Sam Wallace: Everton fans can be forgiven an envious glance tonight and thinking what might have been
Talking Football: Everton are 15th in the table and wondering when their season will get going. Last year they came good after Christmas; this time it looks much bleaker
Monday 20 December 2010
When Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan decided that what he really wanted to buy was a great English football club rich in history and tradition – albeit one that had, in recent times, been eclipsed by their city rivals – he alighted upon Manchester City. But he could just as easily have chosen Everton.
Like City in those pre-Abu Dhabi days, so there is a romanticism about Everton, a lively, characterful club who like mischievously to lay claim to being the heart and soul of Liverpool despite the protests from their more illustrious rivals from across the park.
Like City, Everton's great successes are historic and while their most recent glory days of the mid-1980s are less distant than City's of the late 1960s, so the principle holds the same. Both clubs have struggled to be top dogs in their own city, never mind entertaining ambitions further afield.
So when City play Everton tonight it will not require a great deal of imagination for those Evertonians who take their seats in City's newly renovated City of Manchester stadium to visualise what life would have been like had Abu Dhabi selected them as their great English football project.
When Sheikh Mansour bought City in August 2008, David Moyes' team had finished fifth in the Premier League that May, four places ahead of City, who had already benefited from the substantial investment of Thaksin Shinawatra. Like City, Everton then also had a chairman, Bill Kenwright, who was eager to sell to a rich benefactor. He still is.
In fact, in terms of the price and the potential for reinvigorating a great football institution with a great fan base and a bright young British manager, Everton had it all. But the good sheikh chose City and £500m later the rest is history.
Two years and four months on and City face Everton tonight with the chance to lead the English top flight at Christmas for the first time in 81 years. Yes, City have encountered ridicule for the amount they have spent on players but so what? Yes, the Carlos Tevez issue is a problem but if he never plays for the club again after tonight they can just buy a replacement.
Most importantly for City, they are challenging the elite of English football. They are ruffling the feathers of the big boys rather than toiling away in the same old slog between mid-table mediocrity and the bottom half. Win tonight and they send their supporters home dreaming of a title in May.
As for Everton, they are 15th in the table and still wondering when their season will get going. Last year they came good after Christmas; this time it looks much bleaker. They desperately need a striker. Tim Cahill is off to the Asian Cup next month. Steven Pienaar will not sign a new contract. Marouane Fellaini's form has deserted him. And there is precious little money to put any of it right in January.
It leaves Everton again reliant on the hope that Moyes will produce another conjuring act in order that a club with nothing like the resources of English football's elite can perform well enough to beat the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, as they did last season.
There is no doubting Moyes' talent but, as he has intimated himself, he cannot keep pulling rabbits out of hats. The draw with Wigan Athletic this month was his 400th game in charge and no one would blame him for growing weary of the expectations the job makes of him.
Leighton Baines is a classic example of how Moyes has played the transfer market astutely most of the time. Bought for £5m from Wigan, he is now valued at twice that and Bayern Munich are interested. But once Moyes starts selling his best players in order to raise funds to buy others then the process becomes self-defeating.
There is bitter irony in the fact that two of the strikers Moyes is hoping to acquire on loan next month – Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz – are both surplus to requirement at City.
So what was it that the sheikh saw in City that he did not perceive in Everton? The consensus is that it was City's stadium that drew him to Manchester, a modern, 47,000-plus capacity ground that was built with public money, has room for expansion and is leased to the club by the city council for £3m a year.
Everton have Goodison Park. An atmospheric 40,150-capacity ground hemmed in by houses and a church. Their proposed move to Kirkby, funded mainly by a Tesco development, was rejected. The chief executive, Robert Elstone, admitted this season that a new stadium is not likely in the next five years.
On such a relatively small detail does the course of English football change. Everton find their matchday revenue earning power restricted by the location of their club. City benefited from the decision to award Manchester the 2002 Commonwealth Games, which meant a £110m stadium was built, a decision that had precious little to do with the club itself.
This season City began work on a £1bn redevelopment of the land around their stadium which will one day house, among other things, a state-of-the-art training complex. Everton have announced a project to build a new museum, shop and other facilities this season by Walton Lane. The cost? £9m.
But once Moyes takes his place on the touchline none of this – the money, the stadiums, the quirks of history that have set these club on such different paths – will matter. He will simply be expected to win. Although he will know better than anyone that managing Everton is a lot more complicated than that.
Why I am dancing to new Blackburn owner's tune
In the pictures on the Blackburn Rovers website last week of Balaji Rao – part of the family that now owns the club – attending the opening of a Venky's chicken restaurant with former world heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis, one cannot help but notice the attire of the new Blackburn supremo.
He appears to have squeezed himself into John Travolta's outfit from Saturday Night Fever. The club did not enlighten us on whether this is his usual boardroom uniform or simply a one-off. But if he next turns up at Ewood Park in an Elvis jumpsuit circa 1973, I might just start to warm to the Venky's brigade.
It's compensation culture that leads to postponements
The general tenor of the many complaints about health and safety measures shutting down English football this weekend seems to be that a bit of snow never hurt anyone, and why is it that the (it has to be said, mostly inebriated) souls who attend the darts are permitted to scramble up and down the hill at Alexandra Palace?
Fair enough, but then again, if we were not inundated by adverts on television sports channels from chiselling lawyers offering to sue for sprained thumbs, then the clubs might even just reason that playing the games was worth the risk.
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