The significance of Everton and West Ham’s Premier League clash on Wednesday night lays in how both clubs have come to mirror each other in their desperate bids to join the dominant forces in English football.
Significant elevation of spending during the last two summer windows has considerably raised expectations, something both of their former managers – Slaven Bilic and Ronald Koeman, who were both touted for each other’s’ jobs post-dismissal in another example of curious Hammers-Toffees symmetry – have both paid the price for this season.
More than anything else, it’s the pressure both teams have struggled to deal with this season as they enter the 14th game of their Premier League campaigns either side of the relegation line, clinging on desperately to avoid freefall. The talent is clearly there for both clubs to secure top half finishes, if not top seven finishes, on paper. But poor starts to the season for varying reasons, including several factors outside of Koeman and Bilic’s control, combined with the aforementioned raise of expectations has created a weight which continues to cripple and suffocate the players – only further exacerbating with every disappointing result.
And yet, you have to wonder why that pressure exists, and where it truly comes from. Everton and West Ham are both enduring miserable campaigns, but neither club have a divine right to be spared from the same relegation-fearing phenomena that has engulfed Newcastle, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest or Blackburn throughout the years.
After all, we’re talking about one club that has been relegated from the Premier League twice before and another who’ve finished in the top six just twice throughout the Premier League’s 25-year history. In the grand scheme of things, West Ham and Everton dropping into the relegation battle isn’t all that shocking or extraordinary – in fact, amid the most competitive era of English football, it’s the kind of middle-sized-club plight that has become customary.
Of course, we’re also amid an era in which the pressure to succeed is greater than ever before, as is the accompanying short-termist thinking. That’s why both clubs felt compelled to part with their managers less than a third of the way into the season, and that’s why we’re already talking about two teams with clearly superior talent as genuine relegation candidates.
But it’s also why both clubs are stuck in the mess they’re now trying to escape; the miraculous story of Leicester City, very much an anomaly in not only Premier League but English top flight title history, has convinced clubs like Everton and West Ham that with solid investment and the right men in the dugout, they too can defy the balance of power at the division’s summit – if the idea of matching Leicester’s title win is still seen as farfetched, there’s a belief amongst both clubs that they can be the ones to disrupt the big six. Accordingly, Everton and West Ham’s owners and investors have both tried to run before they can walk.
The move to the London Stadium came with promises from David Gold and David Sullivan that it would soon house Champions League football, and while Bill Kenwright announced top four finishes as the ultimate objectives for Roberto Martinez and Ronald Koeman prior to the takeover, Farhad Moshiri’s investment has inevitably suggested an escalation in attempting to achieve that goal. But the finances show just how far off West Ham and Everton are in their shared mission.
Their combined spending during the last three seasons has been just 21% of what the big six have paid out for new signings, which verges upon the £2billion mark, while their combined net spend is just 19%. Everton and West Ham can’t simply assume a few summers of lavish spending will move them on parity with some of the richest clubs in the world. For starters, Watford have spent more than both of them since the start of 2015/16.
Breaking into the Premier League’s ultimate bracket is a long process that requires either unprecedented wealth or revolution from the bottom up, something Tottenham remain the archetype model for. We often consider their rise from top four hopefuls to consecutive title chasers as a consequence of Mauricio Pochettino’s philosophy and ability, but in truth their ascendance began far earlier when Daniel Levy became chairman in 2001.
Previously, Spurs had finished 10th or lower in four consecutive seasons; in the 16 seasons since, they’ve done the same just three times. Mid-table became upper mid-table, upper mid-table became top six and top six became top three. That rise owes far more to the club’s twelve-year youth development plan, which produced Harry Kane and Danny Rose, Levy’s organisation and shrewdness and the talent of their managers than simply announcing ambitions to be a top four club and jumping up a few rungs in transfer spending.
Indeed, we often forget in football’s increasingly short-termist sphere that instant success is rarely truly achievable. It’s a misnomer, a mythic creation, that every club wants but only few are ever lucky enough to enjoy. While there’s nothing wrong with ambition, it still requires a basis in reality and a tangible method of achieving it. Everton and West Ham have, quite simply, attempted to act like a ‘big club’ in the hope big club success would inevitably follow.
Their actual means of getting there, aside from careless spending in the transfer market and moves (planned on Everton’s part) to new stadiums, remain a mystery. Everton’s strategy-less recruitment last summer, echoing West Ham’s from 2016, and the haste in which both clubs disposed of their managers this season only highlights how little long-term planning there actually is.
And now we’re seeing the flipside to that naïve ambition. When you tell supporters to hope for Champions League football in the coming years but can’t achieve the results to justify those claims, the pressure suddenly becomes ginormous. Every poor performance is ruthlessly analysed, every poor result is painted as catastrophic. Everton and West Ham fans have always been demanding and passionate bunches, but their outrage and apathy this season is as much a consequence of how expectations have been raised as the performances on the pitch.
As the paymasters look on from their boxes on Wednesday, either side of perhaps the Premier League’s most surprising early relegation clash this season, both sets will feel they’re paying the price for trying to run before they could walk.