Was Moyes an Everton great?

In a month of anniversaries, another comes up today as the 19 May marks the day David Moyes reign at Everton came to an end after 11 years in charge at Goodison Park.

Moyes’ tenure at Everton saw the club reach the Champions League in 2004-05 and regularly finish in the European places as well as make it to Wembley for the 2009 FA Cup final.

So given all that and the club’s lack of success and silverware recently, it would not be unreasonable to regard his time at the Toffees as an era of quiet over-achievement.

However, there was always an element of frustration during this tenure in charge as the feeling grew that Everton could maybe have achieved more. The Blues missed out on further Champions League qualification several times, failed to win anything despite that FA cup final, and too often flattered to deceive in big games.

When Moyes first arrived at Everton though, the club were in the latest in what seemed at the time, a never-ending series of near-disasters.

Expensive spending over the previous few seasons, under former Rangers boss Walter Smith hadn’t worked out at all, and the Blues were facing yet another battle to avoid relegation when Moyes took over from his fellow Scot in March 2002.

Moyes came from Preston North End where he had established a good reputation for organising his sides well and getting the most out of his players.

He won his first game against Derby County and did enough to keep the Toffees up that season. But there was obviously a huge amount of work to do to revive the fortunes of the club.

Straight away he got a boost though as the Blues were then bringing through from the youth ranks an outstanding attacking talent of a quality not seen for a long time; Wayne Rooney.

Rooney made a big impact in his debut season at Everton, including a memorable performance against Arsenal when he scored his first goal for the club.

But although Rooney’s emergence was a welcome boost for the beleaguered Blues supporters, he wasn’t going to turn the side around on his own, however well he played.

To add to Moyes’ troubles, Everton were facing serious financial constraints as they had spent so much in previous seasons to try and buy success under the doomed ownership of Peter Johnson. So Moyes had very little in the transfer kitty to strengthen his squad.

But the Scot showed a remarkable, canny ability to spot good, undervalued talent in the transfer market and mold it into a competitive and effective team.

One of his first significant signings was Tim Cahill, who arrived from Millwall in 2004. Cahill was a bargain and went on to become one of the Blues best players over the next ten years.

In his first season at the club, although Rooney had been sold to Manchester United for a record fee, Cahill and Everton defied the odds and finished fourth to qualify for the Champions League for the first and only time since the Premier League began in 2002.

That team was very well organised, defensively strong, and in midfield the Blues had a solid pair of performers in Lee Carsley and Thomas Gravesen, who added much-needed attacking creativity.

Up front legendary centre-forward Duncan Ferguson was in his second spell at the club and despite his injuries, when fit, could still intimidate defences.

Everton were unlucky (isn’t that so often the case!) to be drawn against a very good Villareal side in the first qualifying round of the competition and although the Blues battled hard, they were ultimately outclassed by the Spanish team who would go onto reach the semi-finals.

Despite this failure, Moyes continued to stabalise the Everton ship and make some very good signings over the next few years. Players of the quality of Joseph Yobo, Mikel Arteta, Steven Pienaar, Tim Howard and Phil Jagielka, arrived at Goodison Park, often for a snip of a fee.

Several more times the team qualified for Europe but always falling short of that elusive top four finish, as too often Everton dropped what proved to be crucial points, especially at home.

In 2009 the Toffees embarked on an FA Cup run that ended with a final appearance against Chelsea, which they lost 2-1.

At this time, Moyes was becoming more often criticised for the cautious and defensive approach he took, which appeared to be increasingly counter-productive when the team came up against the best opposition.

To some, his tactics seemed naive and to inhibit the team, especially in important games in Europe and domestically against the better sides. It was as if he couldn’t shake off the shackles he had rightly molded onto the side, at the start of his reign.

Moyes’ record against the top four was generally very poor. In particular, Arsenal proved a nemesis, and there were some truly dreadful defeats to Arsene Wengers’ side during this time. Too often Arsenal easily played through and around a static and negative Everton team, almost it seemed at will.

To be fair to Moyes, he hardly had a team bursting with world-class talent, and throughout his time struggled to find a top quality goalscorer. But there was a sense that the Blues football was becoming outmoded, predictable and a little one-dimensional under the Scot.

Even though he did enjoy some notable wins at Goodison Park, against Manchester United and  Liverpool, results were too often very disappointing in many of these big games.

And it was a big game against Liverpool that finally felt to me the beginning of the end of the Moyes era, and that was the 2012 FA Cup semi-final. I went to this match and it was an experience seeing Wembley half Blue and half Red as Merseyside descended on north London.

Everton went ahead, but after a defensive lapse by the Toffees that led to an equaliser, Liverpool won it late on. The biggest disappointment I felt that day, was the overly defensive nature of Everton’s tactics and how they seemed to sit back on the lead and allow a brittle Liverpool back into the match.

A year after that depressing defeat, Moyes announced he was leaving Everton to take up the United post following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.

So how do we judge Moyes time then? It’s difficult to be certain whether he could have done much better given the very significant financial restrictions he faced, which always limited his capacity to bring in enough top level talent. Having said that his tactics and defensive mentality did sometimes backfire and his teams seemed to lack the self-belief to win games against the best sides.

But in the final analysis, he transformed a desperately poor and inconsistent Everton team that was constantly flirting with relegation into one that was much more effective hard to beat. And I always think it would have been instructive to see how he could or would have done, if he had possessed the sort of financial resources that his successors have enjoyed.

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