Everton’s chance to regain status

THIRTY years ago, if you named the top six clubs in England, Everton would have been among them, despite the era belonging to their neighbours Liverpool. Traditionally, Everton were one of the blue riband institutions, but in the Premier League era, they have been unable to compete for major honours. In fact, the last piece of silverware won by the Goodison Park-based club was in 1995 – nothing in 24 years, repeating the leanest spell in the club’s history when Everton were potless from 1939 to 1963. This current period is arguably worse, and certainly more frustrating, for the second world war got in the way in the 1940s.

Everton have become so exiled from the top six that seventh position in the Premier has become known, rather flippantly, as “the Everton Cup”. Social observers may question whether a city like Liverpool can comfortably house two major clubs, especially as the red half has pulled away in recent years, but Manchester proves that it can be done, as does London, although the capital is far, far bigger in terms of population and commercial opportunity.

Everton do not have the international appeal of their local rivals, but domestically, their name still has cachet. The real money in football club ownership and sponsorship is sourced globally, and therefore the clubs with the biggest international presence are more likely to attract the seriously wealthy magnates from Asia, America and places like Russia.

Unfulfilled

Since 1970 when Everton won the Football League with an exciting team – Kendall, Harvey, Ball et al – that largely went unfulfilled, Liverpool have surged ahead although there was a brief period, between 1984 and 1988, when Everton became serious challengers again, winning two championships, the FA Cup and European Cup-Winners’ Cup. Sadly, the Heysel Stadium affair robbed Howard Kendall’s team of the chance to really flex its European muscle and the players, along with the manager, all moved on. Despite a number of false dawns, they have never had as vibrant a team as the one that brought a welcome interlude to Liverpool dominance in the early 1980s.

But there could be a realistic, exciting and future-proofed solution to Everton’s near quarter century of being an also-ran. The current business model may not allow a breakthrough into the top six and unless it is modified, the club that was once known as the “Bank of England”, may be destined to remain a co-star in the Premier’s cast of giants. Unless, of course, a multi-billionaire bearing gifts comes onto the scene.

The answer could just be the proposed new stadium that Everton are planning, a new home for a new age. Of course, fans of every club are often wed to their traditional venue and the regular pilgrimage to the sacred temple of the club is part of the overall supporter experience. Goodison Park, with its Archie Leitch stand, has probably been living on borrowed time for some years, but the subject of a replacement has always been a nebulous subject. Many see it as an extension of their own home and any thought of relocation is often greeted with horror. Game of the People conducted a survey and asked Everton fans if they were enthused by the prospect of a new ground and only 40% were totally happy. But, like it or not, it may be the only way Everton are to move into the elite bracket of the European game.

Just consider the financial gulf between Everton and Liverpool. Everton’s revenues in 2018 totalled £ 188 million while Liverpool’s were over £ 450 million. This demonstrates the benefit of UEFA Champions League football as much as anything else. But one of the glaring differences between the two clubs is commercial income, with Liverpool earning five times the total generated by Everton.

Liverpool is undoubtedly a bigger club and a recent survey suggested the Reds have 10 times the number of supporters in the UK than Everton.

Project for the People

The new stadium, proposed for North Liverpool’s Bramley-Moore Dock, will cost £ 500 million and will have a 52,000 capacity with the flexibility to increase to 62,000. Everton last had an average gate of more than 50,000 in 1963 and last hit 40,000-plus in 1974-75. In 2018-19, Everton’s average was 39,043 which represents a near-100% utilisation rate. The club claims to have sold-out every game over the past three years, so it’s not unrealistic to hope for a 50,000 crowd watching the blues at their state-of-the-art new build.

Everton’s position has certainly declined over the past 50 years. In 1970 they were averaging 49,000 and were only just behind Manchester United, but by the time they won the title in 1985, their average was down to 32,000. When the Premier League started, Everton were drawing just 20,000 to Goodison, while Liverpool were averaging 37,000 at Anfield.

Can Everton move back to the 50,000 club? With Premier League growth showing no signs of easing up, there is no reasons why they cannot join the seven clubs who currently average more than 50,000.

The Bramley-Moore Dock stadium has been designed by MEIS architects, the same people that worked on Roma’s new ground and other stadiums in Japan and the US. This is a project that will bring the club more in line with Liverpool as well as Londoners Arsenal and Tottenham. Words like “transformative” and “regenerative” are being used, for not only will Everton FC benefit, but there’s a big social angle, too.

The stadium is hoped to be one of the high points of a £ 5.5 billion regeneration of the North Liverpool area, a district that ranks among the 1% most deprived wards in Britain. It will include new homes and health and educational facilities. From Everton’s perspective, it will be a “game changer” and will include a 13,000 seater south stand, which has a hint of influence from Dortmund. According to socio-economic consultants RealWorth, the entire scheme, known as “The People’s Project”, will generate £ 793 million of societal value beterrn 2024 and 2033.

