Everton’s European Enigma

England flagThe European club competition party is the event of the year. Liverpool and Chelsea sit on the stairs flirting outrageously with a gaggle of giggling girls; Manchester United spin some banging tunes on the decks in the dining room; Nottingham Forest and Arsenal wow the kitchen crowd with their cocktail mixology skills while Leeds, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Ipswich Town regale the living room folks with a procession of fabulously witty anecdotes. Assured by the rest that their invitation must have been lost in the post but had definitely, absolutely, probably been sent; Everton sit at home on the sofa with a Pot Noodle watching Cash In The Attic.

Romelu Lukaku

Everton’s enduringly difficult relationship with European football was forcefully brought home during one of their Europa League ties earlier this season. Upon Romelu Lukaku scoring his second goal of the evening at Goodison against the limp Young Boys of Berne, the match commentator informed his ITV4 audience that the Belgian had just become Everton’s record scorer in European competition history. Just seven days earlier Lukaku had but two European goals to his name before a five goal spree over the two games against the Swiss side upped his total to seven, bettering Fred Pickering’s six Fair’s Cup goals in the 1960s. The Belgian forward would even extend that record to eight goals by the time Everton’s campaign ended, although this still didn’t seem very many to me.

Fred Pickering
Fred Pickering

Statistics can be meaningless in isolation so I dug a little deeper in search of some broader context. It didn’t help Everton’s cause. The top European scorers for Arsenal (Thierry Henry), Liverpool (Steven Gerrard) and Manchester United (Wayne Rooney) have 42, 40 and 33 goals respectively. Jermaine Defoe’s 23 goals leads the way for Tottenham. All clubs with greater European pedigrees than Everton of course, but then again John Wark managed 14 UEFA Cup goals for Ipswich Town in a single season and Mick Channon scored nine times for rare European entrants Southampton.

Results are more representative than individual goal hauls, so perhaps the lack of a single prolific European marksman was just a statistical anomaly for Everton? We know for a start that this is a club that won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1985, albeit overcoming a very modest field apart from semi-final opponents Bayern Munich. That year was the undoubted highlight in the club’s European history but how many other good seasons have Everton enjoyed in Europe?

Firstly there needs to be a consensus on what constitutes a good season. A simple and commonly used indicator back in the day suggested that for most clubs still being in Europe after Christmas – in essence reaching the Quarter Final of any competition – constituted a campaign to be satisfied with. These waters have been muddied in modern times by the insertion of Rounds of 16 and 32 into the spring schedule, so for the sake of consistency we’ll run with the original last-eight definition here.

Everton v Internazionale 1963
Everton v Internazionale 1963

Alongside that successful 1985 Cup Winners Cup campaign Everton have, surprisingly, reached just one further European Quarter Final. This is the same number as West Bromwich Albion and Burnley and fewer than Ipswich, Wolves, Nottingham Forest, West Ham, Aston Villa, Manchester City, Newcastle, Leeds United, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. The Old Trafford club have the highest number of Quarter Final appearances with 23 incidentally.

Everton’s first-ever European fixture ended in Fairs Cup elimination at the hands of Dunfermline and records show that even the modest Fifers have themselves reached three European Quarter Finals in their history. Other Scottish clubs in Hibernian, Aberdeen, Dundee United and of course Rangers and Celtic all have a higher figure. Cardiff City racked up three Quarter Final appearances representing Wales and if we also look beyond British shores, no fewer than 112 clubs have made more last-eight appearances than Everton.

So did the Goodison club suffer unduly in the past through bad luck with draws? The evidence doesn’t really bear it out. Everton have faced genuinely heavyweight opponents irregularly: Bayern Munich in 1985, Borussia Mönchengladbach in 1970 (both ties won) and Internazionale in the European Cup of 1963-64 (lost). The list of clubs to have eliminated Everton takes in Feyenoord (twice), Milan, Dukla Prague, Ujpest Dozsa, Real Zaragoza, Dynamo Kiev, Dinamo Bucharest and Standard Liege among others – all significant clubs in European football at one time or another, but certainly not when they faced Everton.

Nefarious activity by referees or opponents hasn’t unduly hastened Everton towards undeserved eliminations either. A lenient French referee did little to reign in Panathinaikos aggression during their 1971 European Cup Quarter-Final, a complaint countered in the previous round by Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Ludwig Müller whose decisive missed penalty in the shoot-out was taken with Everton keeper Andrew Rankin several yards ahead of his line.

