Everton 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1

wsc299 Goodison Park was once a place ahead of its time but, as Simon Hart reports, the rebranded “Old Lady” is now a meeting place for disgruntled supporters frustrated by their club’s decline

Step into the parish hall of St Luke the Evangelist church on the corner of Goodison Road and Gwladys Street, and you enter a world that could not be any further removed from the ad-man’s fantasy of the face-painted, replica-shirted modern “footy” fan and their agony-and-ecstasy matchday experience.

In this dusty old hall, pensioners in blue and white aprons are pouring tea from large metal pots – 70p a cup, 80p a mug – and selling sandwiches, scones, fruitcake and, of course, Everton mints. The scene recalls the Observer‘s description a few years ago of Goodison as a “loveable timewarp”.

As a lifelong Evertonian, I should start by confessing that I get an undeniably warm feeling from stepping into this timewarp. As at Anfield, there is a lovely intimacy about Goodison’s main stand – and not just for the cramped old press box. History seeps from the brickwork and the preamble to today’s match brings to mind the brainwashing scene in the 1980 Flash Gordon film where Dr Zarkov’s memories flash before him. Faces from the Blues’ past greet me at every turn: Howard Kendall, Bob Latchford, Mike Lyons, John Bailey, Graeme Sharp, Barry Horne. Some might say the past seems a welcome refuge right now for Evertonians, yet the growing uncertainty over the club’s future makes this an interesting day to be visiting L4.

David Moyes’s side enter this fixture on the back of six defeats in seven games andagainst a rising tide of supporter unrest. A summer of player sales, with not one permanent new signing, left grey skies above Goodison even before the team’s now traditional slow start and today the Blue Union fans’ group have planned a pre-match protest march.

If Everton had hoped the news of Marouane Fellaini’s new five-year contract, announced on Thursday, might have delivered a PR coup ahead of the protest, the subsequent appearance on a fans’ website of a series of leaked emails from the account of Ian Ross, Everton’s director of communications – which eventually costs Ross his job – merely added grist to the mill; highly critical of chief executive Robert Elstone, he described Goodison as like “working in a kindergarten”. 

At 2pm, on a patch of grass a stone’s throw from the ground, Dave Kelly addresses the few hundred Blue Union protestors. “We need to fight against stagnation,” says Kelly who, as part of the Keep Everton In Our City (KEIOC) group, campaigned against the club’s unsuccessful attempt to move to a new home in Kirkby.

By the time they reach Goodison Road, the chant of “Let go if you love the club” is echoing outside the stadium. This is the battle cry of the protestors who believe that the 12-year reign of chairman Bill Kenwright, featuring two failed ground moves and no significant investment, has run its course. Kenwright’s bonhomie and romantic appeal as a chairman of the old school, the boyhood fan who bought his beloved club, mean his critics often get short shrift. Up in the press room, Stuart Hall, the veteran BBC broadcaster, sounds unmoved. “Do you understand the local patois?”

Kenwright’s love for his club is not in doubt but that should not spare him any awkward questions. After September’s first Blue Union march, Alan Hansen defended him on Match of the Day with the perfunctory response that Everton’s problem was they had “overachieved”. Whether reaching a Cup final and finishing fifth with a squad including four current England internationals plus Tim Cahill, Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar is overachieving is a moot point. Moreover, surely there was a serious question to ask about why Everton – Premier League ever-presents and still the country’s fourth most-titled team – had arrived at a situation where, under growing pressure from the bank, they had not made a single signing upwards of £1 million for 24 months.

Sadly, much of it comes back to a neglected Goodison, with its 11 executive boxes and matchday revenue roughly one-fifth of Manchester United’s. Kelly’s assertion that “We are not plucky little Everton, we are heavyweights of English football” should be seen in the context of Goodison itself, now rebranded by sympathetic local journalists as the “Old Lady”. For so long it was a place ahead of its time: the country’s first stadium with four double-decker stands (1938), undersoil heating (1958) and a triple-tiered stand (1971).

Looking across from the main stand today, the criss-cross steelwork balcony of the Bullens Road Stand is untouched from the day it hosted a World Cup semi-final. The only significant development in my three decades of coming here is the Park End Stand, a single-tier structure built in 1994. Since then Goodison has stood still. Today’s visitors Wolves, by comparison, have embarked on owner Steve Morgan’s £40m rebuilding project to modernise Molineux’s Stan Cullis and Steve Bull stands.

Wolves have arrived a point better off on the pitch too, having ended an eight-match winless sequence against Wigan in their last outing. Still, the portents are not wholly promising: they have lost their last three on the road. The same goes for Everton at Goodison and any hopes of seeing a buoyant Jack Rodwell after his impressive England debut are dashed by a rib injury.

