Six years after flirting with elite, Everton are still pining

Tonight's visitors to Goodison bring a bitter reminder that the promised land has grown more remote each year

Thoughts of what might have been will enter Evertonian minds when Villarreal visit Goodison Park for the Merseysiders' final pre-season friendly tonight.

It was against the Spanish club in 2005 that Everton fell one step short of the Champions League group stage, in a qualifier remembered for Pierluigi Collina's mystifying decision to rule out a potentially pivotal Duncan Ferguson goal.

After a 2-1 home defeat, Everton thought they had restored parity at El Madrigal when, after Mikel Arteta's free-kick had made it 1-1 on the night, Ferguson powered home a header from a corner. Instead Collina whistled for a perceived infringement by Marcus Bent on Gonzalo Rodriguez, when TV cameras showed the pair merely jostling for position.

Villarreal, who salted the wound with a second goal at the death, reached the semi-finals; Everton, despite twice surpassing the points total that earned them fourth place in the Premier League in 2004-05, have not got closer to modern football's promised land since.

Mick Rathbone, part of David Moyes' Goodison inner sanctum for eight years as Everton's head of science, recalls the "amazing damp squib" that followed the feat of finishing fourth. Arteta had warned that Villarreal were the team to avoid, and so it proved. "When Villarreal came out, there was a kind of deathly silence – it was a draw we didn't want. [Moyes] really felt that was the chance to move Everton on and become that top-four team," says Rathbone, adding that disappointment melded with anger once they reviewed Collina's decision and "realised that was a blatant mistake".

As the 10th full season of Moyes' reign approaches, a more pertinent question than "what if?" is "what next?" for a club who won the last of their nine league titles 25 years ago next May. A section of Everton's support has become increasingly active in voicing its frustrations with owner Bill Kenwright and his board over their failure to find the necessary investment to back Moyes in the transfer market even modestly.

Everton's debt is an estimated £45m and, according to the chief executive, Robert Elstone, in a blog on the club website, "the squeeze on money is harder than ever". The contrast with their close neighbours could not be more striking. While the Liverpool manager, Kenny Dalglish, has recruited £100m worth of new players in 2011, Moyes, whose side have finished one place behind their rivals for three of the last four seasons, has spent no more than £2m combined in the past three windows and must again sell before he can buy.

Kenwright's critics also point to the failed ground moves to Kings Dock and Kirkby; the fact Goodison Park has remained essentially untouched for 17 years means it generates roughly one-fifth of the income Old Trafford does on a match day. This week a coalition of protest groups called the Blue Union and comprising Keep Everton In Our City (which campaigned against Kirkby), Evertonians for Change, The People's Group and School of Science 1878, issued a press release complaining about "stagnation" and a "lack of transparency".

Keep Everton In Our City member Dave Kelly says: "It is sad Evertonians have become accustomed and accept it as the norm that we have to sell to buy. Do we only aspire to finish seventh or do we attempt to kick on?"

Even the defender Sylvain Distin, responding on Twitter to fans' queries about Moyes' reported interest in the Aston Villa-bound Charles N'Zogbia, suggested: "[It] seems like we can't afford no one [sic] at the moment."

It is a far cry from last summer, when a rare outbreak of pre-season optimism followed the strong finish to 2009-10 – two defeats in 24 Premier League games – and Moyes' success in keeping his squad intact. Even Sir Alex Ferguson echoed Moyes' belief that a Champions League push was not beyond Everton, yet a poor start and lack of a reliable striker cost them. Moyes still needs that forward and had hoped to raise money by selling Yakubu and Joseph Yobo; the question now is whether he sacrifices a key asset like Phil Jagielka to fund moves, or relies on the loan market.

Despite the constraints, Rathbone says it is wrong to assume it is all doom and gloom at Everton's Finch Farm HQ. A highlight of his highly entertaining and insightful autobiography, The Smell of Football, is his insight into Moyes' working methods, and he says: "The idea that he has been sitting there bashing his head against the wall is wrong."

Each pre-season Moyes "paid attention to small things to make things a bit fresher and more stimulating", adds Rathbone, who also worked with him at Preston. "The summer before last he started putting the satnav vests on one or two players to make sure we saw what they were doing in training. It doesn't cost the same as a £20m player but is a little tap on the shoulder for everybody – 'We're going forward, boys'."

Everton's academy also ensures some "evolution" and the promising pre-season showings of 17-year-old midfielder Ross Barkley, now recovered from a broken leg suffered on England Under-19 duty, provide one source of hope.

The club's straitened circumstances, Rathbone declares, also guarantee a formidable team spirit and it is telling that neither of their highly rated England defenders, the Arsenal target Jagielka and Leighton Baines, appears in any rush to leave. "The tightness of the squad and the tightness of the people who work there make it, I would suggest, quite a unique situation in modern-day Premier League football."

This backs-to-the-wall quality will be essential if Moyes is ever to fulfil the wish he reiterated before his 400th game last December to "lift one of those silver things" with a club once known as the Mersey Millionaires.

Moyes' moves in the market

Transfers so far this summer:

In Eric Dier (loan from Sporting Lisbon)

Out James Vaughan (£2m, Norwich City)

Summer 2010

In Jermaine Beckford (free), Jan Mucha (free), Magaye Gueye (£900,000), Joao Silva (undisclosed).

Main sale None

2010-11 finish 54pts, 7th position

Summer 2009

In Diniyar Bilyaletdinov (£9m), Sylvain Distin (£5m), John Heitinga (£6m), Lucas Neill (free), Jo (loan), [plus youngsters Cody Arnoux (undisclosed) and Shkodran Mustafi (free plus Fifa training compensation)].

Main sale Joleon Lescott for £22m

2009-10 finish 61pts, 8th position

Summer 2008

In Marouane Fellaini (£15m), Louis Saha (undisclosed), Carlos Nash (free), Lars Jacobsen (free), Segundo Castillo (loan).

Main sale Andrew Johnson for £10m

2008-09 finish 63pts, 5th position; FA Cup finalists

Moyes' six best buys:

Tim Cahill £2m, Millwall, 2004

Mikel Arteta £2.2m, Real Sociedad, 2005

Phil Jagielka £4m, Sheffield United, 2007

Steven Pienaar £2.05m, Borussia Dortmund, 2008

Seamus Coleman £60k, Sligo Rovers, 2009

Landon Donovan loan, LA Galaxy, 2010

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