There is a joke doing the rounds on Merseyside, in Liverpool-supporting circles anyway. Why, they say, does Walter Smith smile as soon as he gets up in the morning? Answer, to get it over with. And the reasons for Smith's gloom might be summed up by a joke doing the rounds in Everton-supporting circles. Name three Jewish players to score for Liverpool against Everton? Answer, Avi Cohen, Ronny Rosenthal and Judas Barmby.
In other words, Everton are no longer able to attract top players, and struggle to keep hold of those they do attract, Nick Barmby being one of the more depressing examples.
This time last year, Evertonians were trying, and in most cases failing, to come to terms with Barmby's shocking defection. Last week, we woke up to even grislier reports, that Michael Ball, too, was in negotiations with the old enemy. At the time of writing, Ball seems destined for Ibrox Park rather than the other side of Stanley Park. But if Barmby's departure for Liverpool came as a slap in the face, the very rumours that Ball might be following him came as a stab in the heart.
Barmby, after all, was a boyhood Red (not that he let on when he signed for the Blues). But Ball grew up supporting Everton. Indeed, on Easter Monday this year I was a guest of the (generous, talented and, in a certain light, not unhandsome) sponsor, Jimmy Mulville of Hat Trick Productions. With Everton safe from relegation at an unusually early stage of the campaign (with two Saturdays to go), the day was bereft of heart-stopping tension, and hugely enjoyable as a consequence.
Even Liverpool's winning goal – illicitly scored with about three seconds to go by Gary McAllister, who moved a free-kick forward behind the referee's back – did not ruin things. Afterwards, in the sponsor's lounge, there was moderate good cheer. We had still seen a great game of football with five goals, four of them legal. Duncan Ferguson had scored a cracker and, with customary restraint, had jogged slowly towards the Liverpool fans gesturing mildly towards his Everton tattoo. Oh, and we definitely weren't going down.
Despite the defeat, there still seemed plenty to celebrate. But then Ball entered the room.
After each match, at least one of the players is encouraged to meet the sponsor and the sponsor's guests. That day it was Ball's turn. But so shattered was he by losing at home to Liverpool that he literally could not speak. There are undertakers with piles who appear happier than he did. He made Gordon Lee, the cadaverous and terminally glum Everton manager of the late 1970s, look like the Laughing Policeman. Ball had certainly had his run-ins with the club, but it was reassuringly clear that his veins ran blue.
And now he is on the point of departure. Not to Liverpool, it seems – which would have been like Mel Gibson, at the end of Braveheart, deciding that the English weren't a bad lot really and he might as well make friends with them – but even so. I can quite understand why beleaguered clubs cash in on local lads who have risen through the youth system to become stars, but it still seems like a watering-down of the essence of football. Of course, it happens to lots of clubs, but Everton are the only club I much care about. And this summer has already seen Francis Jeffers, like Ball an Evertonian from the time he ate his first rusk, leaving for Arsenal.
The list of boyhood Blues who wind up distinguishing themselves for other clubs makes grim reading for those of us who learned to swear on the Gwladys Street terraces. There's Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Steve McManaman, and I haven't started racking my brains yet.
Still, to be an Everton fan these days it helps to look on the bright side of life, even if you can only find it through a very powerful telescope. At least, in a satisfying reversal of the usual scheme of things, we have actually acquired an ardent Evertonian in Alan Stubbs. On the other hand, the last time that happened, with Gary Speed's arrival, the relationship soured rather nastily before he was shipped up to Newcastle.
It is some years since I have looked forward to a season without trying to find three teams more likely to go down, which I feel is not my birthright as an Evertonian. This season, I'm not sure whether I can find those three teams. Bolton? Derby? Southampton? Perhaps I am being unduly pessimistic. At least I can find solace in gallows humour. For example, I admit that I chuckled when, on the day The Independent reported that Juan Sebastian Veron had signed for Manchester United for £28m, a paragraph at the bottom of the page disclosed that Phil Jevons had rejected an offer to stay at Goodison Park – in favour of a £150,000 move to Grimsby Town.Reuse content