Football: Blues seek a gold visionary

Libero: Ian Ridley on football
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There was a joke doing the rounds at Goodison Park last week: stewards had recently run on to the pitch during a match to catch what they thought was an invader but it turned out to be Nicky Barmby. It says much about Everton recently, just as the leaving of Liverpool by Joe Royle after two and a half years as manager tells of growing trends in the English game.

Everton's heritage as the school of soccer science has been both gift and curse, millstone and challenge, as has their motto of "Nothing but the best is good enough". Royle came in to arrest decline, winning the FA Cup on heart and endeavour, but taking the next step towards the quality and finesse shown by the other big clubs of the Premiership, including neighbours Liverpool, has proved another matter altogether. Royle bristled at me when questioned about this 18 months ago now.

The pounds 5.75m signing of Barmby should have signalled that Everton were able again to compete for the best players. At Tottenham, Barmby was a player of subtlety and vision; at Goodison, however, he has been reduced to anonymity as the ball has flown over his head towards that of Duncan Ferguson. The Golden Vision? More like Vision Higher.

Few other top talents are attracted to Everton's style these days and when class was called for, Royle appeared to be picking up an underclass. For class read Claus, Ipswich's Thomsen, yet another midfield scrambler to add to the collection. In such a system, the promising Tony Grant has not made the impact he might have.

Enter the modern power chairman. Peter Johnson, who had been on Radio 5 Live last week denying that his manager's position was up for discussion, was said to be alarmed recently when Carlton Palmer was spoken of as a transfer target. His apprehension only grew on Mourn-day Thursday when Royle wanted to sign the Norwegian duo of Tore Andre Flo and Claus Eftevaag, whom Liverpool had rejected, and take back the 34-year-old Barry Horne from Birmingham.

Chairmen, from butchers to bakers to candlestick makers, have always vetoed transfers. It was mainly on financial grounds, however. The new breed have invested millions, stand to make or lose millions more and thus appear to expect full input and influence when it comes to the quality of the signings.

Enter, also, the new breed of coach in English football. The need in these post-Bosman days, as Arsenal have identified with Arsene Wenger and Blackburn with Sven-Goran Eriksson and now Roy Hodgson, is perceived to be for a man who knows the European game and, more importantly, can attract its top players. Of the names being discussed as Royle's replacement, Stockport's Dave Jones, an ex-Evertonian, may well be a promising young manager, and Barnsley's Danny Wilson appears ripe for a Premiership post but will, say, George Weah or Jurgen Klinsmann come to play for them even if helicopters are laid on from London?

Thus can be seen the appeal of Bobby Robson for Johnson as Everton seek to avoid becoming "marginalised" (his word) when with their resources and remarkable support they should be comfortably alongside the current top four in the Premiership. The Big Five may have become the Great Eight but they should still be in the top half of that.

One feels some sympathy for Royle even if, in his honest appraisals of his Everton about showing plenty of perspiration but little inspiration, he seemed to overlook his own role in the reality. The conclusion from examining the careers of the top managers in England in the last decade, notably Alex Ferguson and George Graham, is that they needed three full seasons before assembling a team to contend the championship.

That said, the at times embattled and embittered Royle has not endeared himself by banning the Merseyside press at one stage, or in failing to show convincingly that he can spend large sums of money wisely. Perhaps he will now move to a club - back to Oldham Athletic in the summer perhaps - where he can illustrate again his talent, preference perhaps, for getting the best from an ordinary bunch.

Royle may no longer worry about such things but after his resignation, and perhaps that also of Kevin Keegan from Newcastle, what autonomy to manage will modern managers have, given the status of chairmen now and the shareholders they must answer to?

After all, it took Alex Ferguson - and he is no great believer in the superiority of foreign coaches - several years to establish the power base he now enjoys. What likelihood is there again of bright young managers, as Royle was, as George Graham was when he moved from Millwall to Arsenal, being given a shot at the biggest of clubs?