Everton showed their true colours in yesterday’s match against Hull City, and in doing so, exposed those of their opponents too. Hull never threatened Tim Howard’s goal, not getting a single shot on target and struggling to string more than two passes together. Everton on the other hand, looked good in possession, sharp, neat passing exposed weaknesses in the Tigers’ defence, and for the most part Hull had to resort to committing cynical foul after cynical foul to prevent the scoreline becoming the annahilation that it perhaps could have been.
In many ways, the tale of these two clubs is bound very tightly in their two managers. Regular readers of this site will know that I am a huge fan of David Moyes, and indeed, he is in my opinion one of the best managers working in this country today. Phil Brown is another boss I hold in high esteem, and I believe that it is mostly down to his attitude, cunning and energy that Hull have had such a fine season to date. Their playing squad certainly is not of top six quality, that was shown clearly enough today, but Phil Brown has masterminded a sterling show from them so far this season.
Faced with the mountainous path of trying to keep his newly promoted side in the Premier League, Phil Brown could easily have sat down and thought, as most other managers do, that consolidation was the key. Indeed, when clubs reach the dizzy heights of the Premiership after working away for years in the Coca Cola leagues, ‘consolidation’ is often their watchword. And perhaps sensibly so. They do not have, for the most part, the financial luxury afforded to most top flight clubs and their pulling power towards players, especially foreigners, is not great. In many ways it can seem that the best they can hope for is to sign a few experienced heads, knuckle down, and fight for their lives.
Insetad, Brown evidently had a different idea. He decided that he was going to come into this league and have a real go. Why should his side be condemned to a relegation battle? Why shouldn’t they be able to compete higher up the table? Why should their ambition simply be survival? Why couldn’t they succeed? These are all questions that must have passed through his head, and it seems that he realised there weren’t definitive answers to any of them. He believed his team were capable of doing more than people expected, and they have, so far at least, done so.
It was perhaps down to that element of the unexpected that they had such a bright start to Premier League life. Their opposition, expecting another tough but ultimately winnable battle against ‘relegation candidates’, perhaps took them a bit lightly, and were slightly overwhelmed when they came out and played with such attacking gusto, such overwhelming confidence, such belief. Now the surprise is over, and everyone knows where Hull’s strengths lie. Unfortunately, their weaknesses have also been spotted too, and life is now harder for Brown’s men, as their recent results have shown.
What has got them by so far has been their spirit. Brown managed to transfer his belief and energy into his players, and they played like men who not only belonged in this division, but men that believed they could achieve something within it. Confidence and belief is a big thing in football, the mindset of a player has to be right. If he’s not in the right place mentally, he may as well have no legs, that’s how much good he’ll do. And Phil Brown is excellent at motivating his players, at man-management. He can get them going and make them believe in himself. But a top manager needs more.
David Moyes came into Everton under tough circumstances. Perennial relegation battlers and with little to no money in the bank, things had been grim for a long time, and looked like remaining that way. However, Moyes came in with a plan. He sat down and worked out with Bill Kenwright what he wanted to do. The key for him, was to rebuild. He wanted to start bringing in younger players. Players whom he could work with, who he could bond together into a tight unit. But first of all, he had to turn things around straight away, and keep us in the league.
He did that with his own brand of man-management, and by consolidating. Joseph Yobo was brought in to strengthen the defence and he built from there. He turned us initially, into fighters, because that’s what was needed to survive. However, that was only ever a stop-gap, and gradually, steadily, he started to effect his changes. Younger players were brought into the side, academy products like Tony Hibbert and Leon Osman, and of course Wayne Rooney, were given more of a chance. They fought for the team they loved, and built a great atmosphere at the club, and things began to pick up.
The development was aided by Moyes’ careful signings. He made a number of excellent signings from the lower leagues, picking up Tim Cahill from Milwall for a snip, and he also brought in some experience and some cunning by bringing Phil Neville from United. He also signed a young Spanish playmaker who was struggling to get games at Real Sociedad, he saw the potential, and Mikel Arteta has become one of the league’s finest midfielders, all for just two million pounds. The atmosphere around the club had changed. No longer was our side full of ageing players, totally committed but losing their legs fast. Instead the team, like the manager, was young and hungry.
And still Moyes had not spent any real money. Lescott joined for what was then an extravagant £5millon for Everton, and James Beattie, his one real mistake was signed for £6million. But the club was now, all of a sudden, back at the right end of the table. We were challenging for the European places and so gradually, more money became available. Beattie moved on but was replaced with another record signing, Andy Johnson, for £8million, and then Yakubu for £12million.
And now here we are today. Everton are established contenders for the European places. Last season we went out of the UEFA Cup quarter final on penalties after strolling past the eventual winners in the group stages. We are the only team to have broken the ‘big four’s stranglehold on the Champion’s League places in recent years, and we look set to challenge to do it again. All this is down to Moyes. His initial attitude when he joined the club has been complimented by shrewd transfer business and good tactical sense. He was one of the first managers in the league to use the 4-5-1 formation that is now very common, and has probably used it to greater effect than anyone else at this point.
In yesterday’s game, we saw the culmination of all this hard work. His latest record signing, Marauone Fellaini was a constant thorn in Hull’s side, and they resorted to downright brutality against him whenever he got the ball, but he still scored the opener. Mikel Arteta cracked in a thunderous second and throughout the game the likes of Osman and Pienaar played scintillating football when not being kicked up in the air by an increasingly frustrated Hull side. It’s not all easy though. Fellaini continues to be unfairly targeted by referees, and in picking up a booking will now miss both matches against Liverpool next week. We also are still without a fully fit recognised striker and lack the money to buy a replacement, meaning Moyes must find someone of top-six quality who is available for loan.
These are the newest obstacles in Moyes path. If we are to attempt to continue progressing to be able to compete with the ‘big four’ we must overcome the refereeing bias that is commonly in their favour. We must find money from somewhere, as transfer prices are inflating rapidly and less and less can a player be signed for less than £5million who has a realistic ability to compete at the top of the Premier League. But Moyes is committed to the club. He has signed a new long term contract and will continue to build. We hope that he will be able to continue our progression in the quiet and dignified manner in which he has led us so far, and we have every faith in him.
Phil Brown must hope that his club have the same faith in him. They are where we were, in the lower echelons of the Premier League, lacking much real quality, but with ambitions of bigger and better things. They need a David Moyes, and I think they have one. Brown has shown he has the motivational ability, and in signing Geovanni on loan has shown that he has a keen eye for a player too. They must show the sort of faith in him that we have had in Moyes. There might be downs, we had them, a couple of very tight scrapes with relegation might have seen most chairmen reaching for the axe, but we stuck with him. Hull must do the same, Brown has a plan, and he has the ambition. They must only hope they can hold onto him.
Last night’s game told me two things then. It told me that despite their great start, Hull are still a long way off the pace of the top Premier League clubs. But it also told me that they have they might, if they are sensible and lucky (football requires a certain amount of luck, just ask Aston Villa), one day find themselves in the upper echelons of the Premier League. Ultimately though, only one thing really matters. Everton won, convincingly, and so they took the three points. We continued our great form defensively and will be high on confidence going into next weeks games against Liverpool. Those games may be more telling than this one was, as it is our chance to prove just how far we’ve come.