Everton are still a big club, but how long can they be a heritage act?

IF any club needs to look closely at itself in the mirror at the end of 2022-23, it is surely Everton. For the second consecutive season, they have escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth, more by luck than judgement, and their financial performance continues to be sub-optimal. The timing of the club’s mis-management couldn’t be worse, for they have a bright new stadium taking shape across the city of Liverpool and to fall through the trapdoor could have been catastrophic. This is a club that can realistically claim to be among the top 10 in English football, by size, heritage and potential.

The fans celebrating “staying up” did so in relief more than with cork-popping hysteria and yet, everyone connected with Everton should be more than a little red-faced, not least the owners and the board. Countless people reminded the media in their post-match interviews that Everton shouldn’t be in their current predicament, but they have only themselves to blame. Furthermore, Everton may still have the scent of a “big club”, but the modern definition is not merely judged by having a big stadium, big support and a trophy cabinet full of prizes won 30 years ago. Everton are no longer a big club in the way that their neighbours across Stanley Park are, or indeed their rivals in Manchester and London.

They were once arguably one of the most influential and progressive clubs in football, but that time has long passed them by. Their last major prize was won in 1995, their most recent championship secured in 1987. They have their history, but it is becoming more and more sepia-tinted; the 28 years they have waited for another honour is the longest the club has ever had to endure. Everton would be classed as a second or third seed if the Premier League had such a system, but they can still regain the status they believe they deserve. In time.

What will be in the back of the minds of Everton’s fans is the experience of a number of former “big clubs” that have never climbed back or have never truly fulfilled the potential they feel they have: Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday, Birmingham City, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, among others. And then there’s the great under-achievers of the game, Newcastle United, a club that is going through transformation due to their change of ownership and elevation to quasi state-ownership. Both Chelsea and Manchester City were also in this bracket until the money arrived. The two clubs’ records of trophy winning are similar: Chelsea won eight of their 25 pieces of silverware before Abramovich flew into London, City won eight of their 24 prior to their Abu Dhabi takeover. Newcastle, for all their progress in 2022-23, have not experienced domestic success since 1955 and their last trophy was the old Fairs Cup in 1969.

Everton’s fans are entitled to be frustrated, but how can they compete in the new footballing paradigm? Clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have shown what seemingly unlimited wealth can do for a club, but that doesn’t make them popular – far from it. Rivals such as Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool continuously screamed “injustice” about the type of ownership that results in inflated investment, yet Qatar are possibly still hovering around trying to buy at least one of these clubs.

Ownership has become the new competitive differential and clubs wishing to keep pace will undoubtedly look for a similar form of backing. Everton fans want to “sack the board” and earlier this year, Farhad Moshiri put the club up for sale, but who do they really want to replace the current owners? Do they want to become the next Chelsea or PSG? We have seen, quite graphically, how fans can forget the issues they claim to be important at other clubs when a truckful of cash parks on the forecourt of their stadium. 

A New York-based sports investor, MSP Capital, which has stakes in other clubs including Augsburg, Brøndby and SK Beveren, among others, has been talking to Moshiri about a possible investment that could morph into a takeover. But would an owner/investor with multi-club interests enable them to be competitive with the elite? Chelsea tasted continual success under Abramovich’s regime and although the new owners have shown their commitment by playing fantasy football, the club is not the one elevated by the Russian’s cash and approach. There is a world of difference between owners who don’t need to make money and those that have been steeped in the culture of Wall Street or have a desire to build a portfolio of assets. Chelsea fans are only just seeing the start of this transition and they clearly don’t like it.

Whoever owns a club, the fans will warm to them and trust them if they believe the right things are being done. Relegation would have been very hard to take and, according to football finance expert Dan Plumley of Sheffield Hallam University, would have wiped £ 60 million off the club’s revenues literally overnight, the difference between Premier League TV money and the compensatory parachute payments. An added concern would have been the new stadium project, any potential investor may have baulked at the prospect of financial uncertainty. 

The past five years have seen a host of challenges for all football clubs, but since 2018, Everton’s income has dropped by 5%. In that same timeframe, it is easy to see who is growing among the elite: Liverpool’s revenues have risen by 30%, Manchester City’s by 22% and Tottenham’s by 17%. Everton’s 2021-22 earnings totalled £ 181 million, 30% of amount generated by Liverpool. More worrying are the accumulated losses: between 2017-18 and 2021-22, Everton have lost in excess of £ 400 million. Net debt also reached £ 142 million in 2022.

