C'mon, Everton, we need you
SOCCER ANGLES:The Premier League needs some team from outside the established order to challenge – otherwise gates and viewership figures will surely suffer
“BLESSED ARE the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”
If only. It seems reasonable to assume Matthew 5:5 will not be scrawled on dressingroom walls up and down the Premier League today. This is a land where big dogs eat small dogs and the meek end up just missing out on trophies, Europe, the Hollywood signings and all the rest of it.
The meek shall inherit whoever it is Manchester City do not wish to buy or no longer wish to keep. This is a land where the glass ceiling can feel like it is thickening even as clubs throw more and bigger coins at it.
There will be specific internal reasons as to why Martin O’Neill felt compelled to walk out of Aston Villa on Monday but in broad terms it was over a disagreement as to how Villa fund the future and what sort of future it is that they foresee for themselves.
O’Neill, energetic and ambitious, wanted the club to push on. Villa, concerned about a drop in attendances last season and the sort of money that Richard Dunne and Luke Young receive each week, appear prepared to accept less, O’Neill might say, meekly.
Less than sixth, where Villa have been for the last three seasons, would be a step backwards and that is not one O’Neill wanted to take.
In each of those last three seasons Villa’s points tally increased. It shows the job is getting harder and when City get their act together the degree of difficulty will increase again.
James Milner personifies the difference between the clubs. City came fifth last season even with the disruption of losing Mark Hughes, not forgetting Robinho.
Liverpool, who finished seventh, will surely improve. They lost more away games than Stoke and one of Roy Hodgson’s primary objectives will be to make them resolute. If so, the squeeze on Villa and the top six will be felt.
Two points behind Liverpool, three behind Villa, in eighth place came Everton. If O’Neill spent the days since May looking over his shoulder at them, too, he could not be blamed.
Everton started last season by being thumped 6-1 at home by Arsenal amid the Joleon Lescott-City malarkey. Then they lost at Burnley. Then at Fulham.
Lescott was gone after Arsenal. But if that was a distraction, the fact Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka were unavailable due to injury was a small disaster.
Unfortunately their absence set a tone for David Moyes. Young striker Victor Anichebe was out until January, Phil Neville missed from September to Christmas, Marouane Fellaini missed the last four months of the season, Joseph Yobo started one game after November.
Another key defender Tony Hibbert was out from Christmas until mid-April.
And there were others, Jack Rodwell and Tim Cahill included. It was one painful season at Goodison Park.
Eight Villa players started more than 30 league games; at Everton it was four.
But beside a smirking picture of Moyes, yesterday morning the Everton website carried the line: “There are currently no injured players.”
This comes days after Arteta signed a new five-year deal. Had the Spaniard gone – with City interested – it would have felt like a glass ceiling moment for Moyes, and he has had a few of those in his eight and a half years at Goodison.
But Arteta stays, and he’s fit. So is Fellaini, and Cahill. If Steven Pienaar commits himself to the club then that is the beginning of a formidable midfield. And there is the precocious Rodwell to add to that and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.
It is a list that must make Moyes optimistic. When Arteta finally started a game last season, in February, it was against the eventual champions Chelsea. Everton won 2-1.
In their next game they beat Manchester United 3-1. In those last 14 Premier League matches Everton lost one and won eight.
If this all sounds like a man convincing himself an investment in Everton breaking into the top four this season is a wise one, then you could be right.
It will hardly be straightforward for some of the reasons mentioned above. Tottenham should again challenge and their squad may be able to cope with a Champions League campaign. But it may not.
Everton do not have that concern. Their focus is purely domestic and what a gust of fresh air it would be if they were to push ahead early and shake the likes of United, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Something is needed. After England’s depressing performance at the World Cup, English football has had some thinking to do. The national team and the national game are two separate issues but England’s malaise has clearly been a crossover concern.
Collectively, they need stimulation – the last 15 Premier League titles have been won by just three clubs. Another procession, allied to the recession – deeper than official figures relate, or so it feels – and gates could fall at places beyond Villa Park.
That may not be seen until around October. By then one hopes Everton, or anyone outside Arsenal, Chelsea or United will have made a mark.
The league needs feistiness, not meekness.