Following his team's 1-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, the Everton manager, David Moyes, and his Arsenal counterpart, Arsène Wenger, had a conversation over a (non-alcoholic) drink. They talked about how their respective seasons had gone. When he looks at Everton, Wenger told Moyes, he sees a club with "momentum".
On the pitch that momentum has stuttered in recent weeks, but Aston Villa's surprising home defeat by Wigan last weekend means that, at Goodison Park on Sunday, Everton need only a point against Newcastle United to be certain of fifth place in the Premier League and another tilt at the Uefa Cup. Applying the Kevin Keegan rule, which decrees that the top-four places are unassailable, that makes Everton hot favourites to win the so-called alternative Premier League, as best of the rest. Moyes and his players did break into the hallowed top four, in the 2004-05 season, but since then normal service has been resumed. So does he agree with Keegan that the league is boringly predictable, dominated by a self-perpetuating Champions League elite?
"I think in a lot of ways he's right, but I don't want to believe it and I'm not going to accept it," Moyes says. "I can't turn up at the start of next season believing we can't be up there [in the top four]. Even this season, until the beginning of March, we had a realistic chance. And if we could have got there it could have changed Everton for a long, long time. We're probably more ready now than we were three years ago, and if we'd got in I think we could have made the group stages. With the money that's on offer we could have changed things..." A fleeting, wistful look, before Moyes, ever the pragmatist, gets real. "But it didn't happen."
So instead the Champions League riches go to the usual suspects, and even Liverpool, supposedly facing a summer of relative restraint in the transfer market, are already courting Gareth Barry. In different circumstances, I venture, the Aston Villa and England midfielder would have been a fine acquisition for the Moyes-styled "People's Club". "Oh yeah, great, fantastic," Moyes says.
He looks beyond me, out of the window of his handsome office at Finch Farm, Everton's swish new training ground in Liverpool's industrial southern suburbs. "I've told the chairman [Bill Kenwright] who I'd like to buy and, hopefully, I'll find out pretty soon whether I can pursue them. I'd like A, B and C, but it's a question of who we can afford, and also who we can hope to turn into better players. That's our basic philosophy, and it would apply even if we were given vast sums of cash, but, in the same breath, I would like to put the emperor's clothes on now and again. I have a really good relationship with Bill, but nobody pushes him more than me to kick on. We have to keep improving the squad. The last thing we can do is take our foot off the pedal, because others – Tottenham, Newcastle, Aston Villa, Portsmouth, Manchester City, Blackburn – will overtake us."
All the above-named clubs, with the possible exception of Blackburn, have considerably more resources than Moyes. What they don't have, though, is a toehold on fifth place. I ask him to elaborate on what the promise of more European football, albeit not in the top tier, would mean to Everton as the club prepare for the 2008-09 season. He smiles. "I'm loath to talk about it, Brian. Because if it goes wrong on Sunday then I'll have egg on my face." But if it doesn't go wrong – and even if Everton lose to Newcastle, Villa still have to win at West Ham – then surely it will help to attract decent players? "I would hope so, aye."
Of course, it is not fair, above all to Kenwright, to say that Everton are just bargain basement shoppers. Yakubu arrived last summer for a club record £11.25m, breaking the record £8.6m stumped up for Andy Johnson. Yet Moyes owes his reputation as an astute operator in the transfer market more to the likes of Joleon Lescott and Tim Cahill, who stepped up a division, from Wolves and Millwall respectively, and have prospered mightily in the Premier League. I tell him that The Independent this week bracketed him with Sir Alex Ferguson and Harry Redknapp as one of three managers who "know their onions". Another smile.
"But there have been players I've brought in who haven't worked," he says. The names Andy van der Meyde and Per Kroldrup, painful for Evertonians to utter, go unmentioned. "I think we get scrutinised for our signings more than most, because we don't have much money. And when you don't have much you have to be really careful what you do with it. We probably take longer judging players than most, trying to be as correct as we can be." So it helps not having a billionaire owner, flashing the cash? "Maybe, in a way, because the more signings you make, the more mistakes you make. And because we don't have a billionaire owner, we have to continue sustained growth, which might take us 10 years but we're already six years down the road [since his arrival from Preston North End, as successor to his fellow Scot, Walter Smith].
