After Bolton's victory against Crystal Palace yesterday, Everton need to postpone Arsenal's surge to the Premiership title at Highbury this afternoon to strengthen their hopes of survival. Even so, Evertonians face another week of suffering before the arrival of Coventry and a final afternoon of brinkmanship.
A nine-month marathon turned into a 100-yard dash. "Remember the last time?" asked Ian Downing, a season-ticket holder. "2-0 down to Wimbledon and a friend of mine, a Reds supporter, had already bought the card. He showed it to me later. It said 'bon voyage'. Remember what we said then. Never again. And guess what? Here we are."
Everton have been out of the top division just four times in their 110- year history. Only Arsenal have avoided relegation longer than Everton's 44 years. But the overwhelming sense around Goodison Park is that the club's time is up. The laws of probability have to balance some day and barely a 30-minute ride down the East Lancashire Road is the prime example of how viciously football's fortunes can turn. There are 32 permutations for relegation candidates from the First Division today. Twenty-seven of them involve Manchester City. "Maybe there will be a twist in the tail," Joe Royle, the City manager, says. "We're due some luck."
The more you study it, the more intricate the tapestry. Royle, former Everton manager and player, a stalwart centre-forward in a side which included Alan Ball, former manager of Manchester City (who isn't?) now back in charge of Portsmouth, certain victims if City survive, and Howard Kendall, in his third stint at Everton but also part of the shuttle diplomacy at Maine Road. In a brief spell there, he likened his relationship with the club to marriage. A few months later, he was having another fling with an old flame. The parallels are thoroughly uncomfortable for the darker hue of blue. The real fear is that, once pushed, Everton 's descent could turn into freefall. At Maine Road, where reserve team players are still taking home pounds 6,000 a week - and, according to local legend, the sign on the door of the home dressing room says "retirement home" - they are still searching for the parachute.
"It's all there," Downing adds. "Second team in the city, managers in and out, complacency from top to bottom. If Everton go out of the Premiership, it would be a disaster. We could be like City, no question." Nor are supporters in any doubt about the remedy. "We need a midfield and a committed chairman," said Neil Hodgson, a Goodison lifer. Instead, on Friday, came news of another signing, John Spencer, whose original move had been blocked by possible heart trouble. "Another dicky ticker," as another wit put it. "We've got plenty of those already."
No one visiting Bellefield, Everton's suburban training ground, would have detected the tension. To find it you turn left at the Basil Grange nursing home and right through what seems like No 47's front drive. The picturesque pitch, neatly manicured, is overlooked by a cluster of semis built when Dixie was in his prime. In the car park, Tony Grant has a mobile phone, courtesy of the club sponsors, glued to his ear as he sits on the expensive bonnet of a gleaming motor. On the training pitch, it is a surprise to find the youngest player ever to grace a cup final - for Preston against West Ham in - still huffing and puffing down the wing 34 years on. When the pace is too hot, he stoops to place both hands on his knees and the sun glints on his bald patch. For Kendall, this is a brief heaven. "It's the one place," he says later, "where I can get some peace and quiet. No one can touch me out there." No one passes to him much either. "I know that too."
Kendall spent two days in Greece last week, searching for players and gathering his wits. He watched Panathainakos play Panionios. "It finished 10 v 9, three sent off, a typical Greek match," he laughs. Moments earlier he had been critical of his own team for their indiscipline. "It's not just the suspensions which hit us hard, it's in the games themselves. I'd take 11 v 10 any day."
On Monday, the whole squad went to Pontefract races, Kendall produced his "we're all in it together" speech, and big Duncan Ferguson suggested a novel 1-9-1 formation for today's match. The supporters were confused. Going to the dogs they could understand. "It will be a horrible week for the players, quite frightening," Duncan McKenzie, the old Everton forward, said. "But the one advantage that Howard has over Colin Todd [manager of Bolton] is that he's been here before. He'll try to be Mr Cool and he's a past master at it. I played in the same midfield as Howard at Blackburn and he had this beautiful way of being a player and a manager then. He was two people.
"If they go down, I shudder to think what will happen, but you can't blame the manager; that's the coward's way out. People forget it's been like this for five or six years now, almost since the death of Sir John Moores when the club was left in limbo and things went adrift. They've made so many mistakes, going for managers who weren't available, being turned down by players. At City, it's cult worship now...27,000 people troop along every week expecting ridiculous defeats."
City's fate will be decided this afternoon at Stoke; Everton need four points from their last two games to ensure safety. Watching the youth team fashioned by Colin Harvey, his sidekick from the great days, outpass and overpower Blackburn provided Kendall with a tantalising glimpse of salvation. Yet some of the problems of a season he calls the most "traumatic and unsettling" in his long stint in management have stemmed from the abundance of youth talent at Goodison Park. "It's easy to win with kids," McKenzie pointed out. "It's very hard to lose with them."
Danny Cadamarteri, John Oster, Michael Ball, Tony Grant and Michael Branch bear testimony to the talent-spotting skills of the Everton scouts. But only Ball has held down a regular place in the team and Kendall has been criticised for asking too much too soon from the others. Add to them the name of Leon Osman, only 16, but a mature talent who capped an eye-catching display in midfield on Friday evening with a superbly volleyed third goal after Philip Jevons and Cadamarteri had given Everton the lead in the first half. The purchase of Mitch Ward, Carl Tiler and Don Hutchison as replacements for Gary Speed and Andy Hinchcliffe seemed a desperately dated solution. First Division players for a First Division club. The loss of other natural Evertonians, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman, to Liverpool still rankles, a reminder of the club's incompetence. Periodic edicts from Peter Johnson in the Channel Islands have signified the chairman's growing lack of interest. Even then, few on the Gwladys Street End can sift enough energy from the resignation to muster threats of revolution.
"You would have thought they would have turned on the chairman after the Sheffield Wednesday defeat last week," Neil Hodgson said. Supporters still cling to the notion that Everton is a big club, too big to go down, some say, though they know that to be untrue. To most, Everton stand as a monument to a club living in the past, a lumbering old socialist in the era of slick new Labour, a footballing replica of the grand steamliners featured in the local newspaper last week. "It's beyond a joke," McKenzie says. But have you heard the one about Everton winning the title? Their women's team did so last Thursday.Reuse content