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False dawns and broken promises - the reasons behind Goodison Park’s fading atmosphere

Goodison has been an angry and sometimes toxic arena in recent years - and often with good reason. But is that about to change?

Everton FC v Fulham FC - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Having recently moved house, I have spent much of the past few months sorting through boxes of old files, clothes, CDs and various other bits of junk I’ve collected over the years.

One box contained my old Everton programmes going back to the early 90s as well as a collection of fanzines dating from around 1998 to the mid 2000s.

I could never throw them away (don’t tell the wife) but they are likely to be consigned to a life in the loft very soon. So before they were packed away again I couldn’t resist grabbing a few and having a read, offering me an insight into the minds of Evertonians nearly two decades ago.

Unlike official club publications, which are often sanitised and rarely negative, fanzines offer a much more accurate impression as to the state of the team at any current time. The first one I read was from March 2002, the dying embers of the Walter Smith reign, and boy was it grim.

Smith had been in charge for three-and-a-half seasons by this stage and bar a reasonably successful 1999-2000 campaign, had overseen a period of dour, stale football, lacking in quality or hope for the future. Already worn down by the successive failures of the 90s, Evertonians had largely become resigned to their fate.

New Everton Manager Walter Smith

Those grim days seem a world away from the current era, but there were plenty of discussions about a topic just as relevant then as it is today – the Goodison Park atmosphere.

Many supporters feel the atmosphere has been poor for years; with the ‘bear pit’ Goodison only becoming a reality on fleeting occasions. If the side fails to score early the moans and groans begin to grow, with each miss-placed pass greeted with increasing howls of derision.

Pundits like to take potshots at the fans over this, saying how ‘difficult’ it is for the players to play in front of such a crowd. To a certain extent they are correct; it can’t be denied that the atmosphere is poor outside the big games and can turn very quickly. But to automatically assume that means the fans are inpatient, ungrateful or unreasonable would be misleading. Evertonians are in fact one of the most loyal group of supporters in the country when you consider what they have had to put up with.

But why have things gone downhill in recent seasons? For me it’s all down to expectations.

Going back to the turn of the millennium, I wouldn’t go as far to say the atmosphere was better during the Smith era but it was certainly different and perhaps gives us clues as to why things are like they are today.

Under Smith, Everton had been terrible for years and with no money there was little hope of things changing. Supporters writing in fanzines were already talking about how they would cope WHEN the team went down. That was reflected in the crowd at the games, as the Toffees seemingly sleepwalked towards the drop.

Everton v Fulham X

Then things all changed when Smith was finally sacked and replaced by a fiery young Scot called David Moyes. Moyes’ youthful enthusiasm was an immediate shot in the arm, but perhaps his greatest early contribution was calling Everton “The People’s Club”.

Moyes admits he didn’t expect the phrase to catch on so significantly, it was an honest assessment as he was driving into Liverpool ahead of his first press conference – “the people on the street support Everton.”

But it resonated with fans who had nothing to cling to for years. It gave them hope and pride in their team once more. Yes, they may not have the riches like a Man Utd or Arsenal, but they are still special. That undoubtedly boosted the atmosphere at Goodison as the fans got behind Moyes’ side and fully bought into his project, knowing the side had some sort of direction.

The emergence of a certain Wayne Rooney also helped. A homegrown footballing phenomenon, the likes of which not seen at Goodison Park for a generation. After so many barren years it is little surprise we latched onto a then 16-year-old boy from Croxteth.

One of Goodison’s most famous afternoons came when Rooney bent the ball beyond Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman and into the top corner to seal a 2-1 victory for the Toffees. The roof very nearly came off the Grand Old Lady as we were all told to ‘remember the name’.

Wayne Rooney of Everton Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Pining our hopes on a local lad has become a common theme this last decade. And the difficulties endured by the likes of Ross Barkley and now Tom Davies perhaps stem from the emergence of Rooney, against whom they are perhaps unfairly compared.

Of course, Rooney’s love affair with Everton was all too brief and he departed to Old Trafford a few years later. But while Blues fans were in despair at his exit, Moyes used the departure in his favour. Based around the ‘People’s Club’ moniker, Moyes cultivated an underdog ‘us versus them’ mentality as he sought to close the gap between themselves and the more illustrious clubs at the top of the table.

That not only got the supporters right behind the team but kept expectations in check, the cynics may call it a valid excuse for failure. It all came together in one glorious season in 2004-05, as the Toffees bounced back from the departure of Rooney to qualify from the Champions League. One of the most famous nights of that season was against Manchester United, when Duncan Ferguson sent Goodison into delirium.

The following season was a disaster of course, but Moyes had accrued enough goodwill to afford him time to ride out any rocky spells. This was helped of course by the club’s relative poverty compared to the rest of the division. Bill Kenwright gave all he had but the Toffees were regularly among the division’s lowest spenders. Moyes never used it as an excuse, but used it to further cultivate that underdog spirit.

