Everton’s Identity Crisis
Frank Lampard can, at least, be sure that there will be no lasting damage. The disappointment of his firing as Everton manager will sting for a while, of course, but there is little reason to believe it will be held against him. A failure to meet expectations at Everton has long since become the sort of thing that might happen to anyone.
It did not, after all, stop Carlo Ancelotti — who steered Everton to the dizzying heights of 10th in the Premier League in his sole full season at Goodison Park — from getting the Real Madrid job. Less than a year after leaving Merseyside, Ancelotti picked up his fourth Champions League trophy (a record), and became the first manager in history to win domestic titles in all of Europe’s five most illustrious leagues.
Ancelotti’s predecessor at Goodison, Marco Silva, has not done quite so well, but his Fulham team currently sits seventh in the Premier League. Ronald Koeman left England with his reputation shredded, but he has since managed the Dutch national team, Barcelona, and the Dutch national team again. Roberto Martínez spent eight years in charge of Belgium; his next task is to take Portugal to the European Championship next summer.
Indeed, of the six most recent (permanent) managers to have clasped English soccer’s great poisoned chalice before Lampard, so far only one — Sam Allardyce — failed to recover, and that might be attributed at least in part to his pre-existing, not especially flattering and largely self-inflicted caricature. (Rafa Benítez, whom Lampard replaced a year ago, has yet to return to work.)
That is instructive. Only one of those managers, Ancelotti, left the club on his terms and with the broad beneficence of the fans. The rest left Goodison Park bilious, rancorous and, more than once, on the verge of outright mutiny.
That so few of those managers have been sullied by the manner of their departures indicates that soccer, as a whole, does not feel Everton, these days, is the sort of place where a manager’s talent can be accurately gauged. Lampard — now four years into his managerial career and with little proof, either way, of whether he is particularly cut out for the job or not — will benefit from that just as Koeman, Silva and all of the others did.
Why that should be, of course, has been outlined frequently in the days since Lampard was fired.
As noted by this newsletter last week, Everton’s majority owner, Farhad Moshiri, lacks a clear vision for what he wants the club to be, other than — as a statement put it — not in the Premier League’s relegation zone. He has, in the six years since he bought Everton, spent something north of $500 million on players, but the recruitment has been so scattershot that it has incontrovertibly made the team worse.
He appointed a director of football and then, by most accounts, did not empower him to sign anyone. He has hired and fired managers with such speed that Lampard’s team for his final game, a defeat at West Ham, contained players brought in by four of his predecessors. Everton is a patchwork of different influences and ideas and policies, a consequence of years of failure.
Both among the club’s fan base and soccer’s professional commentariat, conventional wisdom has it that it is from there that the tendrils of Everton’s chronic disappointment, its permanent crisis, climb: not with the manager but with the system in which they are expected, forlornly, to work. It is, of course, correct. It may not, though, quite get to the root of the issue.
It is impossible to escape Everton’s history. It is there, emblazoned on the stadium, in a series of snapshots commemorating the club’s finest teams, its greatest achievements. It is there, in the words to “Grand Old Team,” the song that long served as one of the club’s prematch standards. It even warranted a mention in the statement Lampard released after his departure, in which he paid homage to the club’s “incredible” history.
That is understandable: Everton’s history is unusually illustrious. It is, depending on your preferred metric, either the fourth most successful team in English history — in terms of league titles won, ahead of Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham — or the eighth, if total trophy haul is deemed a better measure. That history is, as it should be, a source of immense pride.
It is also, though, a prison. The metastasis of soccer over the last two decades has, effectively, rendered history largely irrelevant as a marker of power. Everton’s nine league titles do not mean it earns more from the Premier League’s television deals than Brentford, just as A.C. Milan’s seven European Cups do not give it more financial firepower than Bournemouth (Champions League titles: zero).
The old hierarchies no longer hold, as the rise of Manchester City and Paris St.-Germain make clear, toppled and leveled by the flood of money rushing into the game from broadcasters and sponsors, from oligarchs and hedge funds. History is no longer a draw. Or, rather, it is not nearly so significant a draw as wealth, or prospects, or status, or facilities, or plans.
That adjusted reality has affected the game’s self-appointed superpowers, of course, just as surely as it has affected the vast majority of clubs, the minnows and the traditionally mediocre, all of whom have been forced to adapt to narrowed horizons and limited ambitions.