Architect Dan Meis has become something of an Everton fan – he has a tattoo of the club’s formation date – and called the project “a dream site for an architect.” He added that the new ground will “embrace the future of English football without totally forgetting the past”. He is aware of the mistakes made in relocating West Ham and there has been talk of parts of Goodison being incorporated in the stadium’s design.

Of course there are sceptics who might see words like regeneration and match them to gentrification (actually one of the concerns about Tottenham’s new ground), but when it comes to property development, it is difficult to separate the two. But there is a hint of what lays in store when you find out that regeneration includes a cruise liner terminal and luxury apartments. However, at present, it is a decaying area that includes a sewage plant, so one would hope it’s a case of benefits for everyone.

The new ground could well be Everton’s salvation, the big chance to reinvent themselves and climb out of the shadows of the red men of Anfield. The heritage of the club and its contribution to the history of football in Britain demands that the Toffeemen of Goodison are more than just bit-part actors in the drama that is the people’s game.

@GameofthePeople

 

Photo: PA

 

Fulham show calm regrouping pays off

ONE YEAR after newly-promoted Fulham were throwing money around and buying players for fun, the Cottagers found themselves back in the more humble surroundings of the Championship. The moneyball experiment, if that’s the right word for the way the club accumulated quantity over quality, was over and some of the higher profile names, notably some under-performing Ligue 1 captures, had been sent out on loan as their contracts are run down.

Craven Cottage basked in the summer sunshine and received a battering from the unseasonal winds that whistled down the River Thames. The march to the stadium seemed to have a smaller cast than last season, but then Fulham’s capacity has been reduced owing to the redevelopment of the Riverside Stand.

Forty-seven years after their SW6 neighbours, Chelsea, played in front of a three-side ground, Fulham are about to do the same. Anyone who remembers how Chelsea’s fortunes declined among the hard hats and steel girders will be hoping that Fulham adjust to the transition better than their more celebrated neighbours at the other end of Fulham Road.

Judging by the photos, they will have an eye-catching stand on the banks of the river. The contrast between a new state-of-the-art facility with the Edwardian-era, Archibald Leitch stand on Stevenage Road will be considerable.

Fulham hosted Blackburn Rovers for their first home game in the Championship. The construction work meant the club had to relocate their fans from the stand to the Putney End, which means away supporters are literally touching distance for Fulham’s regulars. This will not be a problem for most people as Fulham’s clientele are generally not punchy (the recent incident at Barnsley was out of character), although one fan did deliberately position himself among the Blackburn Rovers travelling contingent to prove a point. This made the stewards a little uncomfortable and a prolonged discussion took place with the burly Fulham supporter who didn’t move easily. Millwall are Fulham’s next visitors, it would seem unlikely that freedom of movement will be permitted – where have I heard that phrase before?

With parachute payments to cushion the blow of relegation, Fulham would normally start the season as one of the favourites for promotion. However, the manner in which they succumbed to the drop in what was a truly dreadful season, hardly inspired confidence. It is difficult to agree with those that point to the players and say, “it’s a Premier squad” for the results in 2018-19 demonstrated that despite the significant outlay, it was far from an outfit that could give a good account of itself in the Premier. At times, the defence, which conceded 81 goals in 38 games, was appalling.

It was something of a surprise that Fulham kept hold of Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrović, but in doing so, they have two key players who could galvanise the team and mount a challenge for promotion. They couldn’t hold on to Ryan Sessegnon, who joined Tottenham on transfer deadline day. Club chairman Shahid Khan clearly expects Scott Parker to work quickly. His programme notes noted that the squad is being built for “immediate and lasting success”.

It’s not quite that easy for relegated teams. Most have a bit of a clear-out predominantly to ease the wage bill, but psychologically, adapting to life in the second tier takes time. Fulham, of course, are a club that has played at all levels, so they have no right to Premier status – they also don’t seem to expect it, certainly not among the fans, anyway. To the club’s credit, there was no toxic atmosphere as the result of falling through the Premier trapdoor.

The Championship is incredibly competitive and less predictable than the Premier. In the past five seasons, 21 different clubs have occupied the top six places. In the last two, teams coming down from the Premier have not won promotion back at the first attempt. In 2018-19, for example, West Brom finished fourth, Swansea 10thand Stoke 16th. Clubs spend money in the Championship, too much in fact – the wage to income ratio is well over 100%, which suggests clubs are desperate to win promotion to the Premier.

Interestingly, Fulham seem to have found renewed faith in the players that won the Wembley play-off in 2018. The team that lined-up against Blackburn included six players who beat Aston Villa in May of that year. A year ago, when Fulham played Crystal Palace after a hectic summer bringing in around a dozen new faces, only four from the play-off took the field. In short, they temporarily discarded those that had won promotion in favour of new signings.

Fulham have brought in some new players, though, but there’s been less hurrah about their acquisitions. They’re mostly loan players on a one-year deal, playing to Mr. Khan’s comment about a team being built for a job. They include: Ivan Cavaleiro from Wolves, a tricky Portuguese winger; Anthony Knockaert, another wide-man from Brighton and Irish midfielder Harry Artur from Bournemouth.

