Fair play to the manager who was booed by his own home supporters six days ago, yet when asked yesterday why he has not delivered progress to match Mauricio Pochettino’s is willing to enter into the discussion and says it is a “fair comparison” to make.
That individual is Everton’s Roberto Martinez and it is testament to an unbreakable faith in his own body of work when he actually volunteers the idea that he and the Tottenham Hotspur manager had started their present jobs in very similar places before the Argentine – who is eight months his senior – accelerated away.
“A new manager coming in and being very clear in a way of playing and giving opportunities to young players and being patient enough for a season,” is what they’ve both been in the recent past, Martinez says. “I think last season [for Pochettino] was a season of getting ready for that process. We have got, in my eyes, probably as good young players as Spurs. I know everyone speaks about the number of players Spurs bring to the England team. We have got the same amount, if not players with more games, more minutes and more responsibility...”
The problem for Martinez, of course, is that his own side are still in genesis while Pochettino’s are second in the table, a berth they have not held at this stage of the season since the mid-Eighties. While Spurs enjoyed the win at Manchester City on Sunday, which felt like a game-changer, Everton’s sixth home defeat of the season against West Bromwich Albion the previous day brought terrace insurrection. Boos when Martinez took off Aaron Lennon and derision for the dubious efforts of Arouna Koné, the sceptically viewed striker seen as a Martinez favourite. Spurs’ FA Cup tie with Crystal Palace on Sunday is a subsidiary part of a trophy challenge on three fronts. Everton’s visit to Bournemouth in the competition tomorrow feels like the only way of keeping the club’s season alive.
The level of opprobrium felt for Martinez among his club’s supporters is curious, however. The boos have become a familiar background chorus this season and yet those Blues fans who contribute to it are the same ones who yearned for a more creative and imaginative kind of football, as the last of the David Moyes “five-year plans” endowed the club with a reputation as uncultivated scrappers. “I’m going into a gunfight armed with a knife,” Moyes once said of facing Manchester City and he was never quite forgiven for it.
Does popularity matter? I ask Martinez, to which he, being Martinez, offers a lot of words in return which appear to be threaded through with elegance and yet, on re-reading, do not seem to offer an answer. “When you start managing, popularity is important because you feel supported and you feel you can make big decisions with the support of the fans and the understanding of what you’re trying to build,” he says. “In the same way, I understand that if the team wins I will be a popular figure and if the team doesn’t win I am quite happy to accept that emotion from the fans.” Fans would certainly call it something more pejorative than “emotion”.
Here, in the nature of the reply, is the root cause of why the locals struggle to love him. It is the platitudes. The bullshit meter is always charged up on Merseyside and people feel it has found him out, time and again. It’s not always like this. Martinez’s speech to the 25th anniversary Hillsborough memorial service a few years back was exquisitely beautiful and genuine, surpassing the eloquence of Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers that day, as it happens. Yet when it comes down to talking football, everything in the garden is ridiculously rosy. The Liverpool Echo ran a “Bobby dazzlers” quiz about some of the more far-fetched Martinez pronouncements last week. Defining Gareth Barry as “one of the best English footballers of all time” will always be right up there.
“He says the same thing – win, lose or draw,” says James Corbett, journalist and author of the Everton Encyclopaedia, among other titles. “I would not say he is universally unpopular but he does have a habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, when Moyes would often be the opposite.” In his raw Glaswegian Moyes sounded like he meant what he said, too. Perhaps that is why his description of Everton as “The People’s Club” – which came to his mind as his brother Kenny drove him through Liverpool’s back streets to his inaugural press conference – always stuck.
Along with that disinclination to concede there is anything less than milk and honey around Goodison, is a steadfast – almost bloody-minded – reluctance in Martinez to accept that he ought to be doing things differently. “He always plays the same game,” says Corbett. “There is no Plan B.” But the causes of the fear and loathing which we are witnessing at Everton actually run deeper than this. They extend to a sense among many supporters that their club is falling way behind the rest, commercially and economically. There is still no buyer or majority investor and Dave Kelly, the chairman of the Blue Union supporters group, points to the way that Everton have fallen, since forming part of the Big Five at the Premier League’s inception in 1992.
“The board have dumbed down expectations,” says Kelly. “We’re just ‘plucky little Everton’ now. It’s not just a question of there being very little finance. I am loathe to criticise [chairman] Bill Kenwright for having no ambition. There is just no vision either.”
In a real and vivid sense, Liverpool are providing a very visible demonstration of what it takes to grow. Their new Main Stand rising into the skyline across Stanley Park is actually visible from the Gwladys Street End. A recurrent theme in chatrooms is the acceleration away by Tottenham, a team who to Everton minds were once on a par with them. The Premier League tables of recent years actually suggest otherwise. Only once in the past six years (2013-14) have Everton finished ahead of Spurs and the North London club have been substantially superior. They have accrued 13, nine, 13, eight and nine points more than Everton in the other five most recent years, and it is a vast, 16-point class divide now. Yet the argument still stands. The two were bed-fellows once.
A look at two of the other once-great sides whose competitive company Everton used to keep, Aston Villa and Newcastle United, reveals that fortunes can head in another direction, too. Martinez inquired, by way of conversation, yesterday, whether we’d seen Liverpool’s 6-0 win at Villa and there was clearly some agony for a club which wanted him as their manager once. Newcastle’s is another grave predicament. Be careful what you wish for, Everton. Moyes as manager? Tony Pulis? No. Everton are the league’s third top scorers after Leicester City and Manchester City and have scored the largest number of goals from open play.
Winning the FA Cup and ending a 21-year wait for a trophy would certainly buy Martinez some of the breathing space which he seems to be in need of, though of course he won’t say that because the vagaries of the Cup mean there are no guarantees. “No, no. I would not say we need to win [the Cup],” he claims. “What we need is to qualify for European positions. It is impossible to tell until you get into the final part of the season [how realistic that is].”
He does not feel such a very long way from something incredibly fine at Everton: an achievement which will have the club’s fans looking back one day and wondering where the hell all the early negativity came from. Adding a strong defensive component is the requirement: that much is clear from the way Pochettino’s side have quickly evolved. After 26 games last season Spurs had shipped 36 goals. After the same number this time, they have conceded only 20.
The question is whether Martinez is willing to see things that way. To the question of whether a little more rigour is the important missing component, he shakes his head? “No, it’s not that,” he says. “That’s an easy [characterisation.] When you look at my teams, straight away the easy way to assess it is: ‘You need to defend better.’ Well, my teams are never built to keep a clean sheet and then hope to win the game. Never. I say that openly. I work my teams to be teams which want to be dominant in games but they want to break teams down.
“They know how to score goals, which is the hardest thing in football. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be organised and well-structured and that you shouldn’t defend. The last four games we kept three clean sheets and conceded one goal.” It seemed impolite to say that only three teams outside of the current bottom four have conceded more than his own, this season. He’ll do things his own way, popular or not.