BY MARK GODFREY
So, we’ve reached ten games gone of the 2013/14 Premier League season and as such, a rather convenient landmark by which to judge the early reign of Roberto Martinez as manager of Everton Football Club.
It’s probably fair to say that initial reaction by supporters to his appointment was mixed; a man known for his attacking, stylish footballing principles who had just won a shock FA Cup victory, yet whose naivety had also guided Wigan Athletic through the relegation trap door. Throw into the mix the uncertainty and trepidation for the future that swept over Evertonians following the departure of David Moyes to Manchester United. Imagine a small child facing the world without its security blanket….
From that very first press conference in June when he sat next to the often under-fire chairman, Bill Kenwright, he exuded the confidence of a man who felt he belonged at a club like Everton. OK, there was the boast made in his job interview (rather crassly let slip by the ever-theatrical Kenwright) that he could get Everton into the Champions League, but unashamed ambition is something we’re not often used to at Goodison Park.
I won’t be laying into David Moyes in this piece, that would be too easy, but it’s probably not harsh to say that the marriage of manager and club had run its course; an amicable divorce to a happy, if ultimately unfulfilled relationship. Moyes and his methods dragged Everton from the quivering mess he inherited from Walter Smith in 2002 to one of the most respected teams in the land, and for that we will be forever grateful. But despite a change in style last season that saw the Toffees play some very attractive and attacking football at times, you never really got the sense that the Scotsman or his players had the belief in themselves to achieve something that was always within their grasp had they just really gone for it.
Martinez’ task was not only to improve the team on the field of play, but to convince them that they could go to the next level; something that the previous manager couldn’t do.
It seemed (through the media) almost instantaneous that the players took to the new boss. The usual club propaganda wouldn’t have allowed it any other way, of course. But the love-in seemed genuine and the experienced and influential members of the dressing room such as Leon Osman and new club captain, Phil Jagielka, were well and truly on-side. Martinez had his first victory.
For the first time in many years, Everton had a promising pre-season campaign. Rather than witnessing disappointing defeats to the likes of Blackpool, we were seeing wins over Juventus and making Real Madrid work hard to edge us out by the odd goal in three. Notorious slow starters? Maybe no longer.
Having had such preparations, the opening three fixtures of the league season gave further cause for optimism. All winnable games – Norwich City and Cardiff City away, West Bromwich Albion at home – yet some of the old habits were hard to shake off. Last season, Everton drew an incredible 15 games; far too many to have sustained a credible Champions League challenge. The lack of killer instinct was all too evident again in those opening games. Norwich should have been dispatched with ease. The performance demanded it. Final score 2-2.
West Brom in his first home game in charge should have been a walk in the park. It turned into something of a non-event. The visitors, who stunk the place out, came for 0-0 and got it. Best league in the world apparently. The onus was on Martinez and his side to take the initiative but they couldn’t go through the gears. A case of too much possession perhaps? Style over substance?
The trip to the Welsh capital was a similar story and by this time the transfer rumour mill was in overdrive. While it did not affect the consummate professional, Leighton Baines, it was obvious that Marouane Fellaini’s motivation for the Everton cause was on the wane. That leads us nicely to Martinez’ second victory – transfer deadline day.
Fellaini was always going to leave the club, and Manchester United was the most likely destination. Moyes was his most fervent admirer, and how Everton made him pay! Having turned down what they saw as a derisory £28million joint offer for Fellaini and Baines, the pressure on the powers that be at Old Trafford to make a purchase having missed out on several previous targets became so overwhelming that they incredibly relieved themselves of £27.5million for the towering Belgian alone. Even more significantly for the Blues, Baines was going nowhere; a vital piece in Martinez’ jigsaw – Everton’s own crown jewel. Win number 3 for the Spaniard.
With Fellaini gone and Everton’s toothless attack threatening to sabotage Martinez’ plans, persuading the much-in-demand Romelu Lukaku to snub other suitors and make the temporary move to Merseyside was a masterstroke. He would provide the power, pace and cutting edge that Everton have lacked since….well, God knows when. Strikers like Lukaku are in extremely short supply and in Everton’s circumstances and with a lack of worthwhile options up front, could be pivotal in how high they can set their sights this season. Victory number 4 chalked up.
To compensate directly for the midfield loss of Fellaini, Martinez raided his old employers for a third time – James McCarthy, the promising young Republic of Ireland midfielder, brought in for £13million. Now, I’ve long been an admirer of McCarthy going back to when I saw him play for Hamilton Academical, but Dave Whelan did to Everton what Kenwright did to Manchester United. Benefit of the doubt and all that, but I suspect the fee was £3-4million too much; only time will tell and Martinez has certainly earned that leeway in his brief time in the role.
Win number 5 – Gareth Barry. Having been virtually frozen out at Manchester City and having lost his place in the England squad, Barry’s career seemed to be on a downward trajectory. The combative and often stylish midfield man has bought into the Martinez ethos and the talk is of a permanent move next summer when his contract runs out at the Etihad. He has been simply superb since swapping the Sky Blues for the Royal Blues; a gamble that has so far paid off handsomely for the affable former Wigan and Swansea manager.
Once the first win of the season was bagged over the supposedly superior Chelsea of the returning Jose Mourinho, Everton have grown in confidence; an excusable defeat at Manchester City aside.
Exciting wins against West Ham and Newcastle have been followed up with more pragmatic successes against Hull City and Aston Villa and a respectable share of the spoils with potential championship contenders, Tottenham (victory would have seen Everton jump to second place in the table).
But don’t be fooled – the defence has looked all-at-sea on many occasions and Martinez still knows his squad lacks the depth to keep pace with the leaders in the long run. It is almost certain that Moyes and United will return with a more determined attempt to acquire Baines in the January transfer window. The 29-year-old England left back may find his loyalty to Everton finally run out and that it’s case of ‘now or never’ if he wishes to play at the very highest of levels of European club football. If Martinez can resist this challenge and persuade Baines to stay, this would represent a huge moral victory going into the second half of the season.
Kudos must also go to Martinez for his handling of the prodigious talent that is Ross Barkley. The youngster has been given his head this season and on many occasions has not looked the least bit out of place at English football’s top table. In my opinion, Barkley would not have been afforded the same opportunity to develop by the previous manager and Everton and England could eventually become eternally grateful to Martinez’ handling of the teenage starlet.
In conclusion, as one of those Evertonians who was internally divided about the appointment of Martinez in the summer, I am becoming a convert. We may only finish in exactly the same position as we had for the previous years under David Moyes, but the style, ambition and mood around the team seems to have changed. The same could be said about the majority of the supporters – a renewal of faith and optimism that, despite the well-documented financial constraints at Goodison, the team is in the right hands to move forward.
Roberto Martinez, I give you 8/10.