FOOTBALL: Everton circus faces the Big Drop

The legacy of a power struggle at Goodison has sapped the team's ability to compete. Glenn Moore on the slide of a great club
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The Independent Online
THOSE Everton fans who watched enviously as Arsenal, having humiliated their team, carried the Premiership trophy around Highbury last week will be able to savour their own silverware parade at Goodison Park tomorrow.

But while a championship trophy and a cup will be on display, the afternoon is more likely to end in a mournful wake than a celebratory party as their club tries to avoid a unique treble.

Last month Everton ladies won the Women's Premier League, on Thursday the teenagers won the FA Youth Cup. Tomorrow the first team are favourites to be relegated from the top division for the first time in 47 years. Founder members of the League, champions in seven different decades and nine times in all, Everton have only missed four top-flight seasons in 110 years. Should they go down they will be the biggest name to be relegated since Manchester United in 1974.

To avoid the drop they need to gain a point more against Coventry at Goodison than Bolton Wanderers can achieve against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. That might seem feasible but take into account Chelsea's preoccupation with their European Cup-Winners' Cup final, and Everton's vulnerability against the sort of pace Darren Huckerby has in abundance, and next season's local derby will probably be against Tranmere rather than Liverpool.

There was the usual talk, at Everton's suburban training ground this week, about "fighting to the last", but the mood is subdued rather than bullish reflecting the defeatism prevalent on the blue half of Merseyside. Though the team will still run out to the theme from Z Cars another bygone anthem, Abba's "SOS", would be more appropriate.

The fans, though turning up in impressive numbers, are in despair. Six years of near-continual struggle has worn them down as it has the team. Some wonder whether relegation might prove a springboard for a new start but more look at the many parallels at Manchester City and fear a loss of status could be terminal.

Like City, who also have a dominant neighbour, Everton have endured boardroom and management upheaval resulting in a lack of direction. Many of the problems stem from the post-Heysel ban on English clubs. As domestic champions and European Cup-Winners' Cup holders in 1985 Everton fancied their chances in the European Cup. Instead Howard Kendall, frustrated at being unable to test himself abroad, soon left for Spain, Gary Lineker followed, Trevor Steven and Gary Stevens went to Rangers and the team broke up.

The 1987 title was their last League success and, by 1992, the club was fighting relegation. The Moores family, long the guiding influence, decided to sell their controlling stake in the club precipitating a lengthy power struggle between Peter Johnson, a local foodstuffs millionaire, chairman of Tranmere and former Liverpool season ticket-holder, and Bill Kenwright, the West End theatre impresario and lifelong Evertonian. Kenwright was the fans' choice, Johnson had the money. Eventually they did a deal with Johnson, for pounds 20m, becoming chairman and majority shareholder and Kenwright staying on the board.

Initially this seemed to work. Johnson provided the finance to sign the likes of Daniel Amokachi and Duncan Ferguson and, after the popular Joe Royle replaced Mike Walker, Everton won the FA Cup. Further investment brought in Andrei Kanchelskis, Nick Barmby and Gary Speed but the team failed to gel, Royle fell out with the local media and, after Johnson refused to add to the huge transfer deficit by signing Tore Andre Flo, Royle jumped.

Dave Watson steered the team to safety as player/caretaker manager and the summer opened with Johnson promising big names. Slaven Bilic arrived but no player of note joined him while Kendall returned for his third spell as manager only after Johnson suffered a series of rejections elsewhere.

By now Johnson, having spent nearly pounds 40m on transfers in four years, had tired of putting money into the club. As his proposal to move from Goodison to an out-of-town site met vociferous and informed opposition he became a tax exile on Jersey where he contemplates cashing in on his investment - worth an estimated pounds 60-pounds 70m.

Johnson's public utterances are now rare, his opposition to the signing of John Spencer - after the player had undergone heart surgery to prove his fitness - being an uncommon revelation. Kendall, whose last spell at Goodison ended when the board refused to sanction a pounds 1.5m bid for Dion Dublin, got his way over Spencer but he has still spent barely pounds 11m in signing 13 players, most from the Nationwide or Central Leagues. With nine players departing he has even made a small profit.

