At Everton, the past weighs heavy on the present
As bitter rivals Liverpool power towards domestic and European success, the people’s club – Everton – find themselves awkwardly straddling competing identities
By Jack Walton
Matchday at Everton. At the top of Winslow Street leading up to Goodison Park fans stand clutching pints in gaggles outside the The Winslow Hotel. The Winslow is also known as the People’s Pub, taking its moniker from ex-manager David Moyes’ nickname for Everton FC, the people’s club.
Others prod at chips from Lucky’s Blue Dragon on Goodison Road, if their stomachs can bear what their nerves inflict upon them. Above them, the colossal likenesses of Everton legends of yesteryear — Dixie Dean, Graeme Sharp, Dave Hickson, and so on — loom out over the warren-like terrace houses of L4, like the telamons of a temple on a hill. Few stadiums bear such geographic proximity to their community. Few clubs bear such emotional proximity, either.
Notably, two things are emphasised in this vignette; history and community. It’s a snapshot of the two pillars that hold this club up; that instil pride in spite of disappointment on the pitch.
Days prior, in the run up to Easter, ex-Everton players Ian Snodin and Graham Stuart visited the astro turf pitch at The People’s Hub just round the corner, from which Everton in the Community — the club’s charity arm – is based. They were helping out with a walking football session for people living with Parkinson’s disease.
Similar charitable schemes are everywhere at Everton. A tricky winger from the ‘80s cutting cake for sufferers of Alzheimer's; a hard-nosed full back from the ‘90s giving a talk to disadvantaged teens. Forty-something community programmes in total, from veterans provision to county lines drug gangs. Over 200 staff, 160 volunteers. More than 20,000 people helped every year. All clubs have these programmes, but none commit to them with the heart and vision that Everton do.
Mike Richards, who runs the Unholy Trinity Podcast, believes that while fans take great pride in Everton's community projects, they also think the club uses them to deflect from on-pitch shortcomings. “Fans accuse the club of hiding behind the people’s club banner. We hide behind the fact that we’re so nice,” he tells me.
No one could deny the current picture is alarming — a relegation battle despite spending basically as much on transfers as title-chasing Liverpool in the last six years. Losses of £120.9 million for the 2020-21 season (and combined losses over the past three years of £372 million). The apparent cutting of ties with Alisher Usmanov — with whom they had several sponsorship deals in place — following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
During the match, against Leicester, a man of pyknic physique stands next to me in the Park End — his face fading between various shades of red depending on which section of the pitch the ball finds itself. At one point he yanks on the toggles of his hoodie hard in disgust and his face disappears into the fabric of the hood. His vocabulary predominantly consists of expletives — onto which he latches some proper nouns; “fucking guy.” “Bastard team.”
When all is said and done, the bastard team steals a late draw. Much relief, but it’s been a bastard season.
Dr David France is Everton Football Club if Everton Football Club was a 73 year old man and walked on legs. Born sickly and poor as the son of a gas worker in Widnes, he retired aged 42 with four degrees having served as an executive with oil and gas corporations in Texas, consulting for NASA and the US government.
Dr France started hitchhiking to Everton matches around the age of 14, which was also the age he learnt to read. The secret of hitchhiking, he says, is to “make sure you pick the driver, they don’t pick you”. He and a friend would go to a cafe in Bold between St Helens and Widnes where long-distance lorry drivers would meet for breakfast before setting off. Dr France would say to them, “I’ll listen to your boring stories if you give me a lift” — to wherever Everton were playing — and often they’d chuckle and agree.
He believes the roots of the club’s current failings are deeper than people often acknowledge. “Everton went into a slow decline about 40 years ago. It coincided with the loss of Sir John Moores,” Dr France tells me. “Sir John was a visionary with the rare ability to adapt to the future.” Dr France likens the club then, and now, to “a monarchy with an ambitious and benevolent leader.” The problem with monarchs is that there is often little challenge to their rule. In the ‘70s and ‘80s the difficulty was navigating the bridge between the visionary work of Moores, who transformed Everton into one of England’s most successful teams as chairman in the ‘60s, and the rapid modernisation of football a couple of decades later.
At the start of the ‘90s, just prior to the inception of the Premier League, Dr France returned to England from America to look after his mother who was in declining health. Whilst back home, he poured his energies into the club, founding The Everton Former Players Foundation, a charity looking after ex-players of the club — some crippled by injuries or others facing financial issues. He also collated The David France Collection — a world leading collection of footballing memorabilia telling the story of the birth and development of the club. His work has provided inspiration for the most elite clubs in European football.
Meanwhile, television money took over football and ushered in a new era of superclubs. Whatever good work Dr France and co were doing away from the pitch, on it Everton began to get left behind.
The white knight
By 2016 Everton fans had been waiting for their billionaire for a long time. Football had changed. It was once run by local boys done good acting out of goodwill and personal interest, monied from their tracksuit bottom empires or, in Everton chairman Bill Kenwright's case — from producing musicals for the West End. Nowadays Mr Kenwright’s fortune could barely buy you a second choice full back. It doesn’t matter how many tickets you can sell to Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat when a typical rival Premier League owner is also the heir to an oil state.
And so when Anglo-Iranian Farhad Moshiri arrived, there was understandable jubilation. Unfortunately, according to Dr France, the club “behaved like inebriated lottery winners, buying ageing cast-offs with no sell-on or residual value.” In the years since, upwards of £550 million has gone on transfers with very little to show for it.