Artur, Knockaert and Cavaleiro all started against a Blackburn side that finished 15thin the Championship in 2018-19. Among their new signings was Stewart Downing, the 35 year-old former England international, but began the afternoon on the bench.

Both Fulham and Blackburn lost their opening day games, Fulham surprisingly going down 1-0 at Barnsley and Blackburn going down by the odd goal in three at home to Charlton Athletic.

Parker has adopted a “play from the back” approach this season and in the early stages, this almost caused problems for Fulham. Blackburn looked the better side early on, but in the 35thminute, Tom Cairney struck a superb goal from distance, calming the nerves and temporarily muting the away fans.

Blackburn did create some good chances with the two Bradleys, Dack and Johnson going close with headers. They never really tested Fulham keeper Marcus Bettinelli, though, despite having the better of the first period.

Fulham looked in control in the second half and the result was put beyond doubt with nine minutes to go, Mitrović tapping-in from close range after persistent work by Joe Bryan. There was no coming back for Blackburn.

A steady, if unspectacular start to the Craven Cottage season, but there was also a sense of relief about the result. Fulham don’t need another crisis autumn – Scott Parker certainly doesn’t want a stuttering start to the campaign. He needs no reminding that the club had three managers last season.

Photos: PA

 

 

 

Old and new… both should always have their place

FOOTBALL fans, by and large, are nostalgists, especially those that remember the days when pitches were muddy, shirts were not emblazoned with multiple sponsors, and football managers actually said something meaningful in post-match interviews.

Ask any non-league fan, for example, their favourite locations and they will invariably tell you the old wooden ground at Clapped-out Rovers is full of character and “proper”. At the same time, they will bemoan the plethora of “cookie-cutter” constructions that have sprung up in recent years.

On a personal basis, I love old grounds, but I also admire some of the new stadiums that are appearing all over Europe. There’s no denying that European football has its heritage stadiums, grounds like the San Siro, the Bernabeu, Munich’s 1970s classic, the Olympic Stadium and the Ernst Happel (formerly Prater) in Vienna. These have all hosted major club and international fixtures, and as such, they deserve a metaphorical blue plaque in recognition of their place in football history. The old Nep in Budapest, too, is worthy of mention in this category, even though it has made way for a new ground in the Hungarian capital.

As a child, I remember being fascinated by the geography of football and where nations played their international games. It fuelled an interest in travel and I was always excited about the prospect of moving around the continent to watch football in places like Belgrade, Prague, Paris, Brussels, Madrid and Lisbon. That early obsession with European football (which was not usual back in the late 1960s, early 1970s), has stayed with me to the present day but it was really only in the past decade that I have been able to realise my ambition of visiting all the major football grounds and clubs that I read about all those years ago. I’m still working on it, even as the UK tip-toes out of the European Union.

While it has been good to visit the homes of Ajax, Juventus and Real Madrid, most clubs have, of course, remodelled or relocated their grounds since the days when Johan Cruyff and his team-mates played at Ajax’s modest De Meer stadium. Ajax’s Arena is a massive, relatively new ground, not one of my favourites, but nevertheless, an impressive location. True, De Meer had that “character” stadium addicts enthuse about, but just because something is new does not mean it does not warrant praise.

I was recently in Madrid for the World Football Summit and managed to get to see Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and also take a tour of the new Atletico ground, the Wanda Metropolitano. While the Bernabeu is an imposing stadium and dominates the neighbourhood, Atletico play in an area close to the airport. It is a beautiful ground, has good access points and you can definitely “breath”. This is an aesthetic football home that is a “must-see”.

Similarly, another piece of “eye candy” is Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, which was built for Euro 2016. Frankly, this is the most beautiful stadium I have ever seen, designed by the famous architect firm Herzog & de Meuron. Along with another of this company’s creations, the Allianz in Munich, the Bordeaux stadium is a modern classic. Before Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, shelved plans for Stamford Bridge, these fellows were working on a quite spectacular rebuild in South-West London.

Photo: James Boyes CC BY 2.0

There certainly seems to be a trend to build “statement” grounds which become part of the image, brand and status of big clubs. In Britain, we’ve had lots of new stadiums over the past 20 or so years, many have a fairly antiseptic look about them, but they are certainly functional and have, in many cases, acted as the catalyst to improve clubs and spectator comfort. It is easy to get all misty-eyed about cow-shed stands, dreadful sanitation and leaking roofs, but there are many positives about the new breed of stadium, even if some of them do look like they have come from the same kit. Gone are the days of inner-city grounds, most new builds require a hike out of the centre, but in most cases, change has been a positive. Why? Because a versatile stadium, that can offer the community more than a fortnightly game, is a huge asset for a football club. That’s the world we live in today.

For me, if every stadium was like that gleaming white monument to football in Bordeaux, that world would be a much better place. That said, I also like to see old-style grounds with huge floodlights and rusty turnstiles. Don’t we all?

 

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine, reproduced with permission