The Boreham Wood players took the field for the biggest game in their history each carrying a Ukraine flag. The fans who had traveled from Hertfordshire packed the corner of a ground that dates back to the 19th century, but which had undergone a sudden makeover.
The Megafon branding, a recent addition that used to be visible on the Stanley Park skyline, was hastily removed. Megafon is an Alisher Usmanov company and Everton’s week was about distancing themselves from a billionaire sanctioned by the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom as about reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals.
Their visitors showed the competition still allows some to dream. Their supporters chorused about going to Wembley. Their players lingered on a Premier League pitch afterwards, posing for photos. The right-back Everton supporter Kane Smith may have fulfilled the ambition of a lifetime by going to accept the applause of the Gwladys Street End.
If Boreham Wood represented the romance of the FA Cup, Everton reflected the realities of football in 2022, a sport in a moral maze, trying to extricate itself from the awkward relationships its fondness for money and its global profile have brought. This is a football problem. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not brought too many immediate problems for Lancashire County Cricket Club or for St Helens rugby league club.
Just along the East Lancs Road from each, Everton were embarking on a swift damage-limitation exercise, and not merely Salomon Rondon’s second-half double after they reached the break level with a non-league team. Had they left it 30 hours later to suspend their relationships with three of Usmanov’s companies, it might have been more embarrassing. As it is, Everton are tainted by association.
A day after Usmanov’s yacht was seized by the German authorities, he was sanctioned by the British government. British companies are banned from doing business with him. His assets were frozen: Everton, where he has never held a formal role or a stake, is not among them but, such is the game’s Byzantine world that the extent of his influence remains unclear. The party line is that he was a sponsor; but not just any old sponsor.
Usmanov is a long-term business partner of owner Farhad Moshiri, their fortunes seemingly intertwined in as much as anyone can tell. Moshiri wandered into Frank Lampard’s job interview still on a Zoom call with Usmanov. He had paid for exclusive naming rights to Everton’s new ground; Bramley-Moore Dock will now presumably not be called the USM Stadium.
Was the people’s club, to borrow David Moyes’ phrase, ever the oligarch’s? Legally, no, and fewer are now likely to admit to an alliance with Usmanov. Maybe, indirectly, his money from him helped purchase some of Everton’s players but the people nonetheless made it clear where their allegiances lie. Everton were captained by Vitalii Mykolenko, just as Oleksandr Zinchenko led Manchester City two days earlier. The decision was greeted with applause. Sentiment on the ground and at the ground is with the victims of Vladimir Putin, not one considered one of his cronies of him. “We stand with Ukraine,” came the message on the big screen. For the second time in six days, Goodison Park paid tribute.
The pre-match ceremonies, soundtracked by John Lennon and Imagine, were moving. Everton remains largely populated by those with an old-fashioned sense of class. “As a club we try to do things properly and right,” said Lampard. “We have done that in both of our home games.”
That has tended to be Everton’s identity, one seemingly as old as Goodison Park itself. Perhaps the FA Cup, which Everton first won in 1906, plays a part in it, too. “A magical competition that Everton have a great history in,” reflected Lampard. That history is as one of the traditional aristocrats. Their power brokers had often made money in other fields. But they rarely had to worry that Sir John Moores’ Littlewoods stores or Bill Kenwright’s musicals had brought them particularly close to bloodthirsty warmongers. There may be a cost to their coffers from parting company with Usmanov. There has been a damage to their reputation from their links with him.