Despite points deductions and uncertainty, Everton won't stop fighting

Pickford: Everton kept fighting as a team after the points deductions (1:43)

Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford explains how his team kept a positive attitude even after getting hit with a points deduction from the Premier League. (1:43)

LIVERPOOL, England -- Sylvester Stallone is an Everton supporter and perhaps the most apt celebrity fan of any Premier League team. After all, the Hollywood actor built a career on rolling with the punches and hauling himself off the canvas as Rocky Balboa. His story has become the story of Everton, a club that doesn't know where the next punch is coming from.

For this season at least, Everton have been able to fight back and ready themselves for whatever new setback or challenge came their way. Having been hit with two separate points deductions by the Premier League for breaching financial regulations -- a 10-point penalty was reduced to six on appeal, while the club is challenging an additional two-point deduction -- Sean Dyche's team has rallied in recent weeks to pull clear of the relegation zone and seemingly secure their top-flight status.

But while the construction of a new £750m, 52,888-capacity stadium on the banks of the River Mersey points to a bright new future for Everton, the months ahead continue to be laced with peril for one of England's most historic clubs.

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The worst-case scenario is that Everton will be hit with further points deductions next season and potentially enter administration -- a rescue mechanism for insolvent companies -- if a proposed takeover by 777 Partners, a Miami-based private investment company which owns football teams around the world, fails to get over the line.

Everton face Luton Town at Kenilworth Road on Friday having ensured their Premier League survival with three wins in the space of six days last week, including a first home win against city rivals Liverpool since 2010, but they continue to fight for their future.

It is a complex story, one which has roots in both the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In many ways, football has been the least of Everton's worries during a chaotic period of uncertainty. "Since I've been here, it's been like juggling sand," said Dyche, appointed as manager in January 2023. "There's always something going on here, it's been constant. It's like putting your fingers in the dam."

Or as Rocky Balboa said: "It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward."

That has become the Everton way. But the fight isn't over.

Feb. 24, 2022, was when everything changed for Everton. Russia's invasion of Ukraine sparked a conflict that continues to this day -- a conflict that has brought horror to the Ukrainian people and one that has impacted life across Europe and beyond. Global energy prices soared, European and African nations dependent on Ukrainian grain have been hit by shortages of the product and over 6 million refugees from the war have fled to countries across Europe. Few can claim to have been unaffected by the war.

A football club in the wealthiest league in the world would seem an unlikely entity to suffer a direct consequence of a war being fought more than 2,000 miles away, but Everton's future has been in jeopardy ever since.

The club's owner since February 2016 is Farhad Moshiri, a British-Iranian businessperson and chartered accountant. Between 2013 and 2022, he served as chairman of USM Holdings, whose majority shareholder is Uzbek-Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov. Long-standing business partners, Moshiri and Usmanov were co-owners of Red and White Holdings, which sold a 29.72% stake in Arsenal to Stan Kroenke for £550m in 2018.

Moshiri and Usmanov continued to work closely at Everton, with USM paying £20m-a-year for naming rights of the club's Finch Farm training ground and sponsorship of the women's team. USM also paid £30m for the option to secure naming rights of the new stadium.

With the club having devised a funding plan for the stadium in 2018 based on capital from Moshiri and borrowing from investment banks including JP Morgan and MUFG, the landscape changed with the financial fallout of the global pandemic. Previously affordable interest rates on the borrowing rocketed -- "The financial landscape for developers changed, and the club couldn't afford the new rates on offer," a source told ESPN -- so Plan B was a £200 million, 20-year deal with USM for stadium naming rights, the majority of those funds being paid in advance to cover the required shortfall.

But in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the UK government issued sanctions against several Russian businesspeople, freezing their assets, applying a travel ban and prohibiting British businesses from dealing with them. Usmanov was sanctioned on March 3, 2022 -- Chelsea's then-owner Roman Abramovich would be sanctioned seven days later -- and Everton were suddenly staring at a financial meltdown with the USM deals having to be abandoned. The prospect of building the stadium with favourable rates from Usmanov's steel company also evaporated.

"The club was left with two options," a source told ESPN. "Walk away from the stadium project, leave it half-built and stay at Goodison Park, or try to find a way to build it by borrowing money from different sources. For the future of the club, it had to be the latter."

