Everton cross Stanley Park for this weekend’s Merseyside derby with participation in the qualifying rounds of next season’s Europa League virtually secured, with a seventh-place finish near-safe and the winners of the two cup competitions coming from the current top 6.
It will mean the Toffees’ competitive campaign beginning in mid-July but the chance to return to continental competition will be a marker in the progress of Ronald Koeman’s project. Just a single defeat, away at second-place Tottenham, has come in the twelve league matches since the last derby, the 0-1 defeat in December, and the short trip to Anfield offers a tough examination of the authenticity of the feel-good factor surrounding the blue half of Liverpool.
Underlined by the financial strength of Iranian billionaire Farhad Moshiri, Everton’s future is one of optimism, helped by last week’s agreement, following years of false dawns, to acquire a site for a new £300 million stadium on the Bramley Moore Dock near the River Mersey.
That alone may not be enough to convince Romelu Lukaku, as he stalls on new contract negotiations, that Everton is the best place to continue his goal-scoring exploits but perhaps a strong summer of spending will be. Koeman, in a season with a few expected aberrations, has managed a careful transition from the haphazard days of Roberto Martinez and suggested that he is the coach to guide the club through these pivotal next few years.
More signings of the ilk of Morgan Schneiderlin, prised away from Manchester United for £19 million to add steel and energy to the midfield, and more promising youngsters like Tom Davies and Dominic Calvert-Lewin being integrated into the first-team could persuade Lukaku, with another year remaining on his contract, that Everton is the best place for the next stage of his career.
Scorer of 83 goals since moving to Everton on an initial loan deal back in 2013, and having netted 22 so far this term, Lukaku will have to be central to the plans if Moshiri and Koeman are to sustain any progress and the Belgian is noticing some early signs of ambition.
“Obviously stuff is changing and stuff is happening” he said, “Everton as a football club has a great history. But the future has to be written. Because we always talk about the teams of the 80s and 70s and if you look it was great. But we as players, we want the fans talking about us instead of us talking about them”.
With that Lukaku is reasonably voicing a view shared by many Everton fans and it does strike as curious that, at the end of a campaign that has held such promise, Wayne Rooney is being linked with a move back to Goodison Park.
Manchester United are apparently willing to waive a fee in a move they feel is “likely to happen”, with Everton able to reach a compromise on his bumper-wage packet by offering £150,000 per week. Lukaku’s new proposed deal- the one that would make him the best paid player in the club’s history- is £10k-a-week shorter at £140,000.
The club he joined at the age of nine, Everton will be the only Premier League club that will entice Rooney away from Manchester but the only logic from any possible deal comes from the forward’s camp.
Rooney’s demise this season has been so marked that his omission from the recent England squad was met with little more than a bothersome footnote and at United Jose Mourinho appears relieved he is no longer under any pressure to solve the conundrum of how to fit the ageing striker into his team.
Everton are 2 points behind Manchester United in the table, albeit having played two games more, and Rooney, who has just two league goals to his name this season and looked lethargic and cumbersome as he searched for the goal to surpass Sir Bobby Charlton’s club-record tally, is not the calibre of player the Toffees should be looking at if they wish to bridge the gap to the top 4.
That club-record goal incidentally- a free-kick bent home in the dying stages of a game at Stoke City– was a glimpse of the class Rooney still possesses, but those glimpses are becoming increasingly rare. Everton must be aware the striker can no longer justify such an expensive rewinding of the clock.
This season’s travails have shown Rooney, who will be 32 in October, is finished at that level, a player whose years of excess have left him stuck in slow-motion, and it is difficult to work out what he can add to a side that possesses Ross Barkley, now thriving under Koeman with 5 assists in his last 9 games, as its main attacking midfielder.
18-year-old Davies, held back in the under-23s until making his first appearance of the season against Southampton on 2nd January, has already clocked up 15 appearances since then and was outstanding in the 4-0 evisceration of Manchester City.
He linked vibrantly with Calvert-Lewin, the 20-year-old signed for £1.5 million last August from Sheffield United, for the opener against Hull a fortnight ago and the youngsters’ obvious promise, also that of Ademola Lookman’s after Koeman was convinced by his potential enough to pay Charlton £10 million in January, seems too precious to stymie with the inclusion of a waning 32-year-old.
“There were some players that we could have got, that I knew the club could have got, and they didn’t get,” said Lukaku in explaining his decision to stall on a new contract and it does not take a sharp mind to work out Rooney would not be on that list.
Koeman has fashioned a potent attacking unit with Barkley supplying Lukaku alongside Kevin Mirallas, with Yannick Bolasie due to return next season after his lengthy injury lay-off.
Having already shipped out Gerard Duelofeu and Oumar Niasse, more upheaval will come in the summer but Moshiri’s funds, if Everton are to hold viable aims of reaching the Champions League, need to be used to shop in the deluxe areas of the market.
Rooney’s short-lived spell in midfield under Louis Van Gaal with United and Roy Hodgson with England will not help as Everton are well-stocked in that area with Schneiderlin and Idrissa Gueye helping with the phasing out of Gareth Barry.
Bolasie will return to the wing after an exciting start to life on Merseyside was curtailed by cruciate ligament damage, primed to help an attack now liberated by a tightened defence utilising Ashley Williams’s strong leadership to great effect.
Koeman has a blossoming squad capable of moving forwards under a manager who has shown he can encourage young talent as well as boost the more established players. The next two matches, encompassing trips to Anfield and Old Trafford to play Mourinho’s United, will offer a fair indication of how far the Tofees have travelled in the Dutchman’s 10 months in charge.
If they can keep their main goal-scorer Everton may be a force next season, but the sentimentality of bringing Rooney back is best ignored.