Hazel and Toffee (reprise)

NINE months ago, I wrote a post on this blog describing how Everton’s destiny lay in the hands of Hazel Blears. Since then, things have perked up considerably for the Toffees, and got a lot gloomier for Salford’s MP. Yet if I had to bet on which of the two has the brighter long-term future, I’d still go for Blears.

Things looked grim for Everton last August, with a thin squad, comparatively little money to spend and hopes of a move to a new stadium collapsing around their ears. Their chief executive had just resigned, too.

The suggestion that they would finish fifth in the Premier League and reach the FA Cup final would have seemed ridiculous, particularly when they kicked off their season by losing at home to a Blackburn side managed by Paul Ince.

(How quickly things change. It’s worth remembering that, less than a month into the Premier League season, Ince was being linked with the vacant manager’s job at Newcastle. As I write this, he has now been out of work for more than five months.)

And yet David Moyes succeeded in guiding a team seriously short on strikers into the Premier League’s top five for the second successive season, and took them past three of their fellow top-six finishers to face Chelsea in the Cup final.

For 20-odd minutes, they looked as if they might win it, too. Louis Saha is best known for being one of the few footballers to earn a nickname based on his injury record – Balsa Man. Well, now he has another achievement to add to his name, as the scorer of the quickest goal in FA Cup final history.

His goal, after 25 seconds, wasn’t enough. Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard saw to that, and ensured that Guus Hiddink finished his brief reign as Chelsea boss with the club’s first trophy since Jose Mourinho left.

But what next for Everton? Sure, they’ve had a great season, and they’ve got a superb manager. But they haven’t got a whole load of money, and their hopes of moving to a new stadium still hang in the balance.

Chairman Bill Kenwright confirmed this week that he is still looking to sell his majority shareholding in the club to someone with the sort of cash to challenge Roman Abramovich. But how many people have that sort of cash these days? Even your average MP doesn’t have hundreds of millions to throw at a football club.

It might be easier for Kenwright to sell up if Everton’s plans to move out of Liverpool to Kirkby are approved by Blears.

As the secretary of state for communities and local government, Blears must make the final decision on the proposed stadium after it was called in by the Government for a public inquiry last summer.

Knowsley Council, on whose patch the stadium would be built, have always backed the plan. Some councillors in Liverpool, concerned about the social and economic impact on the city of losing one of its two football clubs, have been less supportive.

But with Tesco willing to pay the bulk of the £400million cost of the new stadium, it is the only affordable choice as far as Everton are concerned. For them, modernising Goodison Park is not an option. (And if they stay there, it does need modernising.) It may just be that the prospect of a new ground makes Everton a more attractive prospect for potential investors.

Blears is likely to make her decision in November, assuming she remains in her post for that long following the very public bollocking she received from Gordon Brown over her capital gains tax escapade. I’m sure she will survive. If Julie Kirkbride can see it through until the next General Election after all that has been revealed about her, then there’s no reason why Blears’ political career can’t stay afloat.

But Everton? Well, that’s a tougher question to answer. They gave a good account of themselves today, until the final 20 minutes, when Chelsea threatened to overpower them. And yes, they’ve had a great season. But the next 12 months will go a long way to showing whether they can realistically continue to challenge the Premier League’s best when so much seems to be stacked against them.

Mr. Kenwright, Mr. Moyes and Ms. Blears, it’s over to you.

UPDATE: Wednesday, June 3: So I thought Hazel Blears would see it through to November in her Cabinet post. Hell, shows what I know.

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