Graeme Sharp clips home Everton's first goal past Bayern Munich goalkeeper Jean Marie Pfaff in 1985
Graeme Sharp scores past Bay Munich goalkeeper Jean Marie Pfaff, 1985

Supporters of the Merseyside club might suggest their European history is always going to look insipid compared to bigger rivals when their club has undertaken just 17 campaigns, significantly less than Arsenal (31), Manchester United (38) and Liverpool (43). That position is compromised however. Everton have been one of only two top-flight perennials over these past 60 years so they probably should have qualified more often in the first place. Also, why have smaller clubs with lesser resources and fewer European matches under their belt – Ipswich Town have 12 campaigns for example – achieved more?

So in some detail we’ve made the case that Everton have not qualified for Europe as often as they should have and, when they have made it there, typically their teams have underscored and underachieved. At least there must have been some great one-off wins to savour, memorable European nights that supporters can recant to their grandchildren in years to come? Well, you’ve guessed the answer already. The thrilling 3-1 home win in 1985 over Bayern Munich remains Everton’s only out-and-out victory over 90 minutes against one of Europe’s big beasts.

The shadow of the Heysel ban looms large over this discussion too. Many fans claim that the ejection en masse of English clubs from Europe between 1985 and 1990 blighted Everton’s best chance of becoming the great European club they have always wanted to be. It’s true that their talented 1985 Cup Winners Cup and League winning team could have been expected to challenge strongly for the European Cup during these years, but is the undue emphasis put on a big hypothetical primarily a smokescreen to mask the broader issue? This period of exclusion represents just 5 years from the 60-year history of European club competition and there are no guarantees that Everton wouldn’t have underachieved in these years as they did in others.

Everton v Rapid Vienna, CWC Final 1985
Everton v Rapid Vienna, CWC Final 1985

So the big question remains: why have Everton left such a light imprint on European competition? This is a club that sits in sixth spot in the overall Premier League table, rising to third place in the all-time English table. This is a club that had traditionally been one of the wealthier within one of Europe’s richest Leagues, held the British transfer record at one time and was considered as one of English football’s ‘big five’ as recently as the 1980s. Undoubtedly in recent years the Goodison club has fallen behind a handful of their rivals financially, but this is still an institution with the financial clout to spend £28 million on the player who quickly became their record European scorer.

Ultimately we just don’t have an answer. This article is high on damning statistics but low on reasons explaining them. Is it down to playing style? Tactics? Is it a psychological block? Is it a subconscious inferiority complex brought on by the daunting success of city neighbours Liverpool? Looking to the future, can the club ever establish itself as a respected name in the European arena and does the will to even try still exist?

With the entrenched hierarchical nature of European football meaning Champions League qualification looks unlikely anytime soon, the double-edged sword of the Europa League is all that’s realistically left on the table for Everton. With the Premier League dominating the hearts, minds and purse strings of clubs to an unprecedented degree, would Everton fans even want to see their club putting their full weight behind a genuine push to win a competition that is treated more with disdain than delight in England?

We canvassed the opinion of long-suffering Everton supporter Mark Godfrey from The Football Pink. “Of course, the Europa League – like both domestic cups – is our only realistic chance of silverware or at least the sniff of it and as someone who remembers 1995 and the mid 80s, there’s nothing like the feeling of seeing your team win something. However, if you look at things in the wider perspective, the new TV deal has made finishing as high as possible in the Premier League the absolute priority.”

We’d venture Mark’s view is representative of broader Everton supporter opinion suggesting that for the foreseeable future, whenever the European club competition party is in full swing Everton will be standing miserably outside in the front garden, nose pressed up against the window watching others revelling in another great occasion they weren’t invited to attend.

2 thoughts on “Everton’s European Enigma

  1. Good piece. I’ve often bemoaned our lack of success in Europe – 85 aside. I know lots of Everton fans will disagree but I think the club needs Europa League football, even if it means sneaking in through the back door via the fair play league and starting the season on July 2nd. We need to have 3,4,5 consecutive seasons in Europe to get to a position where the extra games don’t affect league form too much. And we’re hardly going to get in the Champions League anytime soon, so the way to build up European experience is in the Europa League. But let’s not play Alcaraz in games like Kyiv.

    1. I’m sure UEFA will restructure the Europa League to make it all knock-out again which will mean less excuse for English teams not to take it seriously.

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