From the outside, Everton’s problems seem fairly obvious, but almost every aspect of the club needs close examination: ownership, player acquisition and development, team management and financial sustainability. Everyone has their own idea about the source of the problems, but in 2023-24, it is imperative Everton unite and move forward once more, otherwise the consequences could be dire. After all, nobody wants the club to have the best new stadium in the Championship.

Somebody else’s party: Tranmere Rovers v Northampton Town

LUDICROUSLY early for a Bank Holiday Monday, the final day of the League Two season meant that fans up and down the country had to leave for their away trips incredibly early. Stevenage’s promotion-happy band, for example, were leaving for Barrow at around 4am. Northampton Town’s hopeful supporters were probably not far behind for their journey to Merseyside and Tranmere Rovers. Clearly, somebody wasn’t necessarily thinking of the football public when they decided on 12.30 kick-offs on a national holiday when trains are notoriously unreliable.

That didn’t deter the Northampton faithful, who travelled to Birkenhead en masse anticipating that their team would get the win they needed to secure automatic promotion to League One. It may have been a home game for Tranmere, but the only noise you could hear was coming from the Cowshed End from the 2,000-odd Cobblers’ fans. The home contingent seemed very subdued about their mid-table performance in 2022-23, but Mark Palios, the Rovers’ chairman, remained convinced the club’s strategy of focusing on young players and their development was the right one. Given the club’s revenues in 2022 amounted to £ 5.5 million, of which £ 3.8 million were consumed by wages, any club of Tranmere’s size has to look at this approach as a pragmatic way to operate.

Tranmere’s season has been a patchy one, but their home form has kept them away from danger. They also gave Newcastle United a hard game in the EFL Cup after a penalty shoot-out marathon (12-11 in their favour) against Accrington Stanley. Their crowds in 2022-23 fell to an average of 6,142 from 6,872 in 2021-22, but there were more than 8,000 inside Prenton Park for the vital game with Northampton. Tranmere, in 2022-23, were in their fifth season since returning to the EFL and their third consecutive League Two campaign after being relegated from League One in 2019-20. 

Prenton Park is one of those “walk in off the street” stadiums that used to proliferate the lower divisions of the Football League. It’s spacious, all-seater and mostly all-covered. It’s a somewhat homely place, one of those football grounds where, beneath the grandstand, the supporters sip their pre-match drinks and devour pies and burgers in expectation.

With so many travelling fans expected, there was a strong local Police presence and an air of vigilance. It didn’t seem to work very well, for despite the body-searching, Northampton fans managed to sneak in some pyrotechnics (where the hell do they put them?). There was a determined party atmosphere, but it could so easily have gone flat without three points, especially if Stockport County won their game at home to Hartlepool United.

Northampton were beaten in the play-offs in 2021-22, so gaining a League One place without the drama of knockout football was the big prize at stake. They were effectively denied promotion on goal difference after Scunthorpe fielded a weak side in their game against Bristol Rovers, lost 7-0 and in doing so, allowed Rovers to go up ahead of Northampton.

They had won three of their last five but had slipped up in their previous fixture at home to Bradford City. Their key man has been Sam Hoskins, a 30 year-old who netted 22 goals before the Tranmere game. 

The kick-off was preceded by the national anthem as Britain’s coronation celebrations continued into a third day. It was actually impossible to hear it and some people clearly didn’t realise it was taking place. The game started at a fast pace with the soundtrack definitely being provided by the visitors. 

It was leading scorer Hoskins that scored the goal that clinched victory and gave Northampton the promotion they craved. It came in the fifth minute and was a powerful, crisp well-taken volley. It sparked off riotous celebrations that included a couple of smoke bombs that engulfed the end of the pitch in pink.

Towards the end of the game, Northampton’s players seemed to be tiring but the fans kept urging them on for the final minutes. Over at Stockport, the score was 1-1 against already relegated Hartlepool. The home side missed a late penalty, which added to the tension in Birkenhead, but Northampton hung on to win and Stockport could only draw. The journey back to the old shoe-making capital of England looked set to be enjoyable, especially after the debacle of 2021-22.

As for Tranmere, their fans have already bought 2,000 season tickets, which is a vote of confidence for the club’s vision. It must be tough always having Liverpool and Everton on the other side of the Mersey tunnel, but equally, it was surely difficult for them on the final day of the 2022-23 season to be at somebody else’s party.