"Only the revered top four have conceded fewer goals than Moyes’s men."
Everton have had a series of ups and downs under manager David Moyes, but 2006/07 saw them heading in the right direction once more.
The Toffeemen qualified for the UEFA Cup by finishing sixth in the Premiership, and will be hoping to make a better fist of it than on their last continental jaunt in the 2005/06 season.
On that occasion, a fourth placed finish in the Premiership had ensured Champions League qualification for the first time under the competition’s current guise. Yet the dream ended early when the Merseysiders were put out at the qualifying stage by eventual semi-finalists Villarreal, before going on to get blown out of the UEFA Cup by Dinamo Bucharest after a staggering 5-1 defeat in Romania.
The Everton class of 2006/07 was made of sterner stuff. Not even lengthy injuries to the talismanic Tim Cahill could stint their progress, and a top six finish was just reward for their efforts over the season. Cahill’s goals had been instrumental in Everton’s success in 2004/05, and it was thought by some that without the Australian the Goodison Park club would struggle to find the net.
While not exactly lighting up the scoreboard on a regular basis, Everton’s return of 52 league goals from their 38 matches is the joint seventh best tally in the division. It is just one less than the figure achieved by Champions League qualifiers Arsenal, while only the revered top four have conceded fewer goals than Moyes’s men. Joleon Lescott has been a leading light in defence since joining from Wolverhampton Wanderers last summer, while Moyes has managed to get the best out of an ageing but committed Alan Stubbs alongside Lescott.
The main reason for the upsurge in goal power has been the capture of Andy Johnson. The England striker joined the club from Crystal Palace in a £6.8million deal which many saw as a gamble. Johnson had earned rave reviews for his performances for Palace in their one season in the Premiership under Iain Dowie two years previously, but had been unspectacular in their subsequent and doomed attempt to bounce back after relegation. Utilised as a lone striker more often than not, Johnson has been a revelation and has offered a genuine and speedy goal threat. His return of 11 league goals may seem modest, but his nuisance value cannot be overstated as it has allowed others to get on the scoresheet also.
Taking over from Cahill in the role of goalscoring midfielder has been Mikel Arteta. The former Rangers midfield man notched nine goals during the last campaign, and also proved a skilful and useful outlet in the middle of the park. The January acquisition of Manuel Fernandes on loan from Benfica proved shrewd also, while Phil Neville was again a model of consistency despite a spectacularly embarrassing own goal in a 4-2 home defeat to Manchester United. Others such as Leon Osman and James McFadden possess no shortage of ability, while youngsters Victor Anichebe and James Vaughan look set to bloom in time for next season.
Having had no European football to distract them in 2006/07, Everton will be disappointed by their performances in the domestic cup competitions. They were thrashed 4-1 at home by Blackburn Rovers in the third round of the FA Cup in January, arguably the team’s worst performance of the season. In the Carling Cup, they could not get past Arsene Wenger’s second string Arsenal side in the fourth round in early November. The match saw McFadden dismissed by Graham Poll for foul and abusive language, before Emmanuel Adebayor popped up with the only goal five minutes from time. Moyes will have more on his plate next term if the side progress in Europe, but will surely look to do better in the cups given that Everton have not won a trophy since 1995.
Season highs include a derby day spanking of Liverpool in September, when Johnson scored twice in a memorable 3-0 win at Goodison Park. Johnson also found the mark when Arsenal came to town in mid-March, a goal that was good enough to earn all three points against the Gunners. Home defeats by Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa will have disappointed Moyes, while no fewer than nine of their away assignments ended in draws. Converting those draws into wins would go a long way to making Everton a challenger for Champions League qualification next term.
So, is a top four finish achievable once more in 2007/08? Moyes will know that he must build on his squad, and keep the nucleus together to drive the club on. He has started by tying midfield stopper Lee Carsley to the club for another year, fending off interest from Wigan Athletic. Anichebe and Vaughan are contracted until 2011, while Allesandro Pistone and Richard Wright have been released. Tim Howard’s move from Manchester United was made permanent well before the newly crowned champions refused permission for the American to play in their pivotal, Neville-inspired Goodison Park victory.
With Cahill hopefully back to his best and injury free, the signs are that Everton can improve during the next campaign. All too often during the reign of Moyes, a good season has been followed by a miserable one, and the Scot needs to achieve consistency over a number of seasons to wipe away any doubts as to whether he is the man to return former glories to the blue half of Merseyside.
He does not have the backing in the transfer market that will be afforded to the top four clubs, but if any club is in a position to break that particular cartel, it could well be Everton.
By Stephen Orford
22 May 2007