Football’s looming missile crisis

HERE we go again. Football fans are back in the stadiums, the long and often heated debate about safe standing seems to be heading in the right direction for those that have been longing for the atmosphere of old and lo and behold, we have increased hooliganism to go with it. Yes, it is hooliganism, a nasty, invasive form of violence. 

This is not merely a case of cautious warnings like “be careful, that’ll have your eye out,” the throwing of objects at players is specifically designed to hurt and inflict damage on bodies. How long do we have to wait before a player’s eye is lost or something substantial knocks someone unconscious? This, the sport that goes out of its way to virtue signal whenever it can, the pastime where spectators are quick to declare their love of their club. Throwing lighters, bottles or anything they have to hand is considered OK, because the opposition have scored a goal, yet it’s cowardly, anti-social and drags down the name of the club and the game in general.

Over the decades, we’ve had all forms of deterrants to supress violence. The naïve often suggest violence is a thing of the past, but it’s always there, just below the surface, just as racism has always been there, waiting to find its release valve. It doesn’t take long to hear a group of people making a racist, sexist or homophobic comment the longer an evening goes on and the flow of alcohol becomes more potent. 

It’s no coincidence that in the past five years Britain seems to have rediscovered a form of nationalism that has been the catalyst for racism and anti-semitism. The resurgence of football hooliganism may be linked in some way. On the other hand, the repeated lockdowns and accompanying frustration this has brought could have something to do with this phenomenum. 

It’s a problem that is spreading, faster than we want to believe. The latest round of matches saw Aston Villa’s players struck by missiles after they had just scored against Everton at Goodison Park. Everton are having a bad time and it’s a club clearly unhappy with itself, but this was disgraceful and thankfully, the Police have grabbed the offenders. At Old Trafford, West Ham fans were apparently caught hurling items, while at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s Rüdiger was hit by disposable cigarette lighters. Similarly, at Arsenal, when Manchester City scored their late winner, their team was showered with objects. Like most things in football, when something becomes a trend, it is usually not long before grounds up and down the country have the problem. Furthermore, it’s not just players that will have to wary of flying bombs, other fans, be they men, women or children, could also be hit.

And this is all going to have consequences. Safe standing is being tested and so far, it appears to have been successful, but if fans continue to throw things, how easy would it be to blame the introduction of standing for the change in fan behaviour, even if there is no direct correlation?

The recent police report reveals that football-related arrests have risen by 47% since the start of the season and disorder has generally increased at games. Undoubtedly, there’s greater vigilance since the Euros when drunk fans stormed the barriers at Wembley.

With the pandemic already demanding greater pre-match preparations, increased security to ensure potential weapons are not taken into the stadium will mean more complications for matchday staff and those entering the arena.

Anyone who lived through the dark age of hooliganism and yearned for a more civilised experience will be hoping that we are not about to return to a less pleasant environment. Times have been tough for many people during the pandemic, but that’s no excuse to suddenly make football a game to be wary of once more. While missile throwing may be nothing more than a passing fad, we are turning back the clock a little. Wembley 2021 told us the mood might be changing, so let’s hope that’s not the case.

Rafa Benitez goes, where next for Everton?

IT WAS a marriage of convenience that was doomed from the start, a former Liverpool manager taking over at Goodison Park, a red setting-up camp in the blue zone. “Get out of our club,” almost became a mantra at Everton in recent weeks and it was only a matter of time before the relationship between Rafa Benitez and the club would come to an end.

From scaling the heights at the start of 2020-21 under Carlo Ancelotti, Everton just a season later, are in a relegation battle and they may have to be thankful that there are worse teams in the Premier.

False dawns rise over Goodison every couple of seasons, but it is difficult to see how they can get out of their current mess without taking a long-term view. Everton have lost their way again and the manager’s job is looking anything but attractive in the current circumstances.

Benitez was the wrong appointment on many counts. Firstly, he represents the past rather than the future and given Everton, on and off the pitch, are lagging behind all the top clubs by a distance, they need a dynamic, transformational coach to try and shrink the gulf.

Like José Mourinho, the Benitez style has been overtaken by the Klopp-Conte-Guardiola-Tuchel school. In the early 2000s, his approach worked and he took Liverpool to that dramatic 2005 Champions League success. Since his time at Anfield, his career has increasingly been characterised by short, aborted stints with big name clubs. He was in charge for 22 games at Everton, 25 at Real Madrid and 25 at Inter Milan. His Chelsea role, as an unpopular interim appointment that actually turned out rather well, comprised 48 games. 

His professionalism has always been admired, but will he be in demand now he’s out of a job? Benitez has cited his love of the city and its people to explain his decision to take the Everton job in the first place. Liverpool fans still have a place in their hearts for him and at the Anfield game on the day he was sacked by Everton, the Kop sang his name. A nice touch. 

Everton look absolutely ragged on the field at the moment, one Premier win in 13 games and their latest setback, losing 2-1 at Norwich, underlined the predicament they find themselves in. They are still in the FA Cup and they face Brentford in the fourth round, but relegation is just not worth thinking about.

You have to question the savvy of the Everton board in hiring a former Liverpool man. But equally, are Everton still able to command top, cutting-edge coaches? It would seem not. Carlo Ancelotti suggested they still had it in them, but he didn’t hang around, lured back to Real Madrid. Increasingly, his decision is fully understandable. Bringing in Benitez, a decade ago, would have been a real coup (although still an ex-Liverpool employee), but in 2021, it seemed a little desperate on the part of the club to try and send a message it was still a “player”.

