It is the 15th August 2009. Following the annual surge of optimism that greets pre-season at any club, the Goodison Park faithful are eagerly anticipating the start of another Premier League season. Everything looks right. In David Moyes they have a manager who understands what it means to lead their club. The squad looks strong. This can be the season where Everton progress to the ‘next level’ and challenge for a top four place. 90 minutes later and the optimism has disappeared. Arsenal outclass their opponents throughout and run out 6-1 winners. Moyes is taking the club backwards. The squad can’t handle the big occasion. Joleon Lescott wants out and his transfer saga has caused irreversible havoc in the changing room. Aside from the humiliation of a mauling on home soil, the overwhelming feeling is one of anticlimax. Maybe next year…
Ten months later and the story is the same. Although several of the players have a World Cup to concentrate on first, the belief that this is the year sits at the forefront of the Everton fan’s mind. Despite the table suggesting that the previous season should be written off as a non-event, an impressive run of results after Christmas is evidence that Everton are a club progressing once more. The challenge for Moyes is to maintain the progression that the fans demand. Having seen Tottenham break the hold of the ‘big four’ – Everton fans will be quick to remind you they managed this in 2005, however limited the following season’s European campaign – there is a realistic hope that Everton can follow suit. If a manager as focussed as Moyes ever needed further motivation, the turbulent times experienced on the other side of Stanley Park could see the Toffees step out of the shadow of their closest rivals.
However, it is not fair to suggest that Everton will break into Europe’s elite competition by following the model that Spurs have created. By their own admission, Everton are not a rich club. They are not a club that is in deep financial trouble, but they lack the ability to spend the sums of money that Harry Redknapp benefitted from whilst rebuilding Spurs. Everton must adopt a different model that is sustainable and relevant to their specific situation. There are three key aspects to the plan that Everton should adopt. Encouragingly, the signs are that David Moyes is striving to put each of these into motion.
With a limited transfer budget, Moyes’ job is not an easy one. The assumption that he has taken Everton as far as he can will undoubtedly attract some ill-judged support should this season follow a similar path to last year’s injury-ridden campaign. In reality, the transfer policy that Moyes is forced to pursue is one that moves slowly. Although the likes of Yakubu and Fellaini were expensive purchases by Bill Kenwright’s standards, the vast majority of Moyes’ acquisitions are players with potential to develop whilst at the club, bought for a relatively small fee and concluded with minimal fuss. Rather than improving his squad with the multi-million pound signature of a continental superstar, Moyes has bought shrewdly and strengthened gradually. It is wrong to avoid the fact that signings such as Andy van der Meyde were poor but it is equally important to remember that the financial loss on such mistakes is limited, especially when compared with the financially disastrous signings that have graced the top clubs in recent years.
The sustainable nature of Moyes’ transfer dealings should be applauded. The signings of promising youngsters such as Dan Gosling, Seamus Coleman and Lukas Jutkiewicz are low risk and are likely to pay dividends over time. Furthermore, Moyes is not afraid to gamble in the transfer market. Rather than financially perilous gambles, Moyes has looked outside of the box in recent times and reaped the rewards. In particular, the decision to allow Landon Donovan to spend his close-season in England was a masterstroke. Whether the signings of Jermaine Beckford and Joao Silva will be similarly successful remains to be seen but few will doubt their credentials. Although plying their trade outside of the top division in their respective countries, both have shown a natural instinct for goalscoring and will benefit from the invention provided by the likes of Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar, amongst others.
Similarly, rumours of a move for released Manchester City winger Martin Petrov do not come as a surprise. If his mind is right, Petrov could benefit greatly from the stable environment provided by Everton. David Moyes’ determination to improve his squad within his budget is a great strength. His willingness to pursue a calculated gamble may also bring benefits in the next 12 months. When considering that Tim Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Steven Pienaar cost little over £7.5 million between them, the evidence that quality can be acquired for a limited price is clear. If Everton are to challenge for a top four place, Moyes must continue to get the majority of his ‘risk transfers’ correct.