"I was surprised the way things were here when I arrived. I knew Wayne [Rooney] was about to come through, but there was very little value on the pitch, and the team was near the bottom of the league. I've turned that on its head. We do have value on the pitch now, and the team is near the top. But it means we're fishing in a different pond. There aren't many £1.5m players, like Tim Cahill, who would improve Everton now. Now those players are £10m-plus. Things have changed. I had a five-year plan, which I've torn up, and last September I wrote down the strategy for the next five years, which means European football most seasons and, hopefully, the Champions League. If we're going to move to a new stadium, we want it filled."
This is bullish stuff, yet Moyes is not without his critics among Evertonians. On some of the unofficial websites there has been plenty of carping these past few weeks, with some impressively deluded individuals even calling for change at the helm. "I'm not aware of that," he says, when I bring it up. "If people are dissatisfied, I find that strange. This season we didn't look out of place at any stage in the Uefa Cup [which Everton exited in a last-16 penalty shoot-out against Fiorentina] and our style of play has improved no end. It sounds to me like those people need educating. If we do qualify for Europe, it will be three out of four years. I'm not sure that happened prior to my arrival, not for a long, long time."
On the other hand, he has no critic sterner than himself. Sometimes, indeed, it is almost possible to see the self-flagellation on the touchline. "I'm trying to be calmer," he says. "Sometimes when we play the top teams I have to accept that they have better players and if they play well they'll win, but I do find that very difficult to accept. I take it a little bit personally. I go home afterwards and shut the curtains ... my family know what I'm like. This job lives with you every minute of every day."
I know that he is a man of strong religious faith; does he sometimes turn to the Almighty to sustain him through a bad run of form? I get the direct blue-eyed gaze that some of his erring players must know all too well. "I don't talk about it too much, Brian, to be fair. I was brought up in a Christian family. I go to church whenever I can."
We leave it at that, but he is a man who exudes decency, which perhaps has its roots in a God-fearing upbringing. That said, at Preston and in his early days at Everton he was an uncompromising disciplinarian. He admits that he has mellowed.
"But I don't know that it's for the best. I had one of my old Preston players in here the other day, and he asked whether I was still as hard. Jimmy Lumsden [his assistant)] said, 'No, he's gone soft'. But just as young players get games under their belts and make progress, so do young managers. Before, with players, I was, 'You work for me, this is how you'll do it'. Now I adapt a little more to them."
Moyes is fond of referring to himself as a young manager, but at 45 he is no longer in the flush of managerial youth, and he has many juniors in the Premier League. Nonetheless, he is happy to admit that he is still learning his trade, and I ask whether it ever flits through his mind that it might be a trade he will never be able to master? "Do I question my ability? No, not in the management game. I won't overstay my welcome at Everton, that's for sure, but I feel I'm as capable as anyone."
It is a sentiment shared not only by Kenwright, whose most important task this summer is to sort out his manager's next contract, but by many other movers and shakers in football. There was some speculation before Keegan returned to Newcastle that the club's owner, Mike Ashley, might have come calling, and there is a man who could have given Moyes the emperor's clothes he sometimes covets. Moreover, it is well known that Sir Alex Ferguson offered him a job as his No 2 some years ago, an appointment Fergie doesn't often get wrong.
Manchester United's loss – not that it has exactly shorn them of success – is manifestly Everton's gain. After our interview Moyes shows me around the wonderful facilities at Finch Farm, but it seems significant that, for every aspect of the place that he points out with pride, there is another that displeases him, that he wants to get rid of or improve. Among the former is a steep, artificial hill for leg-strengthening, which he saw being used in American football. He also studied NBA basketball, intent on learning how it was that men of 6ft 7in, weighing 18st, could jump so high. He likes America. He will holiday there with the family this summer, dividing his time between the golf course and the beach.
"But the one thing I won't get a holiday from is that," he says, indicating his mobile phone. It trills into action, right on cue. I tell him that I am relieved to hear that his ringtone is not the Z-Cars theme, to the strains of which his players take the pitch at Goodison. It would be a shame if he got sick of it.
The sweetest sound he has heard for a long time, though, was the news last Saturday that Villa had lost to Wigan. He and his players had just left Luton Airport on the way to the Arsenal game, and in his words, the bus "rocked". It meant that the attainment of fifth place was back in their hands. "If you'd said to me at the start of the season, would I like to be in this position with one game to go, I'd definitely have said yes," he says. "If you'd asked me six weeks ago, probably not. But back in August I thought it would be a decent season if we finished in the top 10, looking at some of the other teams, and what they'd spent."
Even if everything goes pear-shaped for Everton on Sunday, they are still assured of sixth place. But that would be of scant consolation to Moyes, who would probably go home and burn the curtains, sabbath or no sabbath.Reuse content