Welcome back to club football, the sort that does not have to apologise for forcing viewers to wait an extra day for I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!. Events have been unfolding during the international break and it transpires that some Everton supporters think Ronald Koeman should be gagged. They do not care for the tone of some of the manager’s recent remarks and believe club officials should step in to shut him up next time he starts saying Romelu Lukaku probably will have to move somewhere else to fulfil his potential, or suggests Liverpool might be playing well enough to win the league.
Not all Everton fans are up in arms, it should be stressed, but a quick visit to the usual Merseyside platforms for football news and chat will reveal quite a few comments to the effect that Koeman has strayed beyond the pale. It appears characteristically Dutch outspokenness was fine when the topics for discussion were the underperforming Ross Barkley or the out-of-favour Oumar Niasse, but not so amusing when the subject changed to his own future – Koeman was rash enough to admit he would like to manage Holland one day – or the other lot from across Stanley Park.
Few journalists are fans of censorship, although this one would not have objected to Roberto Martínez’s press minders setting a time limit of no more than 10 minutes on unjustifiable positivity, and the lesson here seems to be “careful what you wish for”. Surely it cannot be the case that a mere six months after waving a not particularly tearful goodbye to Martínez and his vacuous evasions Evertonfans are unhappy with a manager who gives a brusquely straight answer to a question?
One should always remember that when managers’ words make headlines – or players’ for that matter – they will normally be responding to questions or prompts. Koeman did not contact Belgian journalists to express his fears about Lukaku not being able to achieve all his ambitions at Everton, he will have been asked a question along those lines and supplied a disarmingly frank answer. Of course it might have been easier for all concerned if Koeman had suggested Everton were on the up and Lukaku and his team-mates on course to be keeping Manchester City or Arsenal out of the Champions League in a season or two, but that would have struck even Martínez as dangerously delusional.
Anyone who has seen Everton recently knows they are a considerable distance from even reaching the Champions League, let alone starring in it, so Koeman was only stating the facts. It was put to the former Southampton manager in the week of his arrival on Merseyside that even with Farhad Moshiri’s investment Everton were going to find it difficult to be anything other than the fourth biggest club in the north-west, and Koeman did not even attempt to deny it. “I know,” he said. “It will be very hard to get past Liverpool, United and City.”
As it happens, José Mourinho’s Manchester United are allowing Everton a fighting chance, but Koeman did not know that at the time. Back in summer, United were breaking the world transfer record and signing a string of established internationals. Everton were operating more modestly, picking up Yannick Bolasie, Ashley Williams and Idrissa Gueye, but congratulating themselves most on their success in keeping hold of Lukaku. Everton could conceivably finish higher than United this season if the ordinariness at Old Trafford continues, though that in itself will be no reason to break out the bunting if Liverpool and Chelsea manage to break back into the Champions League above them.
The question most commonly asked when Koeman left Southampton for Merseyside is raising its head again. Was it actually an upward move or a step forward? Everton can point to a grander tradition and perhaps pay a little better than Southampton, but both clubs are stuck at a sub-Champions League level that sees them aiming each season for Europa League football at best. The difference is that Southampton are reasonably happy with that scenario, whereas Everton are fed up of forever trailing in the wake of their north-west neighbours.
Whether intentionally or otherwise, Koeman has just poked this hornets’ nest of dissatisfaction and simmering injustice. Injustice? Space is too short here to go into details and in fact life might be too short to keep raking up old wounds, but a significant proportion of Goodison attendees believe Everton’s decline into second-club status on Merseyside can be directly attributed to the post-Heysel ban on English clubs in Europe, caused by Liverpool, you will recall, and depriving Howard Kendall’s sprightly 1985 title-winning side of the chance to try to emulate their neighbours’ success in the European Cup.
Koeman is evidently not a bitter Blue, otherwise he would never have expressed any sort of admiration for Everton’s rivals. The manager is now being accused by some of his own club’s supporters of seeking an early exit, manufacturing a row because recent results have been so disappointing, preparing the ground for selling Lukaku in January and already looking for where his next club might be, having realised that Everton might not be the stepping stone he had hoped.
Some of the above might even be true. As was noted at the time, Everton is not an easy job for any manager. The margins for improvement are quite small and there is not the sort of financial backing Chelsea and City have enjoyed in their successful attempts to elevate themselves into regular Champions League contenders. At first Everton supporters appeared to welcome Koeman for being prepared to take on such a challenge; now they seem to be pining for the failed romanticism of Martínez and blaming his successor for taking too realistic a view.
Maybe Koeman could be more diplomatic, though that is not what Dutch sportspeople are generally famous for and it is not what Everton currently need. Because if Liverpool do win the title this season – they are top at the moment and Koeman was not exactly spilling any state secrets when he said they are playing well and scoring a lot of goals – the closing of a 27-year gap would have ramifications for both sides of Stanley Park.
It would be fair to say Evertonians have enjoyed Liverpool’s quarter-of-a-century-and-counting in the league wilderness; after the indignities suffered in the 70s and 80s, when it was feared Anfield domination might never end, a period of respite was most welcome. Yet the uncomfortable fact is that Everton have been utterly dormant in the past 27 years, too. Sticking to the league, and leaving out cup successes and Liverpool’s two Champions League finals, Everton have barely made an impression on the top four, much less the summit. Their solitary fourth-place finish, in 2005, led to a Champions League campaign that stalled in the qualification rounds.
If Liverpool have been off the boil in these past couple of decades, noting that Everton have been unable to take advantage of their neighbours’ decline might qualify as the understatement of the Champions League era. Koeman has not actually said anything like that, and if he has any regard for his present position he would be well advised to change the subject. But, like a lot of things the Everton manager does happen to have said recently, it cannot be denied.