BY MARK GODFREY
It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that something quite noteworthy is happening in the Walton district of Liverpool. While the well overdue opening of the Goodison Park chequebook is hardly ripping a hole in the space-time continuum, this summer’s investment – with the promise of more to come – is tantamount to the distant rumble of war drums for the current established top six of the English Premier League.
When the Iranian-born businessman Farhad Moshiri took a controlling 49.9% stake in Everton Football Club with a handful of promises and a face full of smiles, he did so to a celebratory fanfare that was both welcoming of a hopeful future and grateful for an end to the parsimonious regime of former majority shareholder – and still incumbent chairman – Bill Kenwright.
The jovial theatre impresario rode in as a white knight himself back in 1999 when his consortium bought the club from the hated Park Foods owner, Peter Johnson. Coming at the end of a decade that lurched between ineffectual and tortuous both on and off the field for the Toffees, it would be the first of many false dawns under the former Coronation Street actor. With debts mounting, everything was either hocked or sold; including the jewel in the crown, a young starlet by the name of Wayne Rooney. Proposed new stadium ventures ended in dismal failure amid allegations of penny pinching and amateurism on the part of Everton’s owners. When others such as Chelsea and Manchester City sailed off into the distance when the overseas oil money gushed in, Kenwright’s grasp on the reins at Goodison tightened despite his insistence that Everton had been up for sale from virtually the moment he walked through the door of the chairman’s office.
The staunchest of Blue Bill’s supporters pointed to his strong and stable leadership and the reluctance to sell out to anyone but the most heavily vetted group or individual, with the spectre of the financial meltdowns at Leeds United and Portsmouth fresh in the memory. Yet, all the while, Kenwright and his cohorts on the board were seemingly playing fast and loose with the company’s accounts, dragging it into evermore murky financing deals, as was being revealed by supporters’ groups such as the Blue Union.
With Kenwright becoming an increasingly divisive figure, the chairman stood accused of wasting 15 years of the club’s time by allowing it to fall into a state of disrepair – mirroring the situation of the venerable Goodison Park itself.
Like a bolt from the blue – if you’ll pardon the pun – Moshiri was ushered into the piece. Seemingly, his credentials and those of his associates are legitimate, allaying any fears of similar shady dealings that have brought down other English football clubs that have become the playthings of wealthy investors. And although Kenwright is still heavily involved at Everton – for the time being at least – Moshiri undoubtedly calls the shots which, given the impressive evidence of his time in the hot seat to date, bodes well for the success-starved supporters of the blue half of Merseyside. With the passing of time, Kenwright must sincerely hope that the introduction of Mr. Moshiri to Everton will prove to be his lasting legacy to the club he supported as a boy, rather than the regrettable years of financial precariousness and team stagnation that came before it.
Since the takeover was ratified by the Premier League in March 2016, the ‘new’ Everton have set out to make one significant statement after another. Starting with the sacking of the infuriatingly upbeat Roberto Martinez and the subsequent appointment of the much-respected Ronald Koeman as manager, through the announcement of a new stadium development, to the no-nonsense approach to the 2017 summer transfer window, each manoeuvre is a carefully choreographed upscaling of the one before. If you haven’t sat up and taken notice yet, it’s Moshiri’s intention to make you do so sooner or later.
The first step – as it should be at any football club – is to get the ‘product’ in good shape on the pitch; after all, that’s the real reason punters part with their cash at the turnstiles, in the club shop and in the hospitality areas. A quick appraisal of matters in Spring 2016 brought about that initial, but necessary, removal of the likeable, if perplexing Martinez. Obviously, Moshiri felt the Spaniard could not be trusted to spend the newly-injected millions wisely, nor use the resources at his disposal to their maximum effect. Having seen the work of Koeman at Southampton, and being aware of his profile in the game stretching back to his illustrious playing career, they went all out to get their man. It was the first indicator that this was not the deal-averse, make do and mend of Everton past.
Having laid out some reasonable expenditure in Koeman’s first couple of transfer windows – with the help of the club’s first ever Director of Football Steve Walsh, whisked away from Leicester City – Everton are now really beginning to flex some muscle. At the time of writing, they have relieved themselves of around £100million on Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane, Davy Klaassen, Sandro Ramirez and Henry Onyekuru, and what’s more impressive is the purpose with which they’ve done it. No messing, no quibbling, and no hold-ups which were the trademarks of any transfer dealings under Kenwright. It could be argued that Everton have simply gone for the easy targets; hoovering up players who were going to be on the move during the summer anyway – the Blues being the highest profile club they could find, thus making them the most attractive suitors. While this may be true to some extent, there are plenty of other top clubs around Europe these players could have joined instead, but the project being sold to them by Moshiri and Koeman only adds to the remuneration packages on offer.
Everton would be sending out a real statement of intent if they could add to these exciting captures this summer with a real marquee name; someone previously thought unavailable to anyone, or a player whose destination is expected to be somewhere with a greater profile. Think Virgil van Dijk or Alvaro Morata. That may be little more than pie in the sky for this season perhaps, but as Koeman tries to expand the pool of talent sufficiently to make them capable of challenging on several fronts, all it might take to set pulses racing would be an eye-catching, stellar signing to really announce Everton’s arrival at the top table.
