Instead of excitement at the prospect of signing a top-class manager, Everton fans have run the gamut of emotions from denial to anger and now there are signs that a depressive acceptance has set in. They are resigned to the fact that Rafa Benitez is the new boss at Goodison Park.
They also have to accept the influence that Alisher Usmanov has on the club. The billionaire is so certain that Benitez is the right man for the job that he has convinced the owner Farhad Moshiri to pay the former Liverpool manager in the region of £15 million (€17.5m) a year over a two-year contract with an option on the third year. It is a huge gamble from all sides.
Moshiri and Usmanov have had a long business relationship. The Uzbek-born oligarch is the senior partner in the alliance and, although Usmanov owns no part of Everton, his companies are significant sponsors. Since Usmanov sold his 30pc share in Arsenal three years ago, his attention has switched to Merseyside. USM Holdings – his mining, technology and media conglomerate – owns the naming rights to Everton’s new Bramley-Moore dockside stadium.
There is something of a tradition of figures who are neither owners nor board members having influence at Goodison. Bill Kenwright’s close friend Philip Green was deeply involved with decision-making until Moshiri bought into the club five years ago. Keith Wyness, the former chief executive, was summoned to Green’s London office to discuss Everton’s finances and conducted his severance negotiations on the retail tycoon’s yacht in the Balearics.
Chris Matheson, the Labour MP for the city of Chester, accused Green of being a “shadow director” in front of a culture, media and sport committee on the governance of football five years ago. The businessman denies ever having any financial involvement in Goodison and merely says he offered advice to Kenwright, who remains the Everton chairman.
Usmanov is different. For him there are clear monetary imperatives. Everton’s success would justify his sponsorships. Although Moshiri has his doubts about Benitez, the owner trusts the 67-year-old’s instincts.
Like his fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich, Usmanov cares little for supporters’ biases and the game’s conventions. Flags and protests are unlikely to influence any decisions.
The threatening banner placed on the gates of a Wirral residence that said ‘we know where you live’ seems to be a tipping point for the Everton fanbase. Leaving aside that it was the wrong house, the majority of supporters are appalled that their fellow fans would go to such lengths to stop Benitez getting the job.
Most are now prepared to give the man they associate with Anfield a chance. He will not get much leeway, for sure, but Evertonians pride themselves on their club not being an embarrassment to the city. Most are wincing at the attempt to intrude into Benitez’s home life, although incidents like this are not without precedent.
In 1983, just before Everton’s revival under Howard Kendall took off, the manager returned home after a 3-0 derby defeat to find the words ‘Kendall out’ spray painted on his garage door. It was the club legend’s lowest point. Six months later Everton won the FA Cup.
Even if Benitez brings a trophy to Goodison it is unlikely that he will earn the affection of the Goodison crowd. He thrives on having a good rapport with fans but operates equally well in hostile circumstances, as his short spell at Chelsea illustrated.
The margin for error is miniscule at Everton. There is plenty of resistance to the appointment internally and the big danger is that Usmanov – and by proxy Moshiri – has made assurances that will not be kept. When given strict parameters in which to operate, Benitez is quite happy to work within his means. When he feels that promises have not been kept he becomes truculent. The slightest hint of politics will be the beginning of the end.
It is a sour start to a new era at Goodison. Benitez faces the most difficult job of his career. Usmanov needs to be right or Everton will pay the price.