Instead, the highlight of the opening exchanges is the discovery that the referee’s name is Jon Moss. “Wasn’t he in Culture Club?” quips the man from the Daily Telegraph. With 15 minutes on the clock, Cahill fashions the afternoon’s first opportunity, sending Seamus Coleman down the right, then meeting his cross with a header back to Louis Saha but the Frenchman’s shot is tipped over by Wayne Hennessey. Everton are getting down the flanks, but there is otherwise no end product – summed up when Royston Drenthe produces a fine first-time cross but no blue shirt is anywhere near it. Another surge by the Dutchman is halted by a superb Christophe Berra challenge, before Tony Hibbert highlights the anxious mood by putting his head into his hands as his poor centre is swallowed up by Hennessey. 

The Wolves fans in the Bullens Road make themselves heard, though the fact they are soon singing substitute Steven Fletcher’s name suggests a desire to see a greater scoring threat from a team whose solid 4-5-1 structure is distinctly safety-first. It is certainly a more logical choice than their strange echoing of an obnoxious Manchester United chant: “We’re Wolverhampton, we’ll do what we want.”

Before long they have a goal to cheer. David Edwards’s run across the edge of the Everton box is ended abruptly by Fellaini’s trip – the Belgian has a habit of undermining his good work with needless fouls. Stephen Hunt steps up to bury his kick high down the middle. Wolves have not won at Goodison since Andy Gray’s goalscoring debut as Britain’s then most expensive player in September 1979, but the relevance of that carefully prepared statistic recedes when they concede a minute before half-time.

On an afternoon that once again underlines the importance of Leighton Baines’s left foot to Everton, the full-back delivers a free-kick from into the Wolves area and Phil Jagielka rises highest to divert the ball into the net. With Sylvain Distin injured, Jagielka is playing after another injection in his broken toe. His reaction is more of relief than celebration as he punches the air without breaking into a smile. Wolves almost lose another goal moments later when Cahill is held back by Karl Henry in the box. It looks a penalty but, for now at least, Mick McCarthy’s men have luck on their side.

The first sign that their fortune is turning comes early in the second half, as Cahill launches himself into an aerial challenge on Richard Stearman. In a flash the Wolves defender is lying in obvious pain on the turf, having suffered what is later confirmed as a broken wrist. Still, Everton are huffing and puffing. Leon Osman berates Drenthe for not tracking back to help Baines who, as Moyes concedes afterwards, must surely miss the clever link-up play of the departed Pienaar.

The crowd, meanwhile, become increasingly restless. I have heard leading referees enthuse about the intense atmosphere generated at Goodison, a place once described by Joe Royle as a “bearpit”, but this is not the case today. Nearly ten years since the great adrenalin shot of David Moyes’s arrival, the Liverpool Echo suggested that “the law of diminishing returns” – selling players and not replacing them – was catching up with Everton when Manchester United’s visit three weeks earlier drew that fixture’s lowest attendance since 1993; this is a similar story, with the 33,953 crowd some 4,000 down on last season.

Through sheer perseverance, though, Everton eventually build up a head of steam. With 20 minutes left, Coleman glides past the Wolves substitute George Elokobi and a goal seems certain when Saha flicks his low cross on to Cahill. Somehow, though, Cahill’s shot from inside the six-yard box is blocked and Hennessey smothers the ball. It is the last contribution from Cahill, who is still seeking his first Everton goal of 2011. He makes way for the raw Greek teenager, Apostolos Vellios, now (by force of circumstance) Moyes’s third-choice striker.

Given Everton’s shot-shy forwards, it is no surprise that it takes another set-piece for them to win the game seven minutes from time. After a Saha effort is deflected behind off Edwards, the Frenchman tumbles from the resulting corner under the faintest of nudges by Stephen Ward. Moss points to the spot and Baines does the rest. “Two-one and you still don’t sing” chorus the away supporters as McCarthy finally sends on Fletcher. It is another substitute, the hapless Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, whose cheap loss of possession leads to a final glimmer of hope for Wolves. That hope disappears into the dank Liverpool night as Jamie O’Hara’s free-kick drifts wide of the far post.

McCarthy bemoans the penalty decision that has cost his side a point and left them in 17th place. “It was an extremely soft penalty. Saha wouldn’t have gone down any easier if he’d nicked his wallet.” It is a curious line and disguises the fact his team had one shot on target.  McCarthy is not alone in accentuating the positive. Kenwright appears in the press room seeking to play up a week that has brought Fellaini’s new deal and a green light for Everton’s plans to open a government-funded free school in the city – a first for a Premier League club. The chairman tells reporters that “I am searching for a wealthy benefactor and I will find one.”

So the wait goes on. The ladies of St Luke’s could be pouring cuppas for a good few years yet.

From WSC 299 January 2012