Less than three weeks before Everton’s first league game of 2015/16, supporters were expressing their outrage at the lack of investment in the club’s first team. Tom Cleverley had arrived on a free transfer from Manchester United and Gerard Deulofeu arrived permanently from Barcelona, but the usual rumours has produced nothing concrete.
In the Daily Telegraph, Chris Bascombe wrote how ‘Everton faced a ticking transfer time bomb as Roberto Martinez tried to defuse fans’ frustrations’, while fans protested on the streets outside the stadium in late August over the club’s transfer market inactivity. ‘Kenwright and the board, you’re holding us back. If you love the club, set it free; we need investment,’ their banner read.
One year later, and not much has changed. The only addition to the playing staff from last season is Maarten Stekelenburg, a 33-year-old goalkeeper with 18 league starts since March 2014. Add the exits of Tim Howard, Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar, and it is no exaggeration to say that Everton’s squad is weaker than in May. Both John Stones and Romelu Lukaku are both more likely to leave this summer than last, with the former finally to be granted the big-money move he craves.
Should Stones go, Everton’s first-team squad will be reduced to 29, with untested youngsters accounting for seven of those positions. Of the remaining 22, Oumar Niasse, Darron Gibson, Aiden McGeady and Arouna Kone are generally unwanted. That leaves 11 starters and a bench of seven substitutes; cross your fingers for no injuries. Finally, 21-year-old Shani Tarashaj could feasibly be Romelu Lukaku’s only back-up/competition/support. Have the lessons of last season not been learnt?
It’s a funny thing, perception. For while last July and August 2015 brought pique and protest, Everton could reasonably be described as a feel-good club again. The appointment of Ronald Koeman from upwardly mobile Southampton stroked the ego of a support worried at how far their mighty had fallen; the bank balance of new owner Farhan Moshiri persuaded them that everything would be okay.
That doesn’t change the reality, of course. The problem with Moshiri’s wealth is that it increases expectation and ambition, but doesn’t actually mean a great deal until some of the money is spent. Everton have been linked to Kalidou Koulibaly, William Carvalho, Georginio Wijnaldum, Juan Mata, Moussa Sissoko and Axel Witsel, but should be warned against shopping in an unrealistic market. Deals for Lamine Kone and Idrissa Gueye might not make mouths water, but Everton must avoid trying to sprint before pacing out the marathon course at walking pace.
Two weeks until the season begins with a home fixture against Tottenham, and one goalkeeper signed, yet the manager’s mood of relaxation is mirrored across the club. “Things will start happening in the coming days and weeks,” Koeman said on Tuesday. “Everything will be fine.” What’s more, supporters believe him.
While Koeman’s appointment was a statement of intent from Everton, it is the arrival of Steve Walsh from Leicester that offers the most promise for the future. Walsh is the new Director of Football at Goodison, and will oversee the club’s transfer activity in conjunction with the manager. The Director of Football role is still viewed with suspicion by some in English football, as is Walsh’s own use of data analysis, but his work at Leicester makes for an overwhelming argument. Koeman’s own experiences with Les Reed at Southampton were equally positive.
“It’s really good for the club to have someone in Steve who has shown his quality in his job at a number of clubs over many years,” Koeman said after Walsh’s appointment. “That’s the experience and quality he will bring to us at a good time in the season. He has a great deal of knowledge about building for the long-term.”
It is that last phrase that best encapsulates the mood around Goodison: “Building for the long-term.” Everton have existed on the Premier League’s periphery for so long that supporters are happy to remain patient in the search of sustainable success. When a sleeping giant has fallen into a semi-coma, waking it up is a slow process. With Walsh on board, Everton are aiming to be shrewd, not showy. That’s the strategy that made them successful in the first place.
A lack of signings will always frustrate in an age where buying in rather than bringing through is the increasing norm; nobody wants to be spurned by Marko Arnautovic. Yet amid newspaper talk of £100m war chests and £30m signings, there lies a club laying the foundations for a brighter future. The bricks will come, in time.