BY NATHAN O’HAGAN
Walter Smith’s managerial reign at Everton was characterised by dwindling crowds, dour football, and financial constraints as rigid as his insistence on playing four centre backs. Another feature towards the end of Smith’s time at Goodison was his tendency to sign once-great players many years past their peak. Mark Hughes was grey as a mule when he signed from Southampton and Paul Gascoigne’s glory days were long behind him when he came to Everton having been released by Middlesbrough. Richard Gough, arriving on a free transfer after having spent a couple of years in MLS, which was a long way short even of the mediocre quality it now has, to form the oldest central defensive partnership in British football with Dave Watson. Worse even than these pretty dire signings, though, was that of David Ginola.
While Sparky and Gazza made some (very) thin semblance of a contribution to the club, and Gough rolled back the years to show he still had quality and footballing intelligence to compensate for his lack of legs, Ginola’s arrival was as desperate as it was mystifying. The French winger, so thrilling to watch at Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur, had had a controversial spell with Aston Villa during which he fell out of favour, and was wrongly accused of being overweight by manager John Gregory; remarks which prompted him to enlist the help of none other than Cherie Blair to sue the club. Not the first nor the last player to be targeted by John Gregory – who can now be found managing in the Indian Super league and showing off his impressive collection of guitars on Twitter – the French winger was likely to be looking for a way out of Birmingham.
If Ginola hoped a move to Everton would provide his career with a more fitting swansong, he was to be sorely disappointed. Brought in by Smith in a last ditch attempt to add some creativity to a side made up largely of honest but workmanlike players such as Steve Watson, Mark Pembridge and Scott Gemmill, Ginola was thirty five years old, and no longer possessed the dynamic pace and magic touch that made him so great to watch during his time with Newcastle and Spurs, but even in his twilight, Smith clearly hoped he could provide enough of a spark to save Everton’s season, and his own job.
Making his debut against Arsenal in an unfamiliar striker role alongside Kevin Campbell, he didn’t exactly disgrace himself, but missed a few chances and, short of match practice, quickly looked every one of those thirty five years, but somehow managed to see out the game in its entirety. The next week saw him complete another ninety minutes in an F.A. Cup tie against Crewe Alexandra, but never again did he complete a full match for the Toffees. Just four weeks after giving him his debut, Walter Smith was sacked as Everton manager, to be replaced by the young and comparatively dynamic David Moyes. With an early stated intent to bring down the average age and wage of the squad, Moyes would clearly have little time for highly-paid, ageing players trading on past glories, and the writing was on the wall for the likes of Gascoigne and Ginola, who went on to make just one substitute appearance under Moyes – a twelve minute cameo in the final game of the season against Arsenal – neatly bookending a brief and inauspicious spell with the club. His contract was, unsurprisingly, not renewed, and the curtain was quietly brought down on what had previously been a near-stellar career.
After this ignominious end, Ginola has not only launched a brief attempt to unseat Sepp Blatter at FIFA, but also overcome the small matter of being clinically dead for eight minutes following a massive heart attack in 2016; his spell at Everton is probably not something that gives him sleepless nights. But, from an Everton perspective, with Ginola amassing just 319 minutes of playing time for the Blues, on wages of £27,000 a week, Smith’s decision to recruit a player long past his best, or even his middle, cost a cash-strapped club around £1,000 a minute. David Ginola in an Everton shirt, to paraphrase his own L’Oreal advert, was clearly not worth it.