Defeat for Everton would bring the same old blow to pride but this time it could also represent another move in the direction of relegation. Will one of the 'Big Five' really drop out after only one season of the 'super league'? Everton are dangerously close.
The other teams in these derbies cling to faint hopes of being the first Premier League champions. Everton can think only of safety and, perhaps, whether in hindsight it was a mistake to look back to their future by reappointing Howard Kendall in the belief that success would strike twice. United, City and Liverpool still like to think that sooner or later Norwich and Blackburn will falter, allowing them to improve their no more than outside chances of winning the title. In this strange season who can deny them their optimism? Manchester United with Eric Cantona could at last score important goals; Liverpool with John Barnes could catch up rapidly and Manchester City, in spite of their dependence on the long ball to the long man Niall Quinn, are still just about in the running. So what of Everton, well meaning, sometimes attractive, yet often out of their depth.
Only their manager and the Goodison faithful believe that being where they are simply goes to show that there is no justice in the world. Stringing together a couple of wins seems to have become an achievement in itself. Even 'home advantage' is something other people enjoy (one win and four goals so far in the league). So what is wrong with a club that has one of football's most experienced, erudite, strict yet encouraging managers?
In his previous encounter with the club, Kendall managed to bring out the potential of such players as Gary Stevens, Trevor Steven, Adrian Heath and Derek Mountfield. They believed he would make them better players, but several of the present group seem to want more convincing. Yet this is a team that still has one of the world's best goalkeepers in Neville Southall, a central defender Graham Taylor hopes will soon be a regular for England (Martin Keown) and in Peter Beardsley a goalscorer and provider who Liverpool, to their cost, amazingly discarded, as did Taylor, who has yet to produce a better partner for Alan Shearer.
Magnificent though he has been this season and last, Beardsley has not been able to do it all, and with a midfield of questionable qualities, Everton have all too often had to depend on Southall to stand between them and horrendous defeats. If there is a theme in their fall from safe mid- table to the brink of relegation it seems to be pretty basic: a failure to score enough goals, not just this season but in the previous four as well. Looking at their record since they last won the League in 1987, the absence of an outstanding goalscorer is a recurrent problem.
The striker who has never been replaced is Gary Lineker (30 goals in 1985-86). In a way Everton's lasting discomfort is shared by Graham Taylor. The advantage Taylor holds is that he can select Shearer, who turned down Everton's overtures before going to Blackburn.
Lineker was the last Everton player to score more than 20 goals in a season. Beardsley was bought to overcome the problem, even though he is best suited to be an old-fashioned inside-forward, not an out-and-out striker. Thus one of Everton's biggest problems. As a provider of opportunities for a centre-forward, Beardsley is still supreme among English players, but Everton now depend on his goalscoring because there is no one else.
The need to replace Lineker has seen Everton sign a succession of disappointments: Mo Johnston is now a regular substitute (his appearance on Wednesday against Chelsea was his first in two months); Tony Cottee, who cost pounds 2.2m from West Ham, may have scored quite a few goals but has never really settled; Wayne Clarke made little impact and Paul Rideout is struggling to score. Mike Newell has gone to Blackburn after seeming unable to fit in at Goodison.
The club's gamble in trying to retrieve past success by reappointing the man who gave it to them was questionable. Kendall is a good manager, but returning to Goodison put him under more pressure than it would have any other nominee. Nevertheless, the feeling among most supporters is that no one else is better qualified to get Everton back into the top half-dozen, and in any case the club is in such a difficult financial situation that they are probably unable to offer anyone else a sufficiently attractive contract .
The prospect of Everton becoming the first of the 'Big Five' clubs to be relegated is ever more real and an early remark by the new chairman, David Marsh, that there was a 'new spirit' about the place now returns to haunt him and Kendall. Ironically, late last year Kendall and Ian Ross completed a biography called Only the Best is Good Enough and there were strong hints that in spite of his earlier refusal to become involved, the FA would again turn to him if and when Graham Taylor left the national team job. If he is associated with the relegation of a great club, Kendall may not have the opportunity to turn down a second call, which would be a pity.
Another irony highlighted this weekend is that in the derby at Old Trafford, the man who will be attempting to persuade City that they are good enough to beat United is Peter Reid, the former Everton player Kendall signed when he was at Maine Road. At the time Kendall wanted Reid to inspire confidence in ordinary players. That is exactly what Kendall himself desperately needs to do, starting tomorrow.Reuse content