I’ve been particularly enjoying the protest banners. Everton is a furious club right now, its fans and its ownership in open warfare, a mixture of rage and desperation and powerlessness. And yet for some reason all this anger seems to express itself in perfect, playful rhyming couplets. “Everton were magic, Kenwright is tragic.” “A football giant owned by a clown, all you’ll achieve is taking us down.” “A chairman who won’t let go, an under-qualified CEO.”
Only Everton fans, you feel, can capture an existential cry for help with the levity of a child’s nursery rhyme. I don’t propose to analyse the metre and scansion of the Everton banners in too much detail, but on some level I wonder whether the jauntiness of the medium is a subconscious counterpoint to the opacity and obfuscation of the Everton board, with their woolly “Official Statements”, their anonymous briefings to favoured journalists, the intentionally imprecise messaging. You put out your press releases. We bring poetry.
The natural instinct amongst many rival fans, and even some voices in the media, has been to poke fun at Everton’s plight, chide their sense of legacy entitlement, deride their supporter base as delusional, demented, perhaps even dangerous. And as with any mass protest movement – and not to equate the aims of Just Stop Oil or Black Lives Matter with, say, the underwhelming signing of Neal Maupay in the summer – the focus invariably shifts towards the methods of protest rather than the substance of the protest itself.
After the 2-1 defeat to Southampton on Saturday – a game the board did not attend citing vague and unspecified safety concerns – a small group of fans surrounded the cars of Anthony Gordon and Yerry Mina as they tried to leave Goodison Park. A little unsavoury, but essentially harmless. Perhaps this is why Mina, who grew up amid the barras bravas of Colombian football and has presumably seen much worse, looked so calm as he stepped out of his car to talk to fans and listen to their concerns. “Show us a bit of heart,” one fan urges him. “All we want is passion. Show us a bit of passion. Start speaking up, lad, show them you’re the man.”
There was a touching and curiously human quality to the whole exchange, one that really strikes at the heart of what Everton fans are really angry about. Because at its heart, this is not a protest about net spends or sporting directors or even league form. It’s about hope and connection, the forlorn and obsolescent idea that a football club can still be an expression of its people, that those who run and administer it can still want the same things they do.
What do Everton fans want? And can modern football even provide it? “The fans expect the best,” reads another banner. Nil satis nisi optimum, the club motto from which one of the main protest groups takes its name, means “nothing but the best is good enough”. You see the problem here. Everton had for a time one of Europe’s best young strikers in Romelu Lukaku. Manchester United bought him for £75m. They had one of the world’s finest managers in Carlo Ancelotti. Real Madrid took him. Gordon had half a good season before Chelsea started making eyes at him. What do we think happens to Amadou Onana if he starts tearing up the Premier League? Or Ben Godfrey? Or Nathan Patterson?
And these were the good decisions. But outside the game’s VIP circle nothing good can ever last. For fans of smaller clubs, perhaps you make your peace with this fact sooner rather than later. But those one level removed from the elite, your West Hams and Aston Villas and Hamburgs and Sampdorias, are essentially trapped in a doom cycle from which there are only really two escapes: relegation or an autocratic benefactor. This isn’t entitlement. It is simply the howl of a club and fanbase that, whether they make the right choices or the wrong choices, will simply never be allowed to grow.
One of the interesting elements of this protest is how young the banner-wavers and slogan-shouters are. They’re mostly young men in their 20s and 30s, some even younger. These guys aren’t high on nostalgia. They’re not pining for the days of Sharp and Sheedy. But they are slowly realising, perhaps for the first time, that the dream that was sold to them no longer exists, at least not for them. The game they were bequeathed by their parents, a thing of romance and aspiration, has been sold off and converted into crypto.
There will be no trophies. There will be no famous Champions League nights at Bramley-Moore Dock. You will not get to see the world’s finest players in an Everton shirt. You do not even get the giddy underdog rise through the divisions like fans of Brighton or Brentford or Wigan. Your owner is a billionaire who will never speak to you or attend a game, and if he wants to run the ship aground there is not a damn thing you can do about it. No matter how loudly you sing, no matter how many blue smoke canisters you let off, the limit of your ambition will always be top seven and occasionally signing someone promising from Burnley.
Or, to put it in terms with which Everton fans will perhaps be more familiar:
THREE DECADES OF FINANCIAL STRATIFICATION
HAVE MADE IT HARDER TO FIND GRATIFICATION
A REVIVAL OF EVERTON’S SUCCESS ON THE PITCH
WILL FOREVER BE THWARTED BY THE SUPER-RICH.