If they get panicky enough, Everton will sack their manager, Walter Smith. They may listen to that familiar incantation from the terraces that it is time for a change, any change. Like few other businesses, the game is about diminishing returns. But there is another question. If Everton can afford to lose Smith, can English football?
Not if it still puts any value on a quiet and professional voice. Not if it shows the barest understanding of the forces that have been unleashed over the last few years and are expressed almost universally in yelps of self-interest, against which Smith speaks with dogged rationality.
Smith may ultimately be a goner, with his years of beating the odds carelessly discounted. But if he is dismissed in defiance of the old injunction of the great captain of Everton, Joe Mercer – "if in doubt, do nowt" he once told his coach at Manchester City, Malcolm Allison, as the younger man wrestled over a tricky selection decision – some basic values will be lost not only to Goodison Park but the game as a whole. Values like patience and an implicit understanding that in football, as in life, your only obligation is to do the very best you can.
Smith, in triumph at Ibrox Park and on the edge at Everton, is plainly the same man, and if he goes it will be for what? Who could put it at more than a sweaty roll of the dice?
Everton, no question, are in a tight position and it is reasonable to assume that even Smith may be wearying a little of the annual battle for survival he has been required to fight ever since arriving from Scotland.
The board is now hearing loud cries for the manager's dismissal, and they can be sure that with the distraction of the FA Cup surrendered so haplessly at Middlesbrough on Sunday only a dramatic upsurge in Premiership form will do anything to dissipate the pressure. This side, that is, of chopping off Smith's head.
Yet what would accompany such a move? A significant injection of cash for the new man, a real engagement of the problem that has faced not just Smith but his immediate predecessors, Joe Royle and Howard Kendall? No, claiming Smith's head would create only the illusion of a fresh start. It would engender a brief honeymoon for the new man. But, beyond that, it is hard to see the point.
Smith has been down this way before, not because of professional inadequacy but because of the grinding reality of his club's situation. Everton are the threadbare aristocrats with leather patches on their sleeves, and at this point of household crisis it is hard to imagine the practicality of hiring a superior butler. Smith knows the form; he knows both the means and the etiquette of survival. He does not heap blame on the dressing-room. He juggles with Paul Gascoigne and David Ginola not out of any belief that they retain much of the blazing quality of their youth, but because he knows that they are around the best his employers can manage to hire. In the right circumstances, they have might have something to offer, so Smith plays the game of eking out the budget, spreading the best butter thin.
On Sunday he came as close as he ever had to rounding on his players. The irritation showed on a face of character which frequently breaks into a wry expression. Everton imploded. They chased the game, surrendered all composure, especially at the back. Plainly he had not counted on that, and it was disappointing. Not scandalous, not a threat to the bread on his table, not something so bad that he needed Doomsday imagery. Disappointing, that's all. But it was disappointment that went into his bones, and you sensed that, when the time was right, it would be conveyed to his players.
Certainly there was no self-pity, nor a tutorial on the difficulty of trying to make your way in the top flight of a league where some big-name managers can run up massive overdrafts without any guarantee of success and others, including Smith, are obliged to compete seriously while remaining in or around the black.
The manager did not list the players he had to part with while maintaining the fragile economy of Everton, players who, if they had stayed at Goodison Park rather than put Smith into the extraordinary position of a Premiership manager showing a transfer profit, would surely have buttressed him against the certainty of another fight against relegation. Players like John Collins, who has done so much to carry Fulham to Premiership safety and a place in the FA Cup semi-finals; Olivier Dacourt, now being courted by Juventus; Francis Jeffers, sold off to Arsenal; Slaven Bilic, a World Cup semi-finalist four years ago; Nicky Barmby, who moved across the park to Liverpool, and was followed recently by Abel Xavier; and the gifted Don Hutchison. These, or players of similar talent and market value, were surely the ingredients of at least survival.
For the Everton board the sacking of Smith would represent something more than the usual moral dilemma. They would surely have to analyse their own policies, their own failures to generate the resources which might have given the manager some kind of chance of genuinely competing with the top clubs. The deputy chairman Bill Kenwright's devotion to Everton is clear enough, but the reality is that he exhausted his own wealth in buying control of the club. He is a passionate chairman, but passion does not buy a striker guaranteed to shoot you out of trouble. Nor a manager who can multiply loaves and fishes.
In these circumstances, Everton might be smart to retain dignity and knowledge on the Premiership breadline. In a unique way Walter Smith represents both these qualities, and if they do not provide insurance against relegation they surely offer a fighting chance. One that could certainly be taken with more than a pinch of pride.Reuse content