Football: Smith is losing the Goodison patience game

PREMIERSHIP Everton's inspirational manager admits financial restraints may force him to review his position

CONSIDERING THE clamour and anguished sense of betrayal that swept through the terraced streets around Goodison Park a year ago, the antipathy this week was remarkable. It was the anniversary of a pivotal moment in the recent history of Everton Football Club on Tuesday but the only mark of remembrance was indifference.

Who? What? Even you have probably forgotten, but 12 months ago the selling of Duncan Ferguson to Newcastle seemed to signify an acceptance of a second-class existence. Big clubs keep their better players and here we had Everton, a football institution with aspirations of grandeur, selling their principal asset. Worse, it was done with furtive secrecy akin to flogging the family silver at the back door with even the manager, Walter Smith, unaware of the negotiations.

Smith was livid but a year on it is apparent it was the making of his Everton managership. Until that point the whispers on Merseyside questioned whether the man who had monopolised Scottish football with Rangers could cut it in England, but his stand against the sale established him as the supporters' figurehead. Rightly or wrongly, he was seen as the man who said "either you go or I go" to the despised holder of the controlling share-holding in the club, Peter Johnson.

But for how long? Yesterday Smith issued a barely veiled threat that he will leave Everton when his contract runs out in 18 months' time if the club remains in its current financial no-man's land. His patience might not stretch even that far.

"If things don't change I will have to see whether I want to stay," he said, looking at a sheet listing the talented but threadbare squad he has at his disposal for the game against Aston Villa today. "With every job you have to feel you are moving forward. You need that motivation. At the moment we are only stabilising, we are not building for the future. We are keeping the club's head above water and nothing more. Not just me but the directors and everyone working at Goodison."

Smith has been performing minor wonders this season with a squad that was stripped of pounds 15m worth of players in the summer to placate the bank manager. He has no money for transfers, the wage bill has to be cut and sooner or later the players are going to get fed up with the lack of wages and success. But the situation will remain the same until Johnson is bought out by someone with the financial clout to also pay off the debts and still have cash to spare for reinforcements. How much is needed is anybody's guess, but we are talking nearer to pounds 100m than pounds 10m.

It will be a year ago on Tuesday when Johnson said he was willing to listen to offers but there is still no sign of a white knight on the horizon. Yet the team are unbeaten at home and, if they had held on to their lead against Chelsea last week instead of surrendering an injury-time goal, they would have been eighth.

The fans appreciate Smith's work even if they are curiously quiet about Johnson and only last Saturday Liverpool's sports paper, the Football Echo, carried a letter from a member of Everton Independent Supporters thanking his maker for Scotland's performance at Wembley. The thought of England hammering the Auld Enemy had turned his stomach, he wrote, because "if Craig Brown had been harassed out of the Scottish job, Walter Smith would have been high on the SFA's shopping list."

Yet the very moment the Echo was hitting the streets, the first overt signs of Smith's frustration about Everton's position were revealed. He has been dismayed for months, but had kept his thoughts concealed behind a deadpan expression until the unexpected nature and the very lateness of Chelsea's goal tore it aside. "That's shite," he exploded when someone pointed out the result preserved the home record, "it's no consolation at all."

There was concern, too, hidden in the humour of the throw-away comment when someone wondered what it would take for Everton to assume a place at the top of the domestic game. "Players," Smith replied. "You don't come from round here, do you?"

Yesterday at Everton's Bellefield training ground even the mask of mirth had been stripped away. "The frustration is there," he said. "Not just with the present circumstances but with things that have gone on for 18 months. I had hoped the first year would be a settling-in period and it hasn't worked out that way. That's tempered by the fact that all the players we have are doing well for us but we are still at the stage where we are at the mercy of a wee bit of good luck. If we get injuries to certain players or if we are hit by suspensions it could affect us quite badly."

The word "frustration" cropped up repeatedly in his conversation, an emotion borne out of a helplessness and a growing empathy with the area he has been transplanted in. Smith was attracted to Liverpool originally because he felt that, like Glasgow, where he had turned Rangers into a trophy-gorging leviathan, the labouring people of the city and football have not undergone an irredeemable separation.

"The reasons for coming to Everton 18 months ago are as strong if not stronger now, " he said. "You get more involved and you realise what the team means to everybody. I feel frustration that a club of this standing, with the level of support and depth of feeling, should be in this situation. There is no point in complaining every day because if I did it would have a negative effect. But if Everton finish out of the relegation zone this season it will be an achievement because of the problems we have."

The paradox is that while Everton continue to thrive, never mind survive, the ire aimed at Johnson is doused and his share holding becomes more valuable. The alternative is for bad results that will also bring pressure to bear on Smith.

The manager cannot win. Perhaps the supporters ought to be getting angry.

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