There was a moment in Everton's insipid defeat to Bolton Wanderers three weeks ago when the camera cut to manager David Moyes on the bench. He sat hunched half forward, an expression on his face midway between disgust and resignation. He looked thoroughly fed up, and suddenly the rumors that have been circling around Goodison Park all season made sense. He may or may not be planning to quit in the summer -- only he knows that -- but it would be hard to believe he hasn't at least considered it.
Everton is a classic example of a club left behind by the Premier League. In the late 1980s, having won the league in '85 and '87, Everton joined Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal in a so-called Big Five that dominated the drive for a breakaway league to maximize television revenues. The Premier League was the realization of that movement, but the problem for Everton is that consistently large home gates are no longer enough to keep a team near the top of the league. Besides, what seemed large in the '80s -- average crowds of about 35,000 -- now seems only medium-sized, while Everton is suffering from its comparative lack of hospitality and VIP boxes; the main stand was built in the '60s and it shows.
And if a team isn't finishing in the top four, then it misses out on Champions League revenues, making it harder to qualify the following season. The status quo perpetuates, and Everton is left to challenge only for Europa League qualification, spending the season glancing over its shoulder to make sure relegation never becomes too serious a possibility.
It was actually a far more serious possibility in the early days of the Premier League. After that last title win in 1987, Everton finished fourth, eighth, sixth, ninth and 12th before the switch to the new format in 1992. In those early seasons, it was twice 17th, regularly finishing in the mid-teens. Only once before Moyes' arrival to replace Walter Smith in 2002 did Everton end the season in the top 10. Since then the team has been fourth once and fifth twice and has finished outside the top 10 only twice. That has been achieved with no great investment -- indeed, with the sale of Wayne Rooney -- but merely with the old-fashioned virtues of canny management, organization and effort.
Having stabilized, though, and reached a situation in which upper mid-table is normal, Everton has a problem. What does it do now? That one season finishing fourth, in 2004-05, must haunt the club. Having qualified for the Champions League -- ahead, you may remember, of Liverpool, which had just won the final, prompting a messy compromise that allowed five English teams into the competition -- Everton fell at the first hurdle, losing in controversial fashion to Villarreal. It then messed up the UEFA Cup in spectacular style, losing 5-1 away to Dinamo Bucharest, and lost seven of its first eight league games as well, the squad too thin to cope with the demands of match-travel-match-travel-match every week. It's not the sole reason, but Everton's experience surely partly explains the suspicion so many managers of mid-ranking clubs demonstrate toward European competition.
Having failed to capitalize on that opportunity, having missed out on even one year of Champions League money, Everton has been stymied. Its owner, Bill Kenwright, is a genuine fan of the club, but he is a theater impresario, not an oil sheik; he belongs to the last generation of owners, of local boys done good, not multinationals with millions to splurge. Everton's squad, inevitably, lacks not merely the highest quality, but depth.
When a key player is injured, as Mikel Arteta was last season, Everton have little chance of replacing him. Arteta, possibly still recovering from his knee injury, has had, by his own admission, "a pig of a season," although he was much improved in the victory over Newcastle United on Saturday. With Tim Cahill missing a chunk of the season at the Asian Cup, Jack Rodwell and Phil Jagielka struggling with injury and Louis Saha as fragile as ever, Everton has been hit hard and has been forced to overuse the resources it does have.
Seamus Coleman, for instance, the gifted 22-year-old right back cum right-sided midfielder, has played in 31 games in this, his first full Premier League season, and after an exceptional start, he has begun to look understandably leggy. The overall impact is inconsistency, as demonstrated by the way Everton followed up a doughty penalty shootout victory over Chelsea in the fourth round FA Cup with a limp defeat to Reading in the fifth.
But what can Moyes do? The Cups represent his only chance of glory, but if he prioritizes them, he potentially jeopardizes the sense of security Everton has fought so hard to achieve. Perhaps a new stadium and potentially increased gates would raise additional revenue, but that is a long and costly process, and one in which Everton has been bogged down for a decade. When sides are battling relegation, they probably look at Everton and see a model of sustainability, but the truth is that upper mid-table is boring. So what if a side finishes seventh or ninth?
And so the season boils down to the derbies against Liverpool -- a scrap for short-term, parochial pride -- and to the Cups. By their nature, though, relying on the Cups for excitement is a risky business. Even before the FA Cup defeat to Reading, Everton went out of the League Cup to Brentford in the third round. Without Europe, Everton's season is again effectively over by the end of February. Little wonder frustration is setting in.
The only obvious way to break the glass ceiling would be a sugar-daddy to slash through all the financial restrictions and add the half-dozen top-class players Everton needs to transform its squad from upper mid-table to mid-upper table. Tottenham Hotspur has managed it, but only with significant expenditure -- around £220 million ($355M) over the past four and a half seasons. Even supposing Everton did find a kindly billionaire, though, there is an additional obstacle in UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations, monitoring for which begins in 2011-12. Nobody knows quite how those regulations will be implemented, but the basic premise is that a club must live within its means, and it's hard to see how a £250 million ($403M) spree on new players and the consequent amortization can be accommodated within that.
Everton seems trapped, doomed never quite to push on into the Champions League, stuck always on the fringes of Europe League qualification. Except it's not always, and that's the terrifying thing -- if Moyes leaves, if the club suffers a shocking spate of injuries or bad luck, a slide is always possible. This is probably as good as it gets, and at the moment that isn't a source of any satisfaction. Everton's club crest reads nil satis nisi optimum -- nothing but the best is enough -- but at the moment it feels as though nil satis nisi around-about-eighth.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.