Football: Lead us not into relegation

Everton's chaplain will say a prayer for salvation today as a community confronts the prospect of the drop
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The Independent Online
Andrew Longmore

visits the Goodison

church where the

Blues gospel is spoken

ONLY once has Harry Ross been caught in his church on match days. One Saturday with an obstinate bride who insisted on a 2pm kick-off. "I told her about the traffic problems," Ross said. "Sure enough, she was 25 minutes late. My organist at the time was a fanatical Evertonian, the ceremony finished at five to three and he played the Wedding March like the Minute Waltz. By the time the bride had reached the doorway he was down the aisle, his robes off, Everton shirt underneath. He made the kick- off."

Ten seconds, the Rev Harry E Ross reckons it takes from the door of St Luke the Evangelist to the entrance of the main stand at Goodison Park; a minute from pulpit to his pew by the directors' box. Today's schedule ricochets between spiritual and temporal. 10.45am, Parish communion (crowd: 80). 12.30pm, baptism of Megan Nicole from Peterborough on the pitch. 4pm, the passion play of Everton FC (crowd: 32,000).

No church can boast such a congregation in its back garden nor a missing east end finial, knocked down in the days when supporters would sneak over the church wall and hop up on to the roof, the days before reels of barbed wire blocked their way. Nor, come to think of it, a vicarage renamed Blue Haven and a vicar dressed in royal blue cassock, white dog collar and cuffs.

A few years ago, Ross would pin up an apt poster for passing fans on a billboard. A biblical quotation, a passage from a prayer. Though the posters have gone - "no time" - the allegiance of the caretaker is visible in the bright blue of the railings and the smart blue and gold of the noticeboards. "Miracle required; apply within" would be a suitable collect for the day. Everton have been in dire straits before, but destiny has always been in their control, most dramatically four years ago when 0- 2 was transformed into a 3-2 victory over Wimbledon and Ross danced a jig down Gwladys Street with Steve Pearce, the chaplain at Anfield, but an Everton supporter by breeding. "Goodness knows what everyone thought, him in his dog collar, me in mine." Today, the mathematics of salvation are more complex: Everton can beat Coventry and still go down, if Bolton win at Chelsea.

"There was a great atmosphere that day against Wimbledon. The strength of the crowd just pulled the team through. This time we're relying on others, there is a lot more tension because people are thinking deep down, `We might not just do it this time.' They're concerned for the club and what might happen to it and they're concerned for themselves. The players will still get paid, whatever happens, but it's the casual staff, the stewards and the people in the club shop, they might be out of a job if we go down. The community has taken a lot already."

It is easy, fashionable even, to imbue football with a spiritual significance. Bill Shankly's suggestion that a mere game was worth more than life or death has men like Ross, who have to cope with the reality of both in the course of an afternoon, shuddering with the triviality of the comparison. In the corner of St Luke's next to the war memorial hangs a list of names cut in the shape of a cross, the roll call of the Hillsborough dead. Beneath it a floral tribute in red and white. "The only red in the place," Ross says, for once his quip a fraction mistimed.

"I wish Shankly had never said that about life and death," he adds. "Football is a religion, more so now than ever as people look for something else in their lives. When Duncan Ferguson comes on to the pitch, he's worshipped as an idol and the crowd sing their anthems. I know that's not right.

"Take Sunday. I'm quite phlegmatic about it recently. A little child of six and a half died of cancer recently. The sight of all the schoolchildren in the church made me choke, then the next thing you have a wedding. You have to take the highs and lows." His sentiments are echoed in the geography of Goodison. The church came first, then the ground, the steel girders rising slowly to dwarf the stolid, defiant, red-brick facade in a symbolic tableau of new priorities. If only Everton FC's interior was as neat and well scrubbed as St Luke's. Ross, as club chaplain (unofficially for 20 years, officially for one), has to pick his words carefully, but even he thought playing four centre-backs at Arsenal last Saturday was tactical nihilism. "Howard [Kendall] has made a few mistakes this season, in team selection and tactics, but he's done his best. Speaking as a fan now, the problems start in the boardroom where decisions have been made and promises not been kept. If we can only afford First Division footballers, we'll get First Division football." Money and mammon, he warms to his theme. In his own youth, a player's daily bread was measured in shillings.

"I've been a supporter all my life, the only one in a family of Liverpool fans, and the club is bigger than anyone here, the players, the board or the manager. The difference these days is that the players are not local and they don't feel the same passion for the club. Dave Watson, Peter Reid, Mick Lyons, they were Evertonians through and through. They knew what it was to stand on the terraces and support the club.

"Now fans see foreign players coming in and earning as much in a week as they do all year and they get frustrated when they see them not earning their money. I hear their shouts: `Earn your money, wear the shirt with pride'. Some of them can't understand what it means to beat Liverpool or finish higher than Liverpool because they've not been brought up here." Harder for the chaplain to build up relationships with players in lucrative transit.

Ross was bequeathed the parish of Walton-on-the-Hill in 1977 when the roof was leaking and the church was due for closure. He raised funds for

re-roofing and redecoration and drank champagne from the European Cup- winners' Cup. The dry rot has moved next door. By tea time, Everton will know the extent of the damage and Harry Ross will know whether Tranmere Rovers or Manchester United will provide the post-nuptial fare for home weddings. At least the traffic will be better in the First Division.

Time for another great escape

1959-60

An insipid season, their sixth back in the First Division, sees Everton finish 16th but only three points above relegation. The arrivals of the centre-forward Alex Young, the "Golden Vision", and the visionary manager Harry Catterick, however, are just round the corner.

1979-80

Having flirted with the lower reaches of the table throughout they eventually finish fourth from bottom, a place and four points clear of the drop thanks to the greater inadequacies of Bolton Wanderers, Derby County and Bristol City.

1992-93

Inauspicious rather than disastrous but they were 18th in February and a final position of 13th conceals the importance of two late scoreless draws and, in their final match, a 5-2 win against Manchester City (9th). Still only four points away from the drop.

1993-94

In 20th position going into the last match it looks all over for Everton when Wimbledon lead 2-0. But the Blues hit back to win 3-2, Graham Stuart scoring with nine minutes left. Sheffield United, Stuart's present club, concede two in the final 15 minutes to lose at Chelsea and go down.

1994-95

At 18th and apparently fading at the start of April they string together an unbeaten run of seven matches and finally ensure their status by winning their penultimate match at Ipswich by a solitary goal.

1996-97

Their only win in the last eight matches, against Tottenham, followed by a 1-1 draw against Liverpool are sufficient - just - to spare them the agony of a nail-biting last day. But their 15th place is only a point above the last relegation spot.

Stephen Brenkley

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