Peek below the overtones of animosity that seem to have developed between them since James McCarthy clattered Dimitri Payet, and the pair of Everton and West Ham United may have more than a few things in common than they’d care to admit. A new stadium. A billionaire owner. Unfulfilled fever dreams of gatecrashing the top six. Employing David Moyes.
Perhaps a disenfranchised, mutinous fan base is another mutual characteristic, too. Things have simmered down slightly at Goodison Park since all hell broke loose after the FA Cup defeat to Liverpool reserves, but the club’s cancers largely remain. As for West Ham, you need only have headed over to the Aquatic Centre by the emblem of their owners’ botched regime, the London Stadium, on Saturday to have witnessed their legacy, as roughly 900 fans staged a ‘peaceful’ protest against Davids Gold and Sullivan.
Indeed, through this pre-match demonstration, the tepid, laborious 1-1 draw between the sides thereafter, and even the site of yet another pitch invader at the Hammers’ E20 home, lies an invaluable lesson for Everton. Not only for when they move house themselves, as is predicted for 2023, but in the short-term, also - to not cut corners, to not throw money at one existential crisis after another, to not treat supporters like playthings. Evidently, it only breeds anger, followed by apathy. And when fans are force-fed so much drivel that they either can take no more or become simply numb to the stuff, the game is up.
Firstly, the stadium, though; because to watch live football at the London Stadium is a unique experience, in that you’re unlikely to be able to take in live football at an athletics stadium anywhere else, anyway. From the initial policing and stewarding issues in their first season playing there, the seismic distance between spectator and footballer, the delay in West Ham’s first home game of 2017-18 due to the World Athletics Championships (despite vice-chairman Karren Brady promising they would invariably be top priority), and even the extortionate £5.40 for a lukewarm bottle of Heineken, everything about it just feels soulless. Rather than feeding their most loyal customers, it is as if they would rather feed the corporate machine.
And while Brady may swoon over this myopic ‘deal of the century’, comprised of a £2.5 million annual rent payment and £15 million of the £272 million needed to convert the stadium from Olympian empire to a footballing hotbed, or that West Ham charge the league’s cheapest season ticket price at £320, all of this comes at an incalculable price - their soul. Gold and Sullivan, who celebrated a decade since they bought the club on Sunday, championed the move as “taking football back to the people,” yet with the swathes of empty seats, the continuous stream of protests, and the squad in an endless tailspin, it seems to have only deterred the people from wanting to take football back, ultimately.
It’s far earlier days for Everton, of course, but the teething signs are at least more promising, by comparison. For a start, the club have judiciously handed over the reins primarily to renowned architect Dan Meis, who previously designed stadiums for football clubs such as AS Roma and FC Cincinnati. And in stark contrast to West Ham, it seems, they have actually afforded their fans a platform through ‘The People’s Project’, a series of consultation groups across Liverpool and beyond, enabling more than 60,000 people to air their views before fine-tuning their own designs accordingly.
Then there’s the regeneration of areas of the city itself, both at its desolate, deprived building site of Bramley-Moore Dock and through the reported £1 billion boost expected to be delivered to the economy subsequently. Sure, West Ham’s own plans were similarly trumpeted before their departure from the Boleyn Ground in 2016, but this, on face value, appears to dwarf it in terms of longevity and profitability. With a sensible, sober approach to capacity, too - Everton will start with 52,000 and promise the potential to expand to 62,000 - the club’s pulse, it appears, will travel across town with it, unlike West Ham’s, seemingly left behind as an afterthought and an insignificance.
Then there’s the football itself which, to be brutally honest, Everton are hardly streets ahead of West Ham in, despite the inevitable upturn which followed Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival. In many ways, Moyes’ men are a reflection of the arena in which they operate; once lavish assets bought either at cut-price deals or for an outlay so blatantly inflated it makes the eye water. Gold and Sullivan yearned for Champions League football upon arrival a decade ago, yet find themselves again crossing fingers that another season does not end in a second relegation during their tenure. Much like Everton under Farhad Moshiri, countless eight-figure fees have been shelled out to their club’s detriment; indeed, West Ham have only two top-half finishes on their watch.
And on the evidence of these nondescript 90 minutes where two faceless sides attempted, and only occasionally succeeded, at playing some semblance of football, they will be lucky to make that a third this year. Everton, too, may count themselves fortunate should they end up in more esteemed company come May, so hopeless were they before Marco Silva’s sacking in particular, but you at least sense that Ancelotti is building from a slightly higher base.
But it could so easily come crashing down on Everton like it has at West Ham. The potential may be there - they don’t have a £15 million, 66,000-seater noose wrapped snugly around their neck, they have a genuinely world-class manager, and a smattering of excellent players laced with promising younger talents, but so too was there promise about the Hammers when they signed off at the Boleyn Ground with a seventh-place finish, European football, Payet, Slaven Bilić and more.
From the events that preceded Saturday’s game, to the lack of events during it, there were enough warning signs for Everton to heed regarding the consequences of persistent mismanagement and negligence at the top. The personnel off the pitch, you suspect, is already there. Now to ameliorate the staff on it, all the while setting the wheels in motion for a seamless transition to a ground West Ham fans would die for.