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Everton and James Rodriguez - it was fun while it lasted

The Colombian briefly dazzled before it all came crashing down

Everton v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League Photo by Nick Potts - Pool/Getty Images

When the 50-storey Colpatria Tower in Bogota was lit up in Everton blue to announce the signing of James Rodriguez in September 2020, few would have predicted he would be ushered out of the back door a little over a year later having never played in front of a Goodison crowd.

A terse 50-word statement confirming his move to Qatari side Al Arrayan was a far cry from his glitzy arrival last autumn, but perhaps was fitting for a player whose Everton star burned brightly but fizzled out just as quickly.

The 30-year-old shone in his early weeks in royal blue, showing glimpses of the talent that once saw him placed alongside some of the game’s elite.

He was box-office. The kind of global superstar Evertonians have been starved of for years, decades even.

Sadly it has all come crashing down, with James looking increasingly disinterested while Everton, under new management, froze him out and pushed him out of the door in an attempt to save cash.

It is a desperately sad end to a brief Toffees career that promised so much.

In their defence, you could understand why Everton signed James. They were never going to attract a player of his standing or ability without Carlo Ancelotti in the dugout. James himself admitted the presence of the Italian was his prime motivation for the move.

Ancelotti was willing to indulge the Colombian and effectively build the team around him. A free transfer and two-year deal, with all the commercial benefits attached, made sense.

In fact, it looked a stroke of genius a month into the new season. James scored three goals and registered three assists as Everton won four and drew one of their opening five Premier League games to go top of the table.

Everton v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

James’ vision, passing and close control added a touch of class to what otherwise a workmanlike side. The kind of player who gets fans off their seats – if they were allowed in the stadium.

Those few weeks of the season were the most enjoyable we’ve experienced in a long time, with a free-flowing Everton side scoring goals for fun and playing with a smile on their faces.

Sadly, things were never quite the same after those glorious opening few weeks, and there are myriad reasons for that.

Firstly, teams had begun to work James and Everton out.

The Colombian didn’t track back, we all knew that and accepted it because of his attacking output. But opposing teams also knew that and exposed the right-back by targeting that area of the pitch.

As Everton’s form began to slide, Ancelotti went more defensive in his approach and that seemed to hinder their attacking output.

Then there were the injuries.

A niggling calf problem saw James miss most of December and all of March. The playmaker then missed five out of Everton’s last six matches of the season for fitness and fatigue issues.

Everton v Fulham - Premier League Photo by Jason Cairnduff - Pool/Getty Images

Was James always injured or did he just pick and choose the games we wanted to play in? We will never know the truth, but either way Ancelotti was prepared to indulge him because of what he brought when he was on the field - he was consistently top of most if not all of Everton’s attacking stats.

James performances did dip during the second half of the season. But flashes of genius, when they occurred, were memorable – think his goal against Leicester and sublime assist for Richarlison in the Merseyside derby.

However, with Everton’s form on the slide and James increasingly absent, fans began to question whether he really was worth the investment, especially when he was pictured on a plane home to Colombia while the team were getting hammered 5-0 by Manchester City on the final day of the season.

The one person keeping it together though was Ancelotti, for as long as he was there things seemed stable. And with a full pre-season behind him there was optimism James would be much fitter and be able to contribute more in 2021-22.

Then Ancelotti left for Real Madrid.

Signing a player on eye-watering wages based largely on his relationship with the manager was always a risk and is backfired spectacularly, though it is another reason why Everton can justifiability feel let down by Ancelotti, who had spoken openly about seeing the club as a long-term project just weeks before he left.

Again, we don’t know the details, but I suspect James’ Everton career was over as soon as Carlo walked out. When Rafael Benitez walked through the door as his replacement, that suspicion became a certainty.

Benitez already had a difficult relationship with James from their time at Real Madrid, so he was hardly going to indulge him now.

With the threat of breaking the Premier League’s profit and sustainability rules a real prospect, Benitez was brought in to organise the side and micro-manage a bunch of under-performing players on a tight budget.

Ancelotti’s laissez-faire style of management was gone, and the fragile bind that tied James Rodriguez to Everton quickly unravelled.

Having said all that, Sky Sports’ Alan Myers says James wanted to leave the club before Ancelotti left.

Whatever the reasons, the big problem was James’ rumoured £200,000-a-week wage and questionable fitness record meant potential buyers were limited. Then there was the financial impact of Covid, which suppressed the market further.

Brighton & Hove Albion v Everton - Premier League Photo by Everton FC via Getty Images

The longer James hung around the more toxic the situation became. Benitez continually made excuses for his absence from games, while James had to ask fans on Twitch who Everton were playing at the weekend.

In his defence, James said he was willing to play and just wanted to be at a club where he felt wanted (whether that is true or not we may never know). It quickly became clear that club was not Everton.

He had gone from the team’s star player to an expensive millstone around the club’s neck in the space of a few months, meaning a move away is the best for all concerned.

Watching on were the supporters, who were devastated at missing out on seeing such a talented player in the flesh, with the majority of the 2020-21 season played behind closed doors because of Covid restrictions.

Starved of any tangible success for more than 25 years, supporters instead cling to star players like James, the likes of which a generation of fans have never seen in a Toffees shirt. They understandably wanted to know why a player of such ability cannot force his way into a side that has just been beaten by Championship QPR.

The answer, sadly, is complicated and we will likely never know the true reasons behind it.

His exit does bring with it a sense of relief, as it was clear his presence on the sidelines was increasingly corrosive. But there also needs to be an inquest into how another expensive acquisition (in wages at least) has failed.

Everton keep making the same mistakes and while there is an element of misfortune given they had placed faith in Ancelotti staying long-term, you also have to ask whether signing players at the request of the manager and not the director of football is the reason why we have such a miss-mash squad on big contracts with no defined playing style.

James may actually end up being Farhad Moshiri’s final attempt to ‘short-cut’ his way to success. The Toffees owner’s answer to each passing failure is to throw more money at the problem, but all that has done is make things worse.

Ancelotti and James together sounded like the dream ticket, but the reality has proven to be an expensive nightmare and a last throw of the dice gone wrong.

The reality for Everton is that there is no shortcut, Financial Fair Play rules won’t allow it. So instead it’s a case of targeted, step-by-step recruitment over several years. The plan they should have implemented five years ago.

It’s nowhere near as exciting, but it might just be more sustainable.

Moving James Rodriguez on does rid the club of an expensive headache. But there are plenty more issues to be resolved before they can truly dig themselves out of the financial hole they currently find themselves in.