It really isn’t all down to Rafa why Everton are lurching from crisis to crisis. Their transfer market record has been abysmal in recent years, and they’ve spent a lot of money. In 2017-18, their gross spend approached £ 200 million as they tried to deliver a statement of intent. Over the past five years, they have been the fifth highest spender in the Premier with expenditure totalling £ 484 million and net spend £ 220 million. But too many of their signings, such as Davy Klaasen, Theo Walcott and Moise Kean, have been a let-down. 

And yet Everton do have some very good players, they are not in the same category as that other moribund giant, Newcastle United. When you consider they have England’s goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, Richarlison, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Michael Keane and André Gomes, there’s no shortage of talent when it is fit and working well. 

The club also needs a new director of football after Marcel Brands left in December after three and a half years at Goodison. He looks to have initially carried the can for the current malaise, but now Benitez has followed. 

Who will they find to take over? They would be foolish to install Wayne Rooney or Frank Lampard, the former is not really proven as a coach and the ex-Chelsea midfielder would find it hard to be accepted on Merseyside. There’s talk of Roberto Martinez returning and Brighton’s Graham Potter being on the list of possibles. Duncan Ferguson, who has become Everton’s Ryan Giggs, has been mentioned as a candidate to take the now fashionable interim manager’s role.

Owner Farhad Moshiri took something of a gamble when he appointed Benitez and Everton can ill-afford to make another mistake. More importantly, they need fresh direction to ensure they don’t slip through the trapdoor.

Lost momentum – Everton’s year of decline

EVERTON’s worst home defeat in a Merseyside derby since the days when Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish used to run the blues ragged highlighted the growing crisis at Goodison Park.

A year ago, Everton were, by recent standards, buoyant. At Christmas, they were second in the Premier League, had an England striker leading the line and had Mr. Valium, Carlo Ancelotti, in their dugout. They were also still hoping they would see the best of Colombian star James Rodríguez in an Everton shirt.

Today, Ancelotti is top of La Liga with Real Madrid, Rodriquez is plying his trade in Qatar and Everton have a former Liverpool manager, Rafa Benítez in charge. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who started 2020-21 on fire, is sidelined by a nasty injury. What’s more, Everton have made huge financial losses over the past two seasons. On the bright side, work continues on their new stadium, but the biggest fear at the moment is the Premier League status of one of England’s proudest clubs.

Everton were dire at times against their neighbours, especially in defence. Benítez was never a comfortable or popular appointment, as he wasn’t when he was interim boss at Chelsea. Once a Liverpool manager, always a Liverpool manager, they say. At 61, his best days are possibly behind him, but nobody can deny Rafa knows his business and refuses to be easy fodder for the media. He’s professional, focused and well connected, hence he also has Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Napoli on his CV. 

Despite starting well, Everton have truly sunk into the gloom that descended upon the club in 2021. Their home record has been a disaster, 13 league defeats last season and three already this time around. They have been beaten 16 times in 37 games, lower mid-table stuff, but the current trend  – eight games without a win – suggests it will deteriorate. They have averaged around one goal per game for a year. Calvert-Lewin, who began the campaign on form, is just one of a handful of key injuries that have compromised Everton’s early momentum.

There’s nothing like a derby defeat to remind Everton how far they have fallen in a year. Last season, they took four points off Liverpool, but the gulf in class was very evident in this latest clash. 

On paper, Everton should be faring much better, especially after laying-out almost £ 500 million gross over the past five years. Sadly, the club’s transfer policy has lacked a clear strategy and despite being the fifth highest spenders in the Premier during that period. Their current squad, according to Transfermarkt, has a market value of less than £ 400 million. 

While Moshiri has said Benítez will not be sacked, Everton have to ask themselves if they are serving the fans well in their decision-making and recruitment policy, not just in acquiring players, but also managers. For example, since Jürgen Klopp joined Liverpool, Everton have had half a dozen managers, including Roberto Martinez, Sam Allardyce, Ronald Koeman, Marco Silva, Carlo Ancelotti and Benítez. Most have struggled to get a win rate above 40%.

Certainly, the toxic atmosphere at Goodison saw the fans turn on the suits in the expensive seats. Benítez came in for criticism, but chants of “sack the board” could be heard from the frustrated faithful. Some supporters have also directed their anger at director of football, Marcel Brands.

Unfortunately, Rafa may not have the luxury of funds to strengthen his squad thanks to the profligacy of the recent past. Everton’s finances for the past two seasons do not make happy reading, losses of £ 112 million and £ 140 million, the latter among the worst generated by a Premier League club. 

Everton’s wage bill amounted to £ 164 million in 2019-20, which given revenues were £ 186 million in 2019-20, translates to a wage-to-turnover ratio of 89%. Net debt is currently more than £ 350 million. Operationally, Everton lose money, but at least they have a wealthy owner who has a net worth of almost £ 3 billion.

Where do Everton go from here? Such is the size and status of the club that the verdict on their situation changes every game. A few wins, and the mood can be transformed – Benítez believes things will get better. Importantly, the people employing must have the same view, but how long will the fans remain patient? It has been over a quarter of a century since Everton last placed something in their trophy cabinet, the longest spell in their history without some tangible success. It needs to change, but a long-term vision and clear strategy around team-building and management is a prerequisite.