With Tottenham drawing their last two games and Arsenal stumbling to just one win in seven, Everton’s recent matches with Swansea and Southampton represented a great chance for the Toffees to put pressure on the north London duo and stake their claim for that coveted Champions League spot.
And while the 0-0 draws should not be seen as an overly poor result against two in-form sides, the failure to convert chances - and certainly in the case of the Swansea game - turn a match they dominated into three points, highlights why the club may just fall short of their target this season.
David Moyes has assembled a supremely talented side that can compete with the best in the division – as wins over Manchester United and Spurs as well as draws with Arsenal and Manchester City so far this season can testify.
But the financial straight jacket the Scot is forced to wear at Goodison Park means his wage bill is focused on the few rather than the many. So during the long and arduous Premier League season, it is inevitable that injuries and fatigue (or loss of form - see Mr N. Jelavic) will affect Everton more than most. Thankfully the professional attitude of Moyes’ hard working squad means they are prepared to put their body on the line for the cause – Leighton Baines and his battered ankles being the most recent example. But if an injury strikes – like Kevin Mirallas’ hamstring strain – there is little Moyes can do to make up for this loss.
The Toffees boss has performed nothing short of a miracle over the last 18 months, taking an aging side struggling in the league and shorn of it’s main creative influence – Mikel Arteta – and fashioned a line-up suddenly capable of competing at the top end of the Premier League.
The continuing failure of the board to find a buyer means that the extra financial help Moyes deserves will only come with Champions League qualification.
In previous seasons that has been the stuff of fantasy, with the same four sides ‘locking-in’ the Champions League places and ensuring they continue to get richer, while the rest wallow below them. Even Manchester City have needed half a billion pounds worth of investment to lift themselves into Europe’s elite.
But this season things are different.
The relative struggles of Arsenal mean a place in the top four is well and truly up for grabs. At time of writing there are just three points separating Spurs in fourth and Everton in fifth, with a further four separating Everton and Arsenal (who have a game in hand). And that is following a first half of the season that saw Everton concede a lot of sloppy points, or at least fail to grasp them – like last Saturday.
Moyes knows that an equally fine run in the New Year gives Everton a real opportunity to make the top four and potentially an escape route out of their financial predicament.
To do that, however, he needs to be able to strengthen the squad. The speculation surrounding Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines is not helpful, but I still feel the duo will remain at the club beyond the end of January.
In most years that would have been regarded a success, but Everton cannot simply be content with keeping what they have, not if they are to make the most of this opportunity.
Should Everton finish fifth, or sixth, it would represent a fine achievement. But next year, as Newcastle have found this season, they would be hampered by the over-sized and under-paid Europa League, placing a further burden on the small squad.
Even if we make a decent start, who is to say Tottenham or Arsenal will make such inconsistent starts as this year? Both clubs have always spent considerably more money than Everton and next season could be the time one of them climbs back into the Premier League’s elite and kicks the ladder away from under them.
A failure the make the Champions League now would also almost certainly see Fellaini leave. Some rumours suggest he is already on his way, but the £25million transfer fee would be spent on better players should Moyes be able to offer targets the opportunity to play Champions League football next year.
Then there is the case of Moyes himself. He has constantly put off contract negotiations in order to avoid potential disruption. But I can’t help feeling he is also applying pressure on the board to supply him with the financial help he needs.
He has proven to be a master on a limited budget – last January a prime example. But the glass ceiling covering the Premier League’s top four is one that can only be broken by cold, hard cash. I hate to say that, because I have taken great pride from the fact that Everton, in this era of oligarchs and Sheikhs buying success, have tried to do things the right way, respectful to the history and traditions of the club.
But Moyes can justifiably argue he can do no more and the summer could be the right time for him to leave for pastures new. With no take-over on the horizon would any replacement be as adept at making the most of financial resources as his predecessor?
Things can change very quickly in football – look at Aston Villa, who just three years ago were competing with us at the top end of the Premier League. Their current predicament could easily be replicated at Goodison.
The stars are aligned for a shot at the big time but are built on shaky foundations. Everton have cobbled together every possible resource to try and lift themselves higher, but a failure to cling on could see it all come tumbling down in one go.
The time is now for the board to supply Moyes with vital transfer funds to sustain their momentum. Tony Barrett of the Times wrote an excellent blog on the subject earlier this month, suggesting that some of the board members could loan the club money, guaranteed against the increase in TV money due at the end of the season. Barrett revealed that the Liverpool board had a similar arrangement back in 2006 when they lent the club money to buy Dirk Kuyt.
As businessmen they surely realize the concept of speculate to accumulate? Their loan could propel Everton to greater heights, earning them plenty of money in the process. Should it still fail, then the club will still pay back what it is owed at the start of the summer – there is not much risk attached to it.
To say the next few weeks are critical for Everton’s future sounds hyperbolic, as it is true that finishing fourth is by no means a silver bullet to ease the club’s financial problems. Indeed, if the club went out of the group stages of the Champions League, they could be stuck with players on crippling Champions League wages, continuing the downward spiral.
Or, it could be the start of something special.
Just as the collapse of the King’s Dock stadium move in 2003 and the defeat to Villarreal in 2005 proved turning points in the club’s history, this window could well be crucial in deciding whether Everton continue to battle against the odds at the top of the table, or sink back into mediocrity.