The impact has been most profound, though, on the class of club to which Everton belongs, those on the second rung of the game’s long established and now defunct power structure, those who are best regarded as soccer’s cruiserweights.
Those teams can be placed, broadly, into two categories. There are those who have accommodated themselves to the way things are now, who have managed to carve out a new definition of success that enables them to find some contentment in a hostile environment.
For Benfica and Ajax, say, that has taken the form of trading continental prominence for domestic supremacy, secured thanks to a steady stream of young talent. For Borussia Dortmund, it has involved accepting a place as the game’s most reliable springboard, a role as a midwife to greatness.
And then there are those who seem to be weighed down by the burden of their history: Valencia, Inter Milan, Marseille, Schalke, Hamburg, West Ham, Aston Villa and, of course, Everton, all unable or unwilling to adopt the methods of their former peers to stake out a new place for themselves.
It is no surprise that these teams have become, for the most part, the most unstable, the least contented clubs in Europe. Happiness is a fleeting thing in soccer; elite sport does not lend itself to lasting satisfaction. But these clubs often seem the most unhappy, caught in a grinding, unending identity crisis, trapped between what they were and what they are.
That is what lies at the heart of the modern Everton. Like Lampard, even Moshiri, to some extent, can be viewed as a consequence as much as a cause of the problem. The club was so desperate to be restored to what it once was that it sold itself to someone who — on the balance of the last six years — has very little clue what he is doing, beyond hiring famous managers and signing expensive players and hoping for the best.
And it is what will continue to undermine Everton until it is resolved, as the teams above them streak away and the teams traditionally beneath them — the smart, progressive ones, at least — roar past. Everton has never been willing to surrender the idea that it is more than a way-station, that it is a destination sort of a club, even if doing so is the first step to returning itself to relevance. To do so would be to think small, and thinking small is unimaginable when you believe, when history dictates, that you are big.
Thanks, first of all, to the half-dozen eagle-eyed readers who got in touch to inform me that I had my magical kingdoms mixed up: Disney World is in Florida, by all accounts, whereas Disneyland is in California. I have, alas, been to neither, owing to a lifelong — and to be honest perfectly logical — fear of giant anthropomorphized mice.
The issue of celebrations, meanwhile, seems to animate even more of you than the misattribution of theme parks. “I wonder if goal celebrations can (or used to) be culture-specific,” wrote Thomas Bodenberg. “In 1994, Brazil played Sweden at the late, unlamented Pontiac Silverdome. When Kennet Andersson scored for Sweden, putting them 1-0 up, he just jogged stoically back to his end, awaiting kickoff. I wonder if that was more a product of Swedish culture than the individual.”
What irks Allan Culham, on the other hand, is how often goal-scorers “do not recognize whoever set them up to get it. Often the assist is the most impressive part, but players celebrate as if it was a result of their effort alone.”
It feels to me as if many players do, these days, opt for the “emphatic pointing” method of celebration, singling out the teammate who made the chance, but this hits upon an issue close to my heart, and one I have discussed with a host of current and former players: the cliché runs that scoring a goal is the hardest job in soccer, but I would contend that making one is infinitely more difficult. (They largely disagree with me.)
Dan Lachman is not short on ambition. It is time, he wrote, to “retire” the tradition/habit/pretension of referring to players by the role seemingly predicated by their numbers. “Does the casual fan have any clue what a ‘No. 6’ is? How about calling it a holding, or defensive, midfielder? It’s time for this to go.”
Oddly, this is a relatively new phenomenon: At a rough guess, the phrase “No. 6” would never have appeared in English commentary of a game even 10 years ago. It is a recent (and entirely harmless) import, and I would agree that it does not actually offer the clarity people assume. What a No. 6 does in Spain, say, is different from what one does in Germany, which is different again from how the Dutch perceive the position.
And a forlorn request from Tony De Palma. “I long to know what is being sung by fans at Premier League stadia,” he wrote. “I love the feel of the spectacle, the ambient sound, but I am unable to make out all but the most well-known chants. How can I, an American onlooker, figure out what these English fans are singing?”
Alas, Tony, the first assumption should always be that whatever it is, the lyrics would almost certainly make the Grey Lady blush. I remember going to a baseball game in San Francisco a few years ago with my wife, who is no fan of either sport. So powerful is social conditioning, though, that after a few minutes even she turned to me, with the air of a disappointed line manager conducting a performance review, and asked why it was that the fans were not swearing at the opposition team.