BY JIM KEOGHAN
In a recent poll, a representative sample of the population was asked to list its top five fears. In order they were: terrorist attacks, spiders, death, being a failure and war.
Now, these are all good choices, but what about relegation? What about the gut wrenching, sweat inducing, anxiety ridden prospect of your club going down? Does that not deserve a place in the top five? Surely itâ€™s scarier than spiders; even if they were terrorist spiders, hell-bent on causing a war in which you will at first fail and then die?
Iâ€™m an Evertonian and for a long time, during the 1990s and for much of the early 2000s, I lived daily with â€˜The Fearâ€™. Everton were, in short, a shit team. Uninspiring, uncreative and with a very soft underbelly, they lurked near the nether regions of the Premier League for much of this period, twice coming perilously close to being relegated.
For the fans, Evertonâ€™s transition from being a member of the English football elite to becoming instead a mediocre club more likely to endure â€˜the dropâ€™ than a challenge for title was a difficult one to adjust to. In the modern game, few other groups of supporters have had to mentally accommodate such a dramatic change in fortunes in such a short period of time. From League Champions in 1987 to being just minutes away from relegation in 1994; this represented a dizzying shift that was difficult to comprehend.
Relatively tender in years and unaccustomed to this new reality, the accommodation of this change in fortunes manifested itself as an almost relentless feeling of fear within me; one that would start on a Sunday morning, build during the week, crescendo on Saturday afternoon and begin its cycle again the following day. Where once the club represented a source of joy, it now imbued me with a sense of dread, and one that I was tethered to, unable to escape.
Saturday after Saturday (with the brief exception of a short period of respite under Joe Royle) I would go to the game or listen on the radio with the same feeling of bleak pessimism; expecting, fearing and often receiving the worst. Leads sacrificed, lesser teams turning us over, games of toil and drudge; it was a difficult era to be a blue. I sincerely believed that every season would be our last in the top flight and that eventually the club would finally succumb and bow to the inevitable.
It took aÂ long time and the work of one wonderful Scot for â€˜The Fearâ€™ to truly dissipate. Gradually, I began to expect wins against clubs beneath us, believe that leads could be held, that Europe rather than relegation was a more likely outcome at the seasonsâ€™ start. But sadly, Moyes moved on and seems to have taken with him the solidity and mental strength that did so much to transform Everton and banish â€˜The Fearâ€™ which had gripped me for so long.
While many of us hoped that Martinez would reunite the club with its past, what we had in mind was the School of Science and the proud tradition of â€˜goodâ€™ football that Everton were once famous for. Although that seemed the case last season, during this campaign itâ€™s the more recent past that appears to have been chosen as the template to follow. The teamâ€™s performances to date are reminiscent of the sides that populated the 1990s and early 2000s, when the likes of Kendall, Walker and Smith imbued Everton with a crippling sense of vulnerability.
A dismal Christmas has contributed to a half-seasonâ€™s performance that is threatening to turn from mediocrity into something much more worrying. Everton now lie just four points off the relegation zone, having only picked up eight points from a possible thirty over the past ten games and have won just one league game in the past seven.
Leaden, uncreative and one dimensional, Everton have also become exceptionally leaky at the back. The solidity of the Moyes-era seems to have vanished. Where once the club was one of the meanest in the Premier League, now only QPR have conceded more than the 33 Everton have let-in this season. With tough games against Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea on the horizon, thereâ€™s little to suggest that an up-turn in fortunes is likely anytime soon.
I first felt rumblings of â€˜The Fearâ€™ before Christmas. The team wasnâ€™t playing well and for the first time in years, I was beginning to approach Saturday afternoons with a slight feeling of dread. At that stage it was incipient, a quiet voice at the back of my mind, whispering uncertainty. But following the clubâ€™s dismal festive period, that voice has grown in volume and intensity and â€˜The Fearâ€™ has truly blossomed.
In part, this is attributable to how anaemic Everton appear at the moment. Where other clubs around the bottom appear willing to fight for points, we seem fragile and at times pretty lazy. But equally, the blossoming is also caused by the growing suspicion that perhaps the concerns voiced by many blues when Martinez was appointed are looking to be prescient.
Martinez was always something of a risk, with the question hanging over him: was he the reason that Wigan were relegated or did the club hold back his talent? Kenwright, unquestionably believed that the latter perspective was true, which was why he took the very unusual step of appointing a manager who had just taken a club out of the Premier League.
Although many of the Martinez doubts appeared to have been allayed by last seasonâ€™s wonderful performance, this year they have returned with gusto. Itâ€™s hard to escape the feeling that what we got last year was a Moyes side combined with a Martinez-inspired sprinkling of attacking vim. By contrast, what we have now is essentially a Martinez side, complete with all the vulnerabilities and weaknesses that characterised his time at Wigan.
Itâ€™s why â€˜The Fearâ€™ is back in full force. Despite possessing much more talented players, in their approach to the game Everton now appear little different to the sides that populated the 1990s and early 2000s. I expect us to lose matches, to throw away leads and suffer defeats against teams that we should be out-classing.
Moyes might have produced sides that could be frustrating to watch but at least you felt safe with the Scot at the helm. With â€˜Sunshine Bobbyâ€™ in the managersâ€™ seat, relegation is on the agenda again. Itâ€™s a fearful time to be an Evertonian.
YOU CAN FOLLOW JIM ON TWITTER @jimmykeoÂ and find his book Punk Football here http://www.pitchpublishing.co.uk/shop/punk-football