Inside Everton's civil war: sparsely attended protests, a rudderless club and ignored fans

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Inside Everton's civil war: sparsely attended protests, a rudderless club and ignored fans
© AP Fans protest against the Everton board after the English Premier League soccer match between Everton and Aston Villa at the Goodison Park stadium, in Liverpool, England, Saturday Jan. 22, 2022 – AP

Following on from their 1-0 loss to Aston Villa, there were angry scenes after the final whistle at Goodison Park on Saturday as a few hundred Everton fans staged a sit-down protest against their board. How has it come to this?

A cry in the dark

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After over an hour, they turned the lights out on the remaining protesters on Gwladys Street. This was not your usual demonstration calling for an executive cull. Usually there is demand for owners to sell. Not here. The chant ‘Sack the Board’ needed the caveat ‘except majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri’. Wisely, fans chose not to target the figurehead given his £500 million investment, and spade is in the ground of a £500 million stadium. If Moshiri was offended enough to go, the financial consequences would be more devastating than relegation.

So the focus is Everton’s support cast in the boardroom, particularly chairman Bill Kenwright. Kenwright has been chairman for 19 years and his critics are divided into two camps; those who believe Moshiri still defers to Kenwright on the major football issues, and those that think Kenwright does not do enough to prevent the calamities of such decisions like appointing Sam Allardyce or Rafael Benitez

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Kenwright, who led an Everton buyout to save them from the Peter Johnson era in 1999 and diluted his shareholding in 2016, is not powerless. But the buck no longer stops with him. Targeting Kenwright is more symbolic than a call for fundamental change at the very top. For frustrated fans who feel their voice has been ignored for too long, a cosmetic gesture feels better than nothing. 

Why was the protest planned for Saturday?

Take your pick of reasons; the dismal run, the predictable end to Benitez’s reign, and the fear the cycle of despondency since 2016 will continue given the lack of clarity as to the on-field direction. A myriad of candidates are under consideration – each with different age and style profiles. Had Benitez remained, the protest would have been far worse and greater in number. 

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Most Evertonians agree their club is reactive more than proactive in its decision making, taking some measures to appease fans and quell unrest for short-term periods, before stumbling into the next calamity by failing to foresee and prevent the next crisis. Sacking Benitez and appointing club legend Duncan Ferguson, albeit temporarily, was meant to remove the toxicity from the Goodison fixture. It didn’t. 

Nor did Moshiri’s open letter to the fans on Friday morning, which beyond the admirable writing off of £100 million of loans was, at times, too self-congratulatory.

“I have the utmost faith and respect in the board and I work incredibly well with them,” Moshiri wrote. 

“The expertise of our senior leaders has been undeniably demonstrated in the last 18 months by the huge strides taken in delivering our new stadium on the banks of the Mersey despite the great-many challenges posed by the pandemic.”

The implication was obvious; all the problems were caused by that pesky manager in the dug-out and had nothing to do with those of us who sanctioned his appointment. Even Benitez’s fiercest critics – and the protesting fans were among them – will not swallow that.

Why were so few supporters demonstrating, then?

Inside Everton's civil war: sparsely attended protests, a rudderless club and ignored fans
© Provided by The Telegraph Everton fans hold banners following the English Premier League football match between Everton and Aston Villa at Goodison Park in Liverpool, north west England on January 22, 2022 – AFP

This was the second Goodison protest of the season. As on Saturday, the first – a walk-out against Arsenal on December 6 – was not widely backed. It is a sign of the divisions within the fanbase as to how to vent their frustration, and varied conclusions as to precisely why the club is where it is.

More moderate supporters agree Kenwright would be wiser to be less visible. Not because he does not have the club’s best interests at heart, but because he has become a high profile and convenient shield. But there is no point hiding from the real truth, no matter how unpalatable given the scale of Moshiri’s investment. 

Everton are where they are right now because their highly impressionable owner has made a series of terrible decisions. He is self-evidently guided by his business partner (and major club sponsor), Alisher Usmanov, and under the spell of some of the game’s highest profile power-brokers. It often appears that every managerial vacancy offers an opportunity for Moshiri and Usmanov to meet as many famous football personalities as possible. Are they simply the most wealthy and privileged autograph hunters in world football? You would be forgiven for thinking as much. 

For years Everton fans craved football’s new money because they wanted the best coaches and players. Now? They crave wisdom. They crave empathy. They crave a clear sense of direction, so that even when results are bad, performances offer a glimmer of hope. 

What happens next?

Inside Everton's civil war: sparsely attended protests, a rudderless club and ignored fans
© Provided by The Telegraph Duncan Ferguson the caretaker head coach / manager of Everton gestures during the Premier League match between Everton and Aston Villa at Goodison Park on January 22, 2022 in Liverpool, United Kingdom – Getty Images Europe

It’s an eternal truth in football that everything looks better when you win, and the news only gets worse if you keep losing.

Some will disagree, but there would be something romantic and pure about Duncan Ferguson dusting himself and the players down and embarking on a prolonged unbeaten run, guiding the team to Premier League safety and deep into the FA Cup. 

The loss to Aston Villa was a bad start – Villa are already emerging as an excellent team under Steven Gerrard – but the FA Cup tie with Brentford can provide fresh impetus, and there are winnable league games on the horizon. It makes sense to give Ferguson more time to prove he can be the long-term solution. Moshiri needs to realise the flurry of names linked with the vacant job – especially some of the most random and exotic – induce eye-rolling more than excitement. The more potential managers he meets, the more he gives the impression he has no idea what he wants. That’s been Everton’s problem since David Moyes left.

Ferguson was right to say he got a response from his players, and it is obvious Dominic Calvert-Lewin needs a few more games to get his sharpness back. That will help in the critical fixtures to come.

Cynics say Ferguson is too emotional – and would possibly be too demanding. What’s wrong with emotion? Emotion can take you far in football. Just as the negative energy at Goodison Park has been debilitating, a galvanising force like Ferguson can unite the fans and turn the light backs on.

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