What think ye of Christ? asks the sign outside the Presbyterian chapel opposite Goodison Park. It is a question that Robert Elstone, the man cast into the chief executive's role at Everton's must ask himself every day. The club can't find a buyer, they can't build a stadium and they can't win a match at present. Little wonder that there's been a serious sense of foreboding around the club ahead of this lunchtime's Goodison derby which pits Everton, one win in seven and booed off at Ewood Park by their own fans three days ago, against third-place Liverpool.
There are two ways forward for a club like this. The one which Elstone describes as "The Billionaire" option, which is self-apparent, or the one which football financiers like him like to call the "facility" model: building a 60,000+ stadium and using match-day incomes to build a future, as Manchester United and Arsenal have done. Neither route is leading anywhere for Everton, at present.
Though the chairman, Bill Kenwright, is preparing to enlist corporate financier Keith Harris, an old friend, to help him find the kind of wealth Manchester City are revelling in, sources in the City suggest that a sale document which would form the basis of any serious search for a new owner has not yet been drawn up. "It's not a formal arrangement [with Harris] yet," said one City source and the apparent lack of urgency suggests Kenwright is of the view that if serious buyers were out there then he would have heard from them by now.
It would have helped to have had images of a glittering new stadium to parade across the Gulf states where the new football money is to be found. But at a time when every club seems to be seeking out financiers with good Middle East connections, Everton have been left to prepare for the public inquiry the Government has ordered into their proposed purpose-built facility at Kirkby. There are going to be some sweaty palms around the club as they try desperately to prove that their stadium will not threaten the economic livelihoods of the towns and villages in the Merseyside conurbation. With Arsenal and Manchester United already enjoying more than triple the £900,000 match-day takings that Everton will enjoy from a game like today's, the consequences of the inquiry going against Everton just do not bear thinking about.
The stadium delays do affect the search for a buyer, Elstone told The Independent this week. "The green light on a new facility will enable this club to compete at the top end of the Premier League far more than it would if we stay at Goodison," Elstone says. "Any investor will absolutely look at that equation very closely." For now, he is driving ahead with the stadium project – "the business as we see it and what's in front of us today," as he describes it, rather than hypothesising about buyers – "the what ifs and the what might be."
The public inquiry has at least created more time to persuade those fans hard set against leaving Goodison that the only way ahead for the club, which has been forced to sell its megastore and Finch Farm training ground and lease them back to raise revenue, is to move on from Goodison. Many fans agree that Elstone's arrival as acting chief executive have coincided with a new quality of communication with the anti-Kirkby lobby, though his task has not been made easier by suggestions from some Liverpool politicians that an alternative site might yet be found within the city.
Evertonians have seized on the comments, unaware that their club are contractually bound, through a standard exclusivity agreement signed with their Kirkby partners, not to proactively seek new sites and can only examine Liverpool options if the council offers them up. As yet, none have been been forthcoming from the council.
A better start to the season than one fans have witnessed would have been welcome in these difficult times. But Everton have looked shaky and last season's robust defence uncharacteristically shaky, as Moyes admitted yesterday. The Everton manager also defended the club's £15m record signing, midfielder Marouane Fellaini, who has struggled to demonstrate his value and was substituted at half-time on Wednesday, but in doing so provided a sense of the mounting financial demands on a side aspiring to match last season's fifth position. "I don't think the fee was that big compared to what is in the market these days and for a club like Everton the fee's a realistic sort of payment we'd have to pay," Moyes said. "We are probably in need of buying three or four players of that value – not one."
Securing Moyes' future won't be a cheap proposition, either. Unconfirmed figures have included £16m over the course of a four-year deal to retain his services and though Moyes suggested yesterday that the contract which has been talked about throughout the summer might be imminent, he was worryingly enigmatic from fans' point of view. Was the delay a mere question of fine-tuning the agreement, he was asked. "No not really ... well, there was the odd little bit but it's been back with the club for probably four weeks now. They [the club] know," he replied.
It is fair to say that Moyes' indecision in the transfer market this summer and single-minded determination to buy only players who are an improvement on last season's squad has contributed to the start Everton have had. It has meant the club lack the sheer strength in numbers which is needed as much as individual talents.
Defeating Liverpool and avenging the controversial defeat in last season's corresponding fixture would go a huge way to kick-starting the season and putting Everton's troubles temporarily in the past. "Winning a game like this can give you a bigger feeling than taking three points off someone else. It gives a lot of people around the club and people in general that confidence which we are trying to grasp," Moyes said.
But with the most likely route to the billions needed to prosper in the Premier League still a full three years away, the underlying financial problems persist – win, lose or draw. Should not Everton's aim now be to maintain Premier League respectability until the chance of serious money comes along? Elstone was unequivocal. "Football clubs are about dreams and aspirations and winning on Saturday is everything that matters," he declared. "There's no sense of putting the football club on ice or any hiatus. We want to win every game we play and be at the top. We have to manage our funds to the best of our ability today, tomorrow in whatever circumstance we are in. In a new facility that's easier and those funds are greater."