‘I think there was a moment amongst Evertonians of a certain generation when they collectively realised what this club meant to them, and that moment was 2-0 down against Wimbledon in 94’ – Graham Ennis of WSAG, in Highs, Lows and Bakayokos.
It’s not unusual in football for the relationship that exists between a club and its fans to wane slightly. While supporters, at all levels of the game will continue to turn up, week-in-week-out, enthusiasm is not a constant thing. How many of us have gone to the ground on occasions through a sense of obligation? Or taken pleasure, at times, from the social side of the match rather than what is taking place on the pitch?
The nature of football, something exacerbated by the modern game, inevitably places stresses on the relationship we have with our clubs. Disconnected owners, long, trophy-less periods of mediocrity, teams filled with disinterested mercenaries, they are just a handful of the multitude of ways that the sport tests our love.
The popular image of the ‘fan’ as displayed to the world by our Sky masters, frequently fails to convey the reality. Where Sky likes to portray the ‘fan’ living in a state of near perpetual excitement, in truth, characteristics and emotions other than excitement commonly fill the footballing lives of those turning out to watch their clubs, things like frustration, anger and just plain boredom.
And when these elements become dominant, when going to the match becomes a thing you endure rather than enjoy, something happens to the connection you have with your club. It thins. You still love them, still support them, but the joy and enthusiasm that is meant to define fandom ebbs.
It’s happened at Everton before. Back in the early 1990s, mediocrity reigned at Goodison. As the mid-80s glory days faded into memory and the Kendall/Harvey partnership lost its magic, following the Blues became a routine activity. People still went to the game, but the spark that had burned so brightly just a few years before was beginning to splutter. Mid-table football and a sense of drift both on and off the field conspired to change the Blue experience.
Graham Ennis: ‘We had sort of drifted from the 1980s heyday and people had taken the club for granted. Attendances had dwindled downwards. The atmosphere was not what it once was. There was definitely a feeling that Everton were treading water.’
And then Mike Walker arrived.
Heralded as the man who would return excitement and success to Goodison, Walker would instead oversee a Benitez-style death spiral, turning a club that was going nowhere into one that appeared to have a more definite direction. In this instance, downwards.
Although the last day heroics against Wimbledon prevented that from ultimately happening, the brush with death gave Evertonians a short, sharp shock.
Graham Ennis: ‘It awoke us from our complacency. We suddenly realised just how important this club was to us. Thousands of us came back and that sense of complacency or disconnect went away.’
Ennis’ memories are backed up by the numbers. In the 1994/5 season, average attendances at Goodison were just over 31,000. This represented a 38 per cent increase on the figure for the 1992/93 campaign and the highest average attendance at Goodison since the 1986/87 season. It was an increase that dwarfed what was happening elsewhere in the top flight. Over the same period, average attendances across the division only increased by 13 per cent.
And this was accompanied by a shift in the atmosphere. Anyone who went to Goodison in the mid-to-late-1990s can recall that even though the club’s footballing fortunes waxed and waned (but mostly the latter), the sound of Goodison did not. That connection to the club that the drift of the early-1990s had blurred, came back into sharper focus. The near-death experience ended up energising the place.
It was an ‘energy’ and sense of connection that persisted until very recently. It managed to weather the turmoil of Kendall III and Smith, carried on through Moyes and still hadn’t dissipated by the early years of the Moshiri-era.
And yet, of late, the way in which the club has been run has finally robbed it of some of its momentum. Although this hasn’t been expressed as a drop in attendances, as in the early-90s, there has nevertheless been a growing disconnect between fan and club.
The managerial merry-go-round, the arrival of unsympathetic players, the incoherent recruitment, the sense of a board emotionally removed from the fanbase, the false dawns, the constant frustration have all conspired to chip away at the enthusiasm that Evertonians felt come match day. As in the early-1990s, this didn’t mean that we no longer loved the club. Nothing could change that. But being an Evertonian became a struggle and watching them almost became an exercise in self harm.
And then came, in my Ma’s damning description, ‘that tainted fat fuck’…
Quite possibly the most tone deaf and offensive managerial appointment in English football history, the arrival of Benitez, the former Dalian Professional legend, took that sense of creeping disillusionment that had built under Moshiri and ran with it.
Benitez’s presence almost made following Everton something you did while holding your nose. His very presence was tainting an experience that had already soured slightly, spoiling what it was to be a Blue. And that was before the death spiral he oversaw. At the nadir of his reign, when the football was dire, the results abysmal and the downward momentum seemingly inescapable, going to the match and watching them on TV became a very difficult experience. But this wasn’t just a reaction to the side’s slide down the table, as bad as that was. It was instead a growing sense that you no longer recognised the club you loved. What was this ‘Everton’ you asked yourself, managed by an incompetent RS, filled with players going through the motions, run by a board dismissive of your feelings.
In forty years of being a fan, I have never felt as disconnected to my club as I did in that period just before his sacking in January. Everton had become an ugly thing, the catastrophe of the Moshiri-era crystallised in the sight of that talentless has-been chuckling to himself as Norwich City gave us a lesson in football.
And yet, maybe, despite the nightmare that was Benitez and the relegation hell he gifted us, there could still be a positive note to end this disastrous period in Everton’s recent football history. In the same way that Wimbledon 94 seemed to remind Evertonians just how important this club was to them, to shake them awake from their early-90s torpor, maybe the catastrophe that has been the 21/22 season will do something similar. We have already seen hints of it in recent weeks in the way in which fans have greeted the team at Goodison, seen them off at Finch Farm and provided them with headline grabbing away support.
Although circumstance obviously plays its part, the need to do anything we can to get the club over the line, you do get the feeling, talking to other Blues, that something feels different, that the slight sense of drift that had been there in recent seasons might have lost its grip.
It would be welcome if this was the case. Because, in the club’s fight to restore itself to the upper reaches of the game, having a fanbase that feels connected, that can inspire and intimidate as that twelfth man would be enormously beneficial. As we have seen in recent weeks, turning Goodison into a bearpit makes a difference. Everton are blessed with one of the most potent weapons in the English game, a set of fans who, when they are in the mood have the capacity to genuinely swing games.
Of course, only time will tell if the activity of recent weeks marks some great reawakening akin to 94. At worst, it might just be a temporary upswing, albeit one that has perhaps, hopefully, played its part in saving us. But equally, it might be something more lasting. And if it is, then who knows how far it can take us. This could be the start of something beautiful as fan and club unite to take the Blues into a brave new footballing dawn.