Ambitious Everton gaining momentum on field, in boardroom

LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — Wayne Rooney’s sentimental return to Everton after 13 years away fits the image of a club often criticized for living in the past amid the fast-evolving world of English soccer.

The past 18 months have shown, however, that something exciting is brewing in the blue half of Merseyside: A newfound ambition and a determination to make up for lost time after falling behind the Premier League’s elite.

There’s a new 300-million-pound ($385-million) stadium on the horizon on the Mersey waterfront, replacing the atmospheric but cramped Goodison Park. There’s a wealthy majority shareholder in place in Farhad Moshiri, an Iranian-British businessman who sold his share in Arsenal to get a stake in Everton in early 2016.

There’s a highly regarded manager in Ronald Koeman, who holds a fine global reputation from his time as a player with Barcelona and the Netherlands, and a director of football in Steve Walsh, a super scout who was one of the unheralded architects behind Leicester’s improbable Premier League title triumph in 2015-16.

And — arguably most important to Everton’s success-starved fans — there’s a team filled with a growing number of bright, bold and talented youngsters from England and abroad.

The arrival of Rooney is the signature moment of a busy summer at Everton, a fact underscored by the lines outside the gates of Goodison Park on Monday to welcome home the club’s so-called “prodigal son.” But he’s a blast from the past at a club looking forward, with momentum on the field and in the boardroom.

“We hit a level, and now we’re going places,” said Michael Graham, a 52-year-old Everton supporter who was outside the stadium waiting for a glimpse of Rooney.

Everton’s fans have been starved of success since the club’s heyday in the mid-1980s, when it rivaled Merseyside rival Liverpool as England’s most successful team. The last of Everton’s nine top-flight titles came in 1987, its highest finish since the Premier League’s inception in 1992 is fourth, and its last major trophy was the 1995 FA Cup.

A nine-year-old Rooney was at the old Wembley Stadium for that cup final against Manchester United, a big Everton follower just like his father and now his kids. They were the most pleased to see Rooney return to Everton after 13 trophy-laden years at United.

Rooney, a free transfer, is one of six players signed for a total of around 90 million pounds ($115 million) this offseason. There are sure to be more, although Everton has recouped 75 million ($97 million) in selling striker Romelu Lukaku to United. Koeman also oversaw the spending of 70 million pounds last season.

Fans are thrilled Everton is making its transfer moves early in the summer, instead of in the last days of the window as usual. Credit for that must go to Walsh for identifying the players and acting quickly, and also to Moshiri. Everton finally has a financial backer willing to spend big.

“I know from speaking to fans, my family, how excited they are,” Rooney said about Everton’s ambition on Monday. “It is great for everyone when a club makes new signings. There is a good feeling around Everton Football Club at the moment.

“We don’t just want to limp around this season.”

Sitting alongside Rooney at his presentation on Monday, Koeman acknowledged the pressure was on Everton in his second season at Goodison.

“The first season was to play good football and get good results,” he said, “but now you need to make the next step.”

The recent spending spree will not guarantee that improvement, though, as Liverpool and Tottenham know.

Both clubs used money gained from a high-price player move (Luis Suarez at Liverpool in 2014 and Gareth Bale at Spurs in 2013) to strengthen the rest of the squad, but initially struggled to manage without their former star player.

Koeman has to decide where Rooney fits into his team and also how many of the club’s youngsters, such as Ademola Lookman, Tom Davies, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Mason Holgate, to start.

Still, there’s optimism that Everton will bridge the gap to the top six by the end of the coming season, with Rooney providing the kind of leadership and experience — if not necessarily the goals — that Koeman’s young team requires.

“Everybody knows that there was one really big reason for me to sign for Everton,” Koeman said. “It was all about this project, and the club is now showing the ambition that everybody likes to have and that is really great . exciting times for the football club.”

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