“When David Moyes first came to see me he sat down 11 years ago and we were in a bad state, and he said: ‘We’re not going down’. Almost Roberto’s first words to me were: ‘I’ll get you in the Champions League'” – Everton chairman Bill Kenwright on June 5, 2013, when announcing Roberto Martinez as the club’s next manager.
Well, that’s just unfair. He said that then, but it’s something a manager would say before he is unveiled. It’s a call-to-arms, a statement of ambition to his chairman that probably wasn’t intended for public consumption.
“The aim of getting in the Champions League is always there. That is what we have to do as Everton. We have to look at what we are as a football club and the dream that drives us on is the Champions League. That hasn’t changed and will not change” – Roberto Martinez, August 2014.
Ok, take the point, but Martinez was coming off the back of a wonderful season. It’s obvious that he would aim for improvement. A natural ambition.
“I think our target in the league is always the same. We have an overall aim, which is trying to get into the top four and that is not going to change. Can we achieve it this season? Once we get into the next international break, there will be eight games left and then we see exactly where we are” – Roberto Martinez, December 2014, with Everton 12th in the table, five points ahead of the bottom three.
Right, yes. That one probably was a little bit silly. Optimism giving way to fantasy a little bit. But still, good to be positive.
“We want to win titles, we want to play in the Champions League. He [Kevin Mirallas] is no different to any player in that he has high hopes and aspirations” – Roberto Martinez, February 2015. Everton were 12th, seven points ahead of the bottom three.
Oh for f**k’s sake, Roberto. Titles? You’re not making it easy.
Roberto Martinez is one of life’s optimists. The sun is always shining; the smile is always beaming; the ‘good morning’ is always expressed in a chirpy tone. Show Roberto that you trod in dog sh*t and he’ll say he likes your trainers. Tell him that it’s pouring down with rain and he’ll remark that it’s good weather for the ducks. Ask him why Everton have lost at home again and he’ll tell you that they had more possession and were in control for long periods of the match. That’s just what he does.
Optimism, traditionally, is considered A Good Thing. It is “the faith that leads to achievement”, as Helen Keller said. ‘Few more things are more powerful than a smile’, well-meaning family members and sugary fridge magnets insist. Unfortunately, the line between ‘optimism’ and ‘blind optimism’ is thin, and the latter is a synonym of naivety, not positivity.
Everton’s 2014/15 was such an unmitigated dirge that even lovely Bobby M’s smiles looked painted on. There is only so much blind confidence and upbeat whistling a football supporter can take before he loses the plot and demands to know why everyone is smiling after a 0-0 draw against West Brom.
Injuries, European football, fatigue, individual errors and misfortune were all reasons for Everton’s slump last season, but Martinez too shares much of the blame. His decision to blow the whole transfer budget on one young striker rather than beefing up a paper-thin squad was compounded by the apparent sense of disbelief when Romelu Lukaku unsurprisingly proved himself incapable of playing as an effective one-man strikeforce for every minute of the campaign. Everton eventually moved clear from disaster, but still finished 11th and were knocked out of both domestic cups at the first hurdle for the first time in the club’s history.
Martinez’s successful first season generated an enormous amount of good will at Goodison, enough to see him through the darkest days (a run of one win in 13 games between November and January), but it is a finite source of comfort. Supporters are expecting to see a marked improvement in preparation, performance and tactics from a manager whose decisions last season often caused disbelief. Kenwright is perhaps the most patient chairman in the Premier League, but even his tolerance level has limits.
The concern is that Martinez’s optimism will become his downfall, the shovel for his own Goodison grave. Everton’s wage bill for the last accounting period was £69m, the same as Aston Villa’s and only £1m higher than Sunderland’s. Their income of £120m ranks them eighth in the Premier League. Over-ambitious public statements of intent just construct targets that are impossible for him to realise – disappointment becomes the likeliest outcome.
See too Martinez’s purchase of Lukaku. Plenty of Premier League clubs have learned to embrace (or at least accept) the culture in which they have no choice to be selling clubs. ‘Buy low, sell high’ has become the motto for Southampton, Swansea and Stoke.
Everton may consider themselves above such peers, but the football climate is changing. Without an owner who can bankroll purchases, this is Everton’s reality. Rather than spending £28m on a striker, improving a paper-thin squad should have been the priority. Particularly when participating in four competitions.
Having spent the entire budget on one player last year, Martinez seems to be without transfer funds at all this summer. Gerard Deulofeu and Tom Cleverley have arrived for a combined £4m, but there is still no support for Lukaku and Everton currently have six first-team defenders. One is wanted by Chelsea, one other is returning from a long-term injury (Brian Oviedo) and another is Tony Hibbert. Steven Pienaar and Darron Gibson are also injured. Suddenly Everton are struggling to fill the bench.
Again, Martinez has been forced to deal with players potentially leaving, not arriving. It started with Seamus Coleman and Ross Barkley in June, and has moved onto Mirallas, James McCarthy and John Stones in July. Everton are spending so much time making sure the plug stays in the bathtub that there is little left for adding more hot water. The result is an inevitably lukewarm experience.
The assumption (despite Martinez’s front) is that Chelsea will get their man for a fee of around £30m. The departure of Stones, as with Barkley, would be damaging, but also releases funds to fill a multitude of gaps and provide more adequate cover. Of the club’s nine most regular league starters last season, four were over 30 and three were 22 and under.
Without simplifying things too much, it’s the bit in the middle that’s lacking. Martinez might be angry to see Stones leave, but to claim that Everton can keep all their best players is fantasy. Ask Southampton. Ask Tottenham. Ask Liverpool, even. Martinez seems to prefer the ‘Buy high, sell rarely and never sell your best young players’ philosophy to the one previously mentioned. It’s totally unrealistic.
Again, what stops Martinez from seeing (or perhaps admitting) the truth is his constant optimism, the insistence that everything will be alright in the end. Optimism is a vital tool in squad morale, but it can also be a damaging façade, a barrier to improvement. The first step on Everton’s road to recovery might be a millionaire owner but, failing that, an acceptance of reality is a decent start.