pre-season. Alas it was only a brief if pleasurable mirage. Since then, bluntly, the arse has fallen out of Our Boys. Now we are out of everything except the Europa League (and highly unlikely to proceed much beyond the next round) while staring at the trapdoor of relegation. Now the widespread suspicion is, right or wrong, that Roberto just got lucky, that last season was a mere flash-in-the-pan. However, the same thing was said about David Moyes way back when. We have no option but to cling to the same straw.
Since our playing collapse is an established fact, what to do about it?......Your guess being as good as any other. This is mine.
First, Roberto Martinez: There is no question his playing method this season has been a tippy-tappy failure. At times he has looked utterly helpless, a lonely baffled figure quite unable to understand his preferred system requires better players than we have or can afford. Consequently, the two raw choices are (a) to persevere with him, or (b) to sack him immediately. The first choice is based on three precepts, that he has earned another chance after previous achievements, that last season was the real Roberto and he could still save us, that maybe this is the necessary price we pay for transition. The second choice is existential, a last desperate effort to avoid a fall from grace. A late replacement might make things even worse or simply be unable to stop the slide. Both choices are fraught, both could lead to disaster. On that basis I am just about in favour of him staying for the remainder of the season; if we are relegated we should look for a new manager in the summer. We simply cannot afford another season like this one. Put starkly, he must deliver now or suffer the consequences.
And make no mistake, relegation would be a real footy catastrophe for us; it might take years to recover. Our best players would want to leave and we would need to cut the wages bill. There is no guarantee we would gain immediate promotion. In an absolute disaster we might even plummet successively. Unlikely as it seems, do not dismiss this lightly - recall Manchester City tough times. You need only look at the fate of other clubs who suffered the drop. There are plenty of examples. In football hard-earned stability can disappear overnight. Loss of revenue might be the final economic straw for a club with a maximum ground capacity of only 39,000 and limited facilities. That is how vulnerable we are. I do not exaggerate. But, make no mistake, if we are indeed relegated we will deserve it after a most pathetic season. Which is saying something given the horrors of the late nineties.
Next, the players: Equally bluntly, there is no question there is enough talent in the squad. Which makes it even more infuriating. Most of the time, odd game excepted, they have been awful both individually and as a team. The older players have failed to provide inspiration and the young players have not matured at a fast enough rate. There has been no playing bridge between the two. Throw in the usual run of injuries and small wonder it has often looked like a car crash in ultra slow motion. Very ultra slow motion. There is no point picking on any player because they have all looked sorry for themselves and mostly incapable of raising their game. All we can do now is hope they get pissed-off enough to want to rescue some pride. They have to show the supporters they have enough determination and courage to take responsibility. If they cannot, you might as well ready yourself for the Championship. Do not kid yourself. The situation really is that bad. This is no time for naive complacency or self-delusion.
That was the fraught background to the sixth in the list of games, our home match with West Brom. We went into it in thirteenth place, one point and two notches above the enemy and a mere three points above the relegation spots. Lose it or even draw and we would be in big trouble. Our main hope lay in a slight improvement in form in the previous two games when there was a tantalising glimpse of an improved approach. Yet, typical of this season, we wondered how they would react to yet another debilitating defeat in the FA Cup. Moreover it was the coldest day of the year despite bright clear sunshine earlier in the day; out on the river Mersey the tide was turning, yet another absurd superstitious straw to cling to. It was time to don the insulated space suit, go the match and get a stiff dose of reality.
Previously I called in for my first visit to the Everton Heritage Society on the first floor of Saint Luke church hall to meet briefly with Paul and John in the aftermath of the sad passing of Tony Heslop. I urge you to do the same even if you can only manage ten minutes or so to view the exhibits. The unpaid work and achievements of everyone at the Society is something they can be very proud of. And so can you. The club has helped out too and deserves credit for support at a time when resources are tight. This is the real face of Evertonia. Marvellous stuff. Then to the match.
Inside, Goodison was bright and clear in the new floodlights system and nobody seemed as gloomy as I felt. I began to feel optimistic.
Team: Robles, Coleman, Baines, Jagielka, Stones, Barkley, Besic, Barry, Naismith, Mirallas, Lukaku. Oviedo substituted for Mirallas at half time and Koné for Besić with just over ten minutes left. I haven't the faintest idea what the team formation was, something I seemed to have in common with the players.
The match finished 0-0 and Mirallas missed a penalty right before half time before disappearing in favour of Bryan Oviedo. Muhamad Besić was our best player until replaced with Arouna Koné. Make of that what you will. The overall performance was slightly improved and marginally more direct but it was yet another shapeless, wretched display despite a spell of fifteen or twenty minutes impotent pressure. Once again I am not going to waste your time trying to describe the awful mess. I fear this match left Roberto and the team on the brink of completely losing the fans.
As we walked away from the ground whimpering in pain Neil said, "Ah pooh." Normally he would say "shit." But he could hardly raise his ire to it. Says it all, really.
Ironically, the result moved us up to twelfth and four points off the relegation group. So that's alright then. We can but hope everything that went before is the darkest hour before the dawn. Looking at the fixture list, hope is all we Evertonians have right now. And a thin one at that.