From Valencia to Crewe – a search for authenticity

OVER the past couple of months, I have witnessed football in all four divisions in England and hopped across to Spain to catch a Champions League tie involving Chelsea and Valencia. As well as the contrast in climate – it was great to go short-sleeved in Valencia while everyone was rain-sodden at home – seeing football across all levels was a reminder that for all the glitz and glamour of the elite, some aspects of the game remain humble and earnest. Some are in a precarious state.

On the subject of precarious, I must admit I have never felt so vulnerable at a football ground as I was in Valencia. Not because of the fans, but after the ascent of the north face of the Mestalla. Is there a steeper, more daunting climb than the one you encounter reaching the very top of the open stand? We were in the highest but one row, a floodlight behind us and the city before us. Fantastic, but I looked around and asked my pal, “Bill, have you noticed something?…we are the only people over the age of 21 in this part of the stand.” Indeed we were, for the older folk were perched down below. We had reached the summit and after some puffing and panting – not to mention negotiating the concrete steps which are a challenge for anyone under six foot – we were enjoying the view. No surprise the lift to this section of the ground had a long queue.

The Mestalla was a wonderful experience, the vibe was pure passion and the game was excellent, a 2-2 draw amid the shabby chic of one of Spain’s most iconic stadiums. We had to admit, though, it is an arena best suited to Sherpas and mountain dwelling creatures.

Valencia, along with my trip last year to Real Madrid, has given me a taste for Spain after years of relative neglect on my part, mostly because of a few trips to Lloret de Mar as a teenager in search of thrills and spills. Not being a sun-worshipper, my wife and I tend to patronise the Nordic region, partly because as a 50% Dane, I am naturally interested, but also because we cannot tolerate intense heat. However, after years of trolling around central Europe, Germany and Scandinavia, I have suddenly got an urge to visit Spain again.

What’s not to like, especially in winter? There was little obvious evidence of the economic crisis that brought the country to its knees a decade ago, although Valencia’s new ground has sat unfinished like a hotel at a suddenly unfashionable tourist resort. The city itself looks fairly prosperous at first glance with a relaxed air and a taste for modern architecture. The weather is glorious, the oranges that provide the world’s marmalade lovers with fruit glisten in the sun and Iberico ham hangs from the ceilings of countless shops, bars and restaurants. It’s not just about football!

By contrast, my trip to Crewe came just 48 hours after the latest general election in the UK. Anyone who has travelled the country in search of football kicks has changed at Crewe at some point in their lives. Valencia’s fans, supporting a club from one of Spain’s biggest cities, are passionate, but to attach yourself a club like Crewe takes a very special fan. In the UK, we’ve got millions of people who follow the less celebrated, less successful clubs, and the fortunes of their favourite team mean as much to them as any regular at the Mestalla.

From a footballing perspective, Crewe Alexandra is one of those romantic names that once proliferated lower league football, evoking images of flat caps, rattles and cups of Bovril. The beanie hat has succeeded the flat cap, despite a renaissance in natty tweed headgear by order of the Peaky Blinders, and rattles are nowhere to be seen, but Bovril is still on sale at Gresty Road.

I was in Crewe for a couple of reasons, one was to pick-up on the mood after the election, the other was to see a club that I’ve always had a soft spot for. I was fortunate to be seated with a number of similarly-aged Crewe fans who were intrigued why somebody with a southern accent was at the game. We had a good, through-the-game conversation that left me in no doubt about how the locals feel about their club – as well as their politics!

What do fans of clubs like Crewe really hope for? Success has to be relative when you’re as small and challenged as a Crewe, a Macclesfield or a Stevenage. Little victories, fleeting triumphs and, in the current climate where the rich clubs keep getting richer and the poor long to just get through the season, survival is the thing. Crewe have Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham not so far away, which makes life a little difficult at times. Valencia, despite their good gates and high level of expectation, have to contend with Real Madrid and Barcelona in the same stable. Who really has the hardest task, Crewe or Valencia?

I enjoyed both trips immensely, one for its scale, emotion and quality, the other for the stoic way clubs like Crewe co-exist with giant clubs whose financial clout is way off into the stratosphere. But the experience demonstrated why we love football, because it is about the giants and the minnows, the rich and poor, the bold and the humble. In some ways, those that follow clubs that only briefly get a glimpse of the spotlight are those that represent the heart and soul of football.

Constant success can soon become a  little bit “everyday” – why else would fans of some of recently-monied clubs hanker for the days when success was something they strived for rather than expected? It may be something to do with authenticity. Given that we supposedly live in a time when people, tired and disillusioned by the superficial, crave an authentic experience, a trip to Valencia or Crewe provide the ideal antidote to 21st century world-weariness.


Photo: PA

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine, February 2020 edition.

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.


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.



Photo: PA