The turnover - of 18 players signed by Walker and Royle only three are in the team - means this is largely Kendall's side but the weaknesses of last year, a lack of pace in defence, guile in midfield and goals in attack, are yet to be solved. Instability has not helped - he has used 34 players - nor have problems with the senior men: Ferguson has played with an injury for months and, while still a handful, understandably lacks sharpness; Bilic has been sent off three times; Barmby has been fitful.

More than 15,000 turned up at Goodison this week to clutch at the strands of hope provided by the youth team but Everton do not have a good record of bringing on young players. Their last FA Youth Cup winning side, in 1984, had a negligible impact, making only 22 Everton appearances between them. Only Ian Marshall, now at Leicester, went on to forge a decent career. More recently none of several promising players have established themselves: John Ebbrell and Jon O'Connor have already been sold while Tony Grant and Michael Branch have been unable to gain a regular first-team place.

The new generation, led by Michael Ball, Gavin McCann, Richard Dunne and Danny Cadamarteri, look good; but it is easier to bed into a winning team than a losing one. Last week, after the home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday which, together with Bolton's win at Aston Villa, plunged the club towards relegation, Kendall pointedly criticised the lack of help the older players gave the youngsters.

Many fans have now lost faith in Kendall but, because of the enormous goodwill for his past deeds as player and manager, the bulk of their ire is aimed at Johnson. There were further demonstrations against him after Thursday's match and he will be given a four-man police guard from his Wirral home to Goodison - where precautions include removing the brass name plate identifying his office.

Johnson has never been forgiven his Liverpool links and banners like the one at Anfield on Wednesday - "Agent Johnson: Mission accomplished" - do not help. Due to the unique relationship between Merseyside fans, an element of the Liverpool support would like to see Everton survive. But that did not stop chants of "come on Bolton" and "going down" on Wednesday.

The team have been given impressive support though the anger some fans showed at Highbury, when the players waved distantly at the travelling support rather than going across to them, suggests that, too, is fragile.

Everton had plenty of spirit at Highbury but not the cohesion and ability to match. Coventry, so often cast in Everton's position on final day, have the beating of them, as they showed in thrashing them 4-1 in the Coca-Cola Cup earlier this season.

After that match Kendall, appalled at their lack of pride in his beloved club, argued with his players on the pitch. Everton went on to defeat Liverpool in their next match. The recriminations will be just as bitter if they fail tomorrow but atonement will not be so close at hand.

Singing the Blues: Everton's decline

1986-87: P42, Pts 86, Pos 1st FA Cup: Fifth round. League (Littlewoods) Cup: Fifth round.

1987-88: P40, Pts 70, Pos 4th FA Cup: Fifth round. League (Littlewoods) Cup: Semi-finals.

1988-89: P38, Pts 54, Pos 8th

FA Cup: Runners-up. League (Littlewoods) Cup: Fourth round.

1989-90: P38, Pts 59, Pos 6th

FA Cup: Fifth round. League (Littlewoods) Cup: Fourth round.

1990-91: P38, Pts 51, Pos 9th FA Cup: Sixth round. League Cup: Third round.

1991-92: P42, Pts 53, Pos 12th FA Cup: Fourth round. League Cup: Fourth round.

1992-93: P42, Pts 53, Pos 13th

FA Cup: Third round. League Cup: Fourth round.

1993-94: P42, Pts 44, Pos 17th

FA Cup: Third round. Coca-Cola Cup: Fourth round.

1994-95: P42, Pts 50, Pos 15th

FA Cup: Winners. Coca-Cola Cup: Second round.

1995-96: P38, Pts 6. Pos 6th

FA Cup: Fourth round. Coca-Cola Cup: Second round. Cup-Winners' Cup: Second round.

1996-97: P38, Pts 42, Pos 15th

FA Cup: Fourth round. Coca-Cola Cup: Second round.

1997-98 (to date): P37, Pts 39, Pos 18th

FA Cup: Third round. Coca-Cola Cup: Third round.