While Manchester City and West Ham United moved into stadiums built with taxpayers' money for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and 2012 Olympics respectively, paying only a peppercorn rent -- essentially a nominal fee for the privilege, with West Ham paying £3.6m in 2023 and City charged £2m per year on a 250-year lease with the Manchester City Council -- Everton are having to pay to build their new home, and they have found themselves being engulfed by a perfect storm of COVID-19, the invasion of Ukraine and the panic to fund the construction of the stadium.

To add to Everton's predicament, there is no prospect of raising significant funds with the sale of Goodison Park due to its location. Instead, Everton are committed to transforming the site into a hub for the local community.

The club had amassed losses of £371.8m, which included short-term borrowing to cover stadium costs, during a three-year period -- Premier League profit & sustainability rules (PSR) allowed for a maximum loss of £105m over three years -- with the impact of the pandemic being blamed for up to £220m of that figure. "Losses of at least £170m are attributed to the impact on the club of the Covid-19 pandemic, with £103m of that figure coming in the 2020-21 financial year," then-Everton CEO Denise Barrett-Baxendale said. "The wide-ranging impact of COVID-19 on Everton -- which further market analysis has indicated could include an additional £50m -- covers lost revenues, additional costs due to strict COVID-19 protocols and a significant contraction in the transfer market which resulted in the inability to generate the level of transfer fees which could reasonably have been expected pre-pandemic."

Those financial numbers, combined with interest costs of £25m related to the new stadium, saw Everton breach the PSR regulations, even allowing for so-called "add-backs" in relation to the pandemic, and the Premier League's first sanction was to deduct the club 10 points last November for losses totalling £124.5m for the three-year period up to the end of the 2021-22 season. That penalty was reduced on appeal to six points in February. In April, the Premier League docked Everton two points for losses totalling £121.6m for the three-year period up to the end of the 2022-23 season. Everton has appealed against the deduction.

"We've been through it once, and we'll go through it again," Dyche said at the time. "The time for fault and blame has gone. We're past that."

Jordan Pickford reflects on first home win over Liverpool in the Premier League in 14 years

Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford reflects on his team's crucial 2-0 victory over rivals Liverpool, the club's first win at Goodison Park in the Premier League since 2010.

Yet Everton are not past it. Loans totalling £158m from two local businesspeople and MSP Sports Capital must be repaid before the Premier League will give the green light to the planned takeover by 777 Partners. After a loan of £15m this week to cover Everton's wage bill and stadium costs for May, 777 Partners have now lent the club in excess of £200m since agreeing to buy the club last September.

On April 22, Bloomberg reported that Everton's main financial adviser, Deloitte LLP, was actively seeking new backers amid concerns that the 777 deal could collapse. Meanwhile, the stadium continues to take shape with Everton anticipating a full handover by December. The entrance to the site is directly opposite the Titanic Hotel, named after the ill-fated ship that was registered just along the river before it sank on its maiden voyage in 1912.

Everton will hope that is an unfortunate coincidence rather than a bad omen.

Look up the definition of "no-nonsense" in a dictionary and you might just find a picture of Sean Dyche. The Everton manager is blunt, some would say that he's old-school, but he isn't in the business of excuses or self-pity. He focuses on what can be done rather than worrying about what can't, and since succeeding Frank Lampard as manager in January 2023, he has safely steered Everton away from relegation in successive seasons.

Dyche's personality has made him the perfect figurehead to deal with Everton's off-field problems, despite the obvious frustration with having to focus on the same old story. "Since I've been here, I think I've done 54 press conferences, and I've done 53 that haven't been about football, including today," Dyche said when asked by ESPN whether the off-field issues have been a distraction. "That's the reality of this football club, this segment of its history.

"I wasn't expecting it to be as big a challenge as it's been, quite obviously. When you get a job and [club directors] speak to you about the job, they don't say, "Oh yeah, by the way, this is coming, that's coming, this is coming now and you're going to spend 50-odd press conferences talking about other things other than football. But no, that's my job. It has certainly become my job this last two seasons. The clouds have been around this club for a long time now, but the job comes in many forms, so what are you going to do?"

Jordan Pickford's take on Bellingham and Kane penalty incident

England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford gives his take on the Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane incident in the Champions League.

Dyche has fostered a spirit of siege mentality at the club, and after the initial 10-point deduction in November, the team won four successive league games to restore the belief that it could avoid relegation.

"After the first deduction, we all felt 'we're up against the wall here, how we going to get out of it?'" goalkeeper Jordan Pickford told ESPN. "But we got four wins on the bounce, so the mentality as a squad has been brilliant. You get the hits, you get the knocks, but you