When working from a limited budget, the importance of development from within is a vital element of the football club. Although acquiring young, talented players from other clubs is a sustainable way in which to do business, the boost from bringing a player through the youth academy into the first team squad is undeniable. As well as the accolades for the individual and the staff at the academy, the boost for the other trainees at Finch Farm is considerable. The rapid rise in the prominence of Jack Rodwell is indicative of this. Crucially, Moyes has been able to fend off interest from Manchester United and has secured Rodwell to a long-term deal at Goodison Park. By the time the 2014 World Cup comes around, Rodwell’s valuation could be many times greater than at present. The long-term deals signed by Rodwell and the similarly impressive full-back Seamus Coleman provide the clear statement that Everton no longer wish to be a ‘selling club’ and will keep their assets. Although interest in top players is inevitable, the length of contract signed by Everton’s youngsters acts as an insurance policy that guarantees a substantial fee for their registration should the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger maintain their interest.
Although Rodwell’s success story is encouraging for all involved at Everton, one player will not represent a successful academy. Moyes will hope that the likes of Shane Duffy (when he recovers fully from a life-threatening injury), Coleman, Jose Baxter and Jutkiewicz will follow Rodwell into the first team fold at Goodison Park within the not too distant future. Loan spells at Blackpool and Motherwell respectively have shown signs of promise for Coleman and Jutkiewicz, not least the latter’s wonder strike against Hibs (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byK2oBB_ucQ). The constant flow of first team players from the youth system at any club is valuable. However, in Everton’s case, for each first team player brought through the ranks at Finch Farm, another can be added to strengthen the squad using the money saved. In terms of sustainable progress, the strength of the academy system is of the utmost importance.
A final key aspect of Moyes’ model for Everton’s continued growth is the simple - yet not always easy to enforce – idea of keeping the strongest players at the club. Although the transfer saga surrounding Joleon Lescott’s move to Manchester City last summer was disruptive to Moyes’ preparations in the extreme, the lessons learned from the episode could benefit the club in the long term. Since leaving Goodison Park, the form that had seen Lescott reach the periphery of the England squad has vanished. Before injury ended his season, the ex-Wolves centre back looked a shadow of his former self alongside Kolo Toure amidst the chaos of Manchester City’s squad overhaul. Although the environment created by Moyes at Everton is unspectacular, the close bond within the club is clear for all to see. If Lescott’s departure has taught Everton’s remaining stars anything, it is that despite the astronomical wages available in Manchester, the grass isn’t always greener.
Whilst receiving praise for many aspects of his managerial style, Moyes’ ability to keep his players united is a strength that is often overlooked. Having secured Tim Cahill on a long-term deal, the retention of Fellaini, Baines, Arteta, Jagielka and Pienaar, amongst others, is vital towards Everton’s progression. The loss of Everton’s greatest assets would be hard for Moyes to take, although many would believe in his ability to use any funds raised wisely. These are players who have fallen into the Everton mindset and understand what it means to play for the club. Although footballing ability can often be replaced, replacing what goes on inside the player’s head is much more difficult. Whilst Everton have a strong spine to their squad, Moyes will continue to lead a successful football club.
As with all teams, there is always room for improvement at Everton. There is genuine hope that alongside Saha, Silva and Beckford can convert the numerous chances created by Everton’s nimble playmakers. Whilst the goalscoring issue is being addressed, Everton’s defensive record is good without being tight enough to challenge for top European competition. The return of Phil Jagielka will provide a huge boost to the backline whilst Moyes will hope that Seamus Coleman can push Tony Hibbert for a first team place. The value of having two attacking full-backs cannot be underestimated at any level of football. Whilst Leighton Baines drives the team forward well, Hibbert lacks the dynamism of the modern full-back. Recent comparisons between the style of football exhibited by Coleman and Gareth Bale suggest that the youngster is an athlete who is able to push forward whenever possible, albeit on the opposite flank to the Welsh international. As well as helping attacks by overlapping the wingers, such tactics also limit the threat of opposition wingers by forcing them into tracking back in their own half. Although it would be wrong to place too much pressure upon the Irishman’s shoulders at such as early stage, his rise to prominence may coincide with a change in tactics towards the modern style of full back that is so common throughout Europe. Once more, to be successful, Everton can not afford to be static.
As the events in South Africa come to a climax, the expectations of Everton’s following will once more begin to rise as pre-season commences. Although Moyes will be praying for a more generous bill of health this year, the signs are positive that Everton can improve on last year’s finish. A run of just 2 defeats in the final 24 games of the season shows that Moyes has a team that understands how to win Premier League games. With a full pre-season behind them, there is no reason why this can’t be the year that the strengthened Everton fulfil their true potential. If early momentum can be gained, the belief that Moyes is slowly creating something special will only strengthen amongst those at the Gwladys Street End.