There can only be one thing worse than trying to restore a football club to what everyone considers to be their rightful place: namely, attempting to do so while the hated neighbours up the road are winning trophy after trophy. Perhaps a society should be formed for mutual support; founder members would be Everton, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.
he latter trio have, of course, had their moments even in the past 20 years in the shadow of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal respectively. Yet even then, the old enemy somehow seemed to have the last word. Spurs, all set to beat the other north London team to a Champions' League place, fell sick and failed on the last day of the season. Everton actually made it, only to lose in the qualifying round (doh!) after the other lot had staged the greatest comeback in 50 years of European Cup finals.
Suggest, however, that a "Second Fiddle Society" or "Poor Relations Association" might be an appropriate tag and hackles will rise, for it is important to believe that there is nothing permanent about this condition. Hence the excitement on Merseyside since the new year about the possibility of Everton again pipping Liverpool to fourth place in the Premier League.
They go to Anfield this afternoon two points behind the neighbours, and could therefore finish the day in front. That in itself is a source of pride to David Moyes, who is nevertheless torn between reflecting positively on the progress made during his six impressive years as managerand emphasising the gap in resources between the two clubs.
The positive bits first: "Everton is a great football club," Moyes says, "and we've got it back on track now and going in the right direction. We're speeding along nicely and catching the people in front of us. Now we want to overtake them."
The lowest point of the season, in every sense, came after a controversial 2-1 home defeat at the end of October by Liverpool, who won with a last-minute penalty against nine men (Tony Hibbert and Phil Neville had been sent off). Everton were left in 10th place, apparently suffering, as most teams do, from the rigours of a Uefa Cup campaign. But some excellent European form seemed for once to carry over into the League as well as offering invaluable experience to younger players.
More positives for the manager: "We played 10 games in Europe, won eight, drew one and lost one before we went out [on penalties to Fiorentina]. So if you looked at that you would have to say, 'Very good, Everton'. So that's why we'll be confident if we get back into the Uefa Cup, and that's why if we're fortunate enough to get into the Champions' League we'll be confident of getting through the qualifier and into the group stage."
Moyes is speaking on Friday afternoon at the smart new training complex in Halewood, another element of the club that has proved a positive one in attracting prospective recruits to the club – often young British ones. "I think Everton's now attractive to a lot of players," he says. "People are saying we're actually quite progressive, quite young, robust, trying to make things better.
"Goodison's an intimidating place to play, with great supporters. Joleon Lescott's come here and done really well, and maybe next season we'll be looking for Leighton Baines to be in a position to get in the England squad as well. Phil Jagielka is quite close, he's had a good season. And if young players want a route through into one of the top teams, we try and promote them if they are good enough."
So far, so good. But will so good only go so far? The players mentioned there cost £4m-£5m, from smaller English clubs. Last summer, Everton's transfer record may have been broken with the £11.25m purchase of Aiyegbeni Yakubu, but meanwhile Liverpool were able to spend twice as much on one of Europe's outstanding strikers, Fernando Torres.
Moyes does not attempt to pretend the clubs are yet in the same financial league, which makes it all the more important for Everton to reach the League that rewards all participants (as long as they pass through that qualifying round) with such mountains of euros.
"To be fair, in the last six years, you'd have to say on a business plan, 'Everton, first class, you haven't tried to bankrupt the club, you haven't spent at silly levels, you haven't done – dare I say it – a Leeds United'. We've been in a difficult financial state but now we've got full houses, money on the pitch.
"So you'd have to praise the board and the chairman for the way they've done it. If we keep going on that way, we could get where we want. I'd say the bigger question is the investment that's going on throughout the Premier League now means that Everton will need to keep up with the Joneses. And the bit we might find difficult would be if we are trying to buy Champions' League players. There are some players who only see themselves as playing in the Champions' League and that's a different level of player again. I don't know if we've got to that level yet. If you buy one, he'll maybe drop downfor a year or so but then he'll be looking to get back there."
Everton must therefore look to get back there too. Moyes is self-confessedly enough of a romantic and Everton a club sufficiently rooted in their community to hope it can be done without finding what he calls "a big sugar daddy".
Having their finances underpinned by an amenable theatre impresario with a good Scouse accent in Bill Kenwright suits them just fine. "Hopefully it's still not all about money, hope-fully it's down to a bit of good management, good coaching, good scouting, great supporters and not just down to findingthis guy out there who'll come in and make everything better," Moyes says.
On a day when the local evening newspaper's front page was devoted to the latest outburst from one of Liverpool's American owners about the other, the point was well made. While Evertonians are traditionally resentful of a perceived imbalance in publicity given to the two clubs, they are currentlylaughing up their blue sleeves at their rivals' self-harming. Moyes is justified in believing that in the wider world beyond the Mersey, his team will have a lot of neutral support in their quest to gatecrash the Fab Four of English football.
Everton, once Joe Royle's "dogs of war", are still the underdogs a decade later. With James McFadden and Alan Stubbs sold, Tim Cahill and James Vaughan now among the injured, Moyes admits: "This is where we become a little bit more stretched than the others."
Across town, in contrast, Rafa Benitez was claiming to have agreed the transfer this summer of a player who will be in next season's starting XI. What was indisputable was Benitez's assessment: "It is clear we are in a crucial period." Starting at Anfield, 4pm today.