The first big buys were £12 million on 32 year old centre back Ashley Williams, whose best days were long behind him, and £26 million on Yannick Bolasie, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament after four months and eventually left for free having scored twice and contributed virtually nothing. That same summer Everton also pursued Newcastle’s Moussa Sissoko, who reportedly switched off his phone to ignore their calls and joined Tottenham. Moshiri bizarrely appeared on a Sky Sports phone-in claiming he passed up the signing in order to not jeopardise James McCarthy’s Everton career. McCarthy played just 20 more times for the club.
A similar circus ensued each summer. In 2017 Everton spent £90 million of a £145 million spree on three players who played in the same position — attacking midfielder. Two of them barely played. After losing striker Romelu Lukaku, Moshiri claimed a “voodoo message” had convinced his star to leave. Ironically, the meagre £1.5 million spent on striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin has been their shrewdest business of the Moshiri years.
The author James Corbett — who has penned multiple books on the club — believes Everton’s odd hierarchical structure might have something to do with their issues. They don’t operate a traditional board, in that the board overlaps with the club executive. “A board exists to direct strategy and scrutinise the club executive, so a lot of the people on the board are basically scrutinising themselves,” he told me.
Corbett describes the community team and the administration team, who now work from the club’s HQ in the Liver Building, as “absolutely top notch,” but then you have the monarch. He says Moshiri has “surrounded himself with yes men,” none of whom have the strength of voice to challenge his leadership nor the gumption to effectively work around it. “They try and second guess what he wants to do but I don’t think they really know what he wants,” he says.
Dr France praises Moshiri for his financial commitment — “by all means he’s done his part, he’s invested more faith and money than anyone could have predicted,” — but believes the five year window of opportunity for Everton to use the windfall to re-establish themselves as an elite European club has now closed. “It hurts me to say it, but it’s highly unlikely that we will return to the level of our traditional peers in my lifetime,” he says.
Last October, James Corbett suffered “one of the most harrowing afternoons” of his entire life. He’d taken his reluctant youngest son, aged eight, to watch Everton play, with no small amount of cajoling. The whole family had come over from Ireland where they now live to Merseyside, where they are from. His oldest son, 14, went too, although he’s much keener — flying the blue flag for the sixth generation of Everton fan in the Corbett family — a dynasty with roots in the late 1800s.
Everton huffed and puffed and led 2-1 against relegation-threatened Watford until the game reached its final stages. Then, like a sandcastle in a tsunami, they fell apart spectacularly. Watford scored four times in the closing stages of the game and Everton lost 5-2. James’ eight-year-old glanced up with wide eyes and a look of general bafflement that his own father would subject him to such an inappropriately traumatic day out. “Told you so, dad,” he said.
When James was growing up, weekend rituals were simple. He would play football on Saturday morning, then congregate with the whole family at their grandparent’s house. As James’ parents didn’t have a car they’d work out their various lifts up to Goodison. After the game, they’d eat chips — or later drink at the pub. Then they’d get the Echo and sit around the house until Match of the Day came on. Sunday morning, it was church. To varying degrees, all of those institutions are in decline.
But that was a weekend, every weekend — anchored by two great immovable monoliths: Everton and Catholicism. “We like our rituals,” James says, “but rituals change.”
For Dr France it’s not all doom and gloom. He says it’s three things that make Everton special, not two. The heritage, of course — this is “the old lady of English football” — having spent 119 years in the top flight, more than any other club. Then there’s the “uncommon values”, Everton in the community and his own work — schemes that absorb the club into the area in a way that outreaches football. The third is the people, the “special people both behind the scenes and, of course, on the terraces at home and away.”
There should be a fourth, too. The waterfront Bramley-Moore Dock Stadium, currently under construction to be the club’s new home from 2024. There had been fears Moshiri would renege on plans to finish the development given Everton’s precarious league position but a deal has been agreed this month with firm Laing O’Rourke to complete the construction. Indeed, it is understood that Premier League several executives have reached out to the club privately to express how impressed they have been at finances of the deal. Tottenham’s stadium for example, ran to costs of over £1 billion despite initial predictions of £400 million. Everton’s has basically remained on budget.
The project will be carried out with its community in mind, as is typical of how Everton operate. The club has claimed that it will provide a £1.3 billion boost to the local economy and create 15,000 new jobs, although those figures have been disputed by people who know how to operate a calculator and others who have seen similar sports stadium projects deliver very meagre economic returns across the world. The hope is that the move won’t sacrifice what was best about the old home, with its steep stands and intimidating acoustics. As Mike says, “the stadium is a huge part of what we are.” Various features will be recreated — with the fans as close to the pitch as possible in the new build.
What it won’t have is the history. But maybe history should be left as exactly that. Most Everton fans below 40 won’t remember winning the league. Most Everton fans below 30 won’t remember winning anything. Dr France believes Everton needs a reinvention. In his day it was one Everton fan to one Liverpool. ”Looking around the city today, it appears distinctly red,” he says, “albeit with out-of-towners wearing their expensive Liverpool apparel.”
Quite what that new identity would be he says should be left to a new era — young people with energy and ideas. “They could be the most entertaining team, the team with the biggest heart, the team that captures the North American market,” he says. These are only ideas, he’s spitballing, but the gist is clear. “Whatever it is, they need to be something.”