The fans didn’t want the manager but the club hierarchy don’t seem to know what they want to be or how to achieve it, either
When it comes to news like Rafa Benitez’s sacking at Everton, much of the story usually centres on how “upbeat” the players now are, and how they felt he was taking them down.
That is true, but this whole episode is really about something so much bigger. If the football side of the club finally sees sense, it should be the start of something new; a proper fresh start. It kind of has to be, since the hierarchy of the club has been hollowed out as a consequence of Benitez.
That is his “legacy”.
Benitez’s entire reign was really the end result of a series of bad decisions, where Everton were almost manoeuvred into an appointment that made no logical or emotional sense. And yet there they were.
In terms of logic, Benitez is a manager past his best, whose defining football principles come from almost two decades ago. That doesn’t mean he can’t still be effective or good, but the crucial point is that a club like Everton are so far behind the top clubs that they need to get ahead of the game. They need to get ahead of the game, and appoint tomorrow’s man – not yesterday’s man.
There is then, of course, the nature of that yesterday, which was one big emotional reason Benitez could never be good at Goodison Park.
He is one of Liverpool’s great figures, responsible for perhaps their finest ever moment as a club, in Istanbul in 2005.
That immediately and understandably set Everton supporters against him, and meant the whole situation was going to be much more difficult if he ever ran into poor form. That is exactly what happened, culminating in the farcical scene of a fan trying to get at him at Carrow Road.
He was always up against it. Given Benitez usually looks to connect himself to the fans, it remains surprising he took it. Why risk his own legacy with Liverpool?
It is just baffling why Everton took the decision, though.
People can say that’s an immature or blinkered mindset, but it isn’t. It’s what a club is all about. Elements like your cherished figures and your relationship with your rivals are what make a club culture. It’s what fosters an emotional connection. It matters. It’s why people go.
The Everton board’s decision to give Benitez job was a callous dismissal of all this, as well as an insult to the fans. It is easy to understand why they were aggrieved. It’s one of many reasons Benitez had to go.
But then that’s the wider problem, too. Everton ended up in a situation where it seemed to make some sort of sense, because they have no football culture.
They are a club, as much as anyone else in Europe, who badly need a reset and a huge reassessment. The past few years have been a model for how not to run a club.
There’s been so much waste.
Perhaps swayed by their own past as one of England’s most successful clubs, and emboldened by improved finances, it was as if they just tried to “act like a big club” by spending.
There was a fundamental problem here, though: they were getting involved in an arms race they could never win.
Everton were further behind the top clubs and don’t have as much money as them. Trying to do similar was just never going to work. As Manchester City’s chief executive Ferran Soriano once told a room of football people, if you’re trying to catch up, you have to try a different route.
But this is another side of it. Everton didn’t seem to have the football intelligence to go a different route. Or, at least, those with some good ideas – like Marcel Brands – were ignored and ultimately jettisoned. Farhad Moshiri is described by figures who have worked with the club as too reactive, too seduced by big names, and too influenced by the stands. The latter is ironic, since the crowd have recently been the angriest in the league – for good reason – and very little of what is done pleases them.
As such, Everton didn’t just fail to catch up with the “big six”, in entirely predictable fashion.
They got outpaced by clubs like Brighton and Hove Albion and so many others with real forward-thinking models. Even West Ham United, previously a model for dysfunction, now look like Borussia Dortmund 2011 next to Everton.
David Moyes, pointedly, would probably consider a return to Goodison Park a regression in so many ways now.
And so they have the big question of what next.
The Premier League’s riches mean they could easily afford a mid-tier European manager, but this is a situation where they should use the opportunity for a rethink. They should appoint an interim, or give the temporary job to Duncan Ferguson, to think about what next.
They need to sit around and be realistic about what they are as a club, where they want to go, and how to get there.
That means getting ahead of the game. That means setting a football identity they work to, and showing necessary patience with it, reconstructing the club towards that.
An irony is that this might have suited Brands.
Another irony is that the club’s culture away from the football, and especially when it comes to work in the community, is hugely admirable.
They deserve more than this. The club, the supporters, the history, the name, the badge deserve more than this.
In the meantime, nobody can deny that Benitez needed to go. His sacking, however, is ultimately about so much more than his own failings.
There is no reason Everton can’t be an even higher-scale Leicester City, punching above their weight, winning trophies – but all amplified by the fact they were a wealthier club with a weightier history. The present, however, is just bad decision after bad decision.