But, and this may sound strange, Moyes’ approach was almost too successful. In regularly leading the club to Europe and to cup semi-finals and finals, Moyes raised expectations to such an extent that the fans wanted the club to take that mythical ‘next step’. In our eyes the grim days of the 90s were over and it was time to really announce that Everton were ‘back’.

Except that never really happened.

After the FA Cup final defeat in 2009 I always felt Moyes’ demeanour changed. He became a lot dourer and seemingly worn down by the financial restrictions placed on him. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the summer of 2009 was also the summer Sheikh Mansour really began to spend eye watering amounts of money to lift Man City into the elite. After years of trying to break that ‘glass celling’ it must have been galling for Moyes to see City, a mid-to low ranking side with just two league titles to their name, suddenly surge past him.

Chelsea v Everton - FA Cup Final Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The fans had begun to lose patience too, with some supporters lamenting Moyes’ cautious approach, especially in big games. The People’s Club tag began to be rejected as the fans felt it deliberately kept a lid on expectations.

They were still capable of getting behind the team – the atmosphere against Manchester United at the start of the 2012-13 season was particularly special. Though the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Liverpool earlier that year was the final straw for many.

Everton v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Moyes’ departure to Old Trafford was confirmed the following year and he rightly received a rousing send off, even if many felt it was the right time to go. Meanwhile the arrival of Roberto Martinez was greeted with cautious enthusiasm, and his whirlwind first season blew a lid off those expectations seemingly kept in check for so long.

The 2013-14 season was simply glorious, with the team playing some quite breath-taking football and flying up the table. Goodison was also perhaps in its finest voice for decades. For the fans, the School of Science was on its way back.

Cardiff City v Everton - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Not since the late 80s had hopes been so high going into the 2014-15 campaign. After years of drudge in the 90s and battling the odds during the 00s, this looked like the team that could finally bring the glory days back.

Except it didn’t.

Martinez struggled to adapt once sides had learnt to counter has style of football. Meanwhile the defence had dramatically begun to regress and fitness levels dipped resulting in some calamitous late defeats.

It’s at this point where the atmosphere at Goodison really nosedived. Fans, who had endured so much dross for so long and had been so patient, had been offered a glimpse of glory only to see it dissipate into calamity . The glory days of the mid-80s were a fading memory and a whole generation of fans had grown up without success. It was like reaching the top of the steps and about to open the door only to slip and fall right back down to the bottom again.

The takeover by Farhad Moshiri in February removed another excuse to hold the club back – finance. From being one of the poorest clubs in the division Everton were now one of the richest (though it’s typical of Everton that they finally get a billionaire owner the year a new TV deal kicks in, bolstering everyone’s finances).

Everton FC v Olympique Lyon - UEFA Europa League Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

More promises, more fresh starts, more ‘it will be different this time’. sound bytes. With big, expensive signings and a new manager in Ronald Koeman, fans once again were promised a new exciting chapter for the club. But once again in proved a mirage, with six tortuous months under Sam Allardyce a punishment the fans did not deserve. With all these let downs is it any wonder the supporters are weary and inpatient?

Most of the moans at Goodison these days aren’t just because of a stray pass or a missed shot, it’s a collective groan after years of failure, false dawns and broken promises. If the club has direction and a tangible goal to aim for then the crowd will respond. This explains why some of the dark campaigns in the 90s produced some of the best atmospheres late in the season when the club was fighting to avoid relegation.

But if the club appears to be drifting, as they have done in recent years, or worse, appear to be declining, then it’s little surprise that the noise from the terraces is dampened.

One thing to take into consideration is the absence of social media 20 or so years ago. I certainly feel a lot of the short-termism in football nowadays does have some links to the rise of fan forums, Facebook and Twitter to whip up the hysteria. The changing demographics that attend matches could also be a factor, though Everton still retains it’s traditional working class heart unlike some other Premier League sides.

We now stand at the start of yet another a new era and fresh hope that the club have, finally, got things right. The supporters appreciate the need to be patient and are intelligent enough to do so. But it’s hard to show continued patience when we have seen it all before, the Carabao Cup defeat to Southampton, so painfully inevitable, is a case in point.

What will change the atmosphere of course is one simple thing – winning matches. But as Allardyce found to his cost, style is also important. The fans have had their fill of being mid-table battlers who get patted on the head by those above them. This is Everton Football Club and after nearly three decades in the wilderness it’s time they got back to where they belong.

Marcel Brands and Marco Silva Everton FC

The weight of those barren years make Marco Silva’s job much harder – the groans following the Southampton defeat were as much for what had gone before than the match in isolation – but the early signs are promising.

We are so desperate for success that our cheers are easily turned into groans. But the win over Leicester gave us a glimpse of what is possible for this team. If they can maintain that style through the season then the Goodison atmosphere will soon return. And hopefully those grim tales of relegation battles will, like my fanzine collection, be consigned to history.