Six years after a sour exit, Everton still pine to return

Tonight's visitors to Goodison bring a bitter reminder that the promised land has grown more remote each year. By Simon Hart
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The Independent Online

Thoughts of what might have been will enter Evertonian minds tonight when Villarreal visit Goodison Park for their final pre-season friendly.

It was against the Spanish club in 2005 that the Merseysiders fell one step short of the Champions League group stage, in a qualifier remembered for Pierluigi Collina's mystifying decision to rule out a potentially pivotal Duncan Ferguson goal.

After a 2-1 home defeat, Everton thought they had restored parity at El Madrigal when, after Mikel Arteta's free-kick had made it 1-1 on the night, Ferguson powered home a header from a corner. Instead Collina whistled for a perceived infringement by Marcus Bent on Gonzalo Rodriguez, when the TV cameras showed the pair merely jostling.

Villarreal, who salted the wound with a second goal at the death, reached the semi-finals; Everton, despite twice surpassing the points total that earned them fourth place in the Premier League in 2004-05, have not got closer to modern football's promised land since.

Mick Rathbone, part of David Moyes' Goodison inner sanctum for eight years as Everton's head of science, recalls the "amazing damp squib" that followed the feat of finishing fourth. Drawing Villarreal was bad luck enough, he recalls, but disappointment at defeat melded with anger once they reviewed Collina's "blatant mistake".

As the 10th full season of Moyes' reign approaches, a more pertinent question than "what if?" is "what next?" for a club who won the last of their nine league titles 25 years ago next May. A section of Everton's support has become increasingly active in voicing its frustrations with owner Bill Kenwright and his board over their failure to find the necessary investment to back Moyes in the transfer market even modestly.

Everton's debt is an estimated £45m and, according to the chief executive, Robert Elstone, in a blog on the club website, "the squeeze on money is harder than ever". The contrast with Liverpool, where Kenny Dalglish has recruited £100m worth of new players in 2011, is stark. Moyes, whose side have finished one place behind their great rivals for three of the last four seasons, has spent around £2m all told in the past three windows and must again sell before he can buy.

Kenwright's critics also point to the failed ground moves to Kings Dock and Kirkby; the fact that Goodison Park has remained essentially untouched for 17 years means it generates roughly one-fifth of the income Old Trafford does on a match day. This week a coalition of protest groups called the Blue Union issued a press release complaining about "stagnation" and a "lack of transparency".

But Rathbone, in his insightful autobiography, The Smell of Football, stresses that the club's straitened circumstances have bred a formidable team spirit and it is telling that neither of their highly rated England defenders, the Arsenal target Jagielka and Leighton Baines, appears in any rush to leave. "The tightness of the squad and the tightness of the people make it, I suggest, quite a unique situation in the modern-day Premier League."