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Iain Macintosh
Friday, Aug 15, 2014

Sports

Confident Toffees

The New Paper | Iain Macintosh | Friday, Aug 15, 2014

Everton manager Roberto Martinez.

A fortnight ago, there was a feeling that the summer was beginning to get away from Everton.

It was a premature fear. The new season is just a week away and Roberto Martinez's men have every reason to feel confident, even after a pre-season campaign that ended without a victory.

The signing of Romelu Lukaku for the kind of fee that Everton are more accustomed to receiving, than handing over, was a statement that resonated around the Premier League.

The big Belgian striker may not be the finished article, but it's obvious that the 21-year-old has the potential to be one of Europe's most dangerous strikers.

That is quite a step up from the quality of striker they've had at Goodison Park in recent years. You have to go all the way back to 1996 and Andrei Kanchelskis to find the last time that anyone scored more than the 15 goals he accumulated last season.

If Lukaku can continue to develop, and he's certainly playing under a manager with a record of bringing on young talent, he will be worth every penny of the £28 million ($58.7m) transfer fee.

But the confidence that radiates from the blue half of Merseyside has not been generated by Lukaku alone. The retention of midfielder Gareth Barry, last season's loanee success story, was crucial to maintaining the way Everton play.

His composure in the middle of the engine room allows the rest of the team to perform. He may be 33, but he is not the kind of player who will be overly diminished as he slows down.

The signing of Muhamed Besic, whose trickery within seconds of making his debut as an Everton player won the supporters over immediately, is another masterstroke. Even as Bosnia struggled in their World Cup group, Besic impressed with his steely determination and nerveless passing.

But the real positive of this summer was the successful conclusion of long-term contract talks with John Stones and Ross Barkley. With Lukaku, Everton demonstrated that they can attract the most promising players in Europe. With Stones and Barkley, they proved that they can keep them at Goodison Park.

All of this is down to Roberto Martinez, a man many expected to fall short this time last year.

It would have been easy to be daunted by his inheritance from David Moyes, but the Spaniard was entirely unruffled.

Far from fighting to protect the status quo, Martinez was unafraid to change it. Instead of trying not to lose, Everton tried to win.

Tactics were tinkered with, or changed altogether.

Opponents no longer knew what to expect and the players revelled in their new-found freedom.

Martinez is tactically adept, he has an eye for a player, he is calm on the sidelines and he speaks well in interviews - all of which makes it even more astonishing than anyone ever doubted him.

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He has even proved a popular figure among Liverpool fans, a rarity in the last three decades.

Having spoken so well in April's Hillsborough's memorial service, Martinez won even more respect among the Reds' supporters by simply walking back across Stanley Park, rather than speeding away in a flash car.

In that part of the world, where reality is valued more than millionaire trappings, it was a gesture that spoke volumes. In short, Martinez makes Everton look good.

There are a few reasons to worry, however. The presence of Arsenal and Chelsea in their first three fixtures suggests that a slow start might be likely and the wobbly form in pre-season, which could prove to be meaningless, has at least taken some of the edge off the excitement.

But whatever happens this season, whether Everton push for a Champions League place, or lead the chasing pack, the supporters know that the club are moving in the right direction and attempting to play football in what they believe is the right way.

That, after so many years of falling just short in little style, will do for now.


This article was first published on August 13, 2014.
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