OK, so Romelu Lukaku could not wait around for the project to come to fruition. It’s hard to blame him, especially as Manchester United came calling just as he is looking to elevate his own profile to another level entirely. The relationship between the player and club was always one of mutual furtherment rather than anything more emotionally binding. This was evident very early into his time at Goodison. Once that association came to a conclusion in the same detached, business-like way that it began, both sides – and particularly Lukaku – were satisfied with the outcome.
As a form of recompense, one that might work out very well for Everton on several fronts, is the return of the prodigal son, Wayne Rooney. Thirteen years is a long time, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since his somewhat acrimonious departure in 2004. For sure, he is not the player he once was, just as Everton are no longer in the parlous state they were when his sale – to Manchester United for £27million – helped to keep the club afloat in those grim economic times. Leaving his potential contribution – or lack of depending on your opinion – to the team to one side for a moment, we are already seeing the incredible effects of having one of world football’s biggest player brands connected to the club; not just in the Liverpool Echo or the British tabloids, but all over social media and worldwide news feeds. As an exercise in boosting Everton’s profile both at home and around the globe, his re-signing is a masterstroke and is likely to more than offset the wages he commands in vastly increased exposure over the course of his 2-year contract.
The sentimental return has obvious benefits to both parties: Rooney – a homebody at heart – is spared the ignominy of scouring various leagues around the world in order to maintain a standard of living to which he has become accustomed while not having to uproot his family from their Cheshire pile. In turn, Everton have employed the magnetic figurehead that could help attract the kind of players that should take them to the next level. At least that’s the idea.
Rooney himself may not still be around when the centrepiece of Moshiri’s entire vision for Everton takes shape on the banks of the River Mersey.
The powerful emotional connection to Goodison Park is counterbalanced by the fact it has long since been a restriction to progression. One may be so bold as to call it a millstone around the club’s neck throughout the Premier League era. While Everton’s peers have either relocated or refurbished to meet the demands of the times, the odd lick of paint here and there and the myopic redevelopment of the Park End over 20 years ago have done little to boost the old ground’s facilities or earning capacity. Now – and after several false starts in the past – Everton have the green light, with Liverpool City Council’s approval and support, to finally build a stadium fit for the 21st century.
The plans – as much as we know them – are impressive. Likely to be a landmark structure with a capacity around the 60,000-mark, it will regenerate an area of the city – the Bramley-Moore docks – left behind during the economic decline of the post-war years. Liverpool, as a whole, still has a long way to go to be considered anything like a regenerated city in the same way that some of its post-industrial northern counterparts such as Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow have been. The new stadium won’t be the only new addition to Liverpool’s waterfront real estate. The proposed £300million development includes plans for new housing, restaurants, a new cruise liner terminal, improved road and rail infrastructure and the promise of new jobs. Moshiri’s grand scheme seems to not only include winning football silverware, but also the hearts and minds of some – if not all – of the city’s inhabitants.
With the increased capacity and revenue, Everton’s ultimate aim is to deliver long term and sustainable success, not just the quick fix of millions of pounds thrown into the bottomless pit of the biannual transfer window. Again, Moshiri is taking inspiration from other successful commercial operations within football – including, dare I say it, Liverpool – to help Everton bust their way into the elite sphere of the European game. After all, both Chelsea and Manchester City have done it; arguably smaller and certainly traditionally less successful clubs than Everton, so why not them too?
All of those ambitions are for the future though, so while we wait, it’s imperative Everton continue to make incremental gains to what they achieve on the pitch over the coming years. This will undoubtedly require investment followed by more investment and more still, while being willing and able to successfully mine the terrific resource of playing potential in their academy and under-23 team (the reigning Premier League 2 champions, which contains five of England under-20s 2017 World Cup winners) to full effect.
Perhaps the greatest test for Ronald Koeman and the club’s hierarchy will be building a squad and club capable of living up to the rapidly heightened expectation of Evertonians who, for the best part of 30 years, have seen the club stall, regress, nosedive, recover and stall again. This is a fanbase split in two distinct parts based on their experiences of supporting the Blues. You’d have to be in your 40s to recall a time when Everton not only challenged for English football’s top honours regularly, but also won them, while there’s now an entire generation for whom a solitary FA Cup win and one lost final represent a distant echo of what their elders came to expect at least two or three times every decade for the previous 100 years of professional football in this country.
For those same supporters, it’s hard not to get carried away by the new state of affairs their club finds itself in. All would agree that it’s long since overdue. But as the saying goes; Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Everton are going to kiss quite a few frogs before they find their princes. So, as the old ‘top 4’ of the Premier League has now expanded to become a ‘top 6’, the members of that elite group should rightly be looking anxiously over their shoulders at the club that for so long were stuck in the past, but now have their gaze firmly fixed on a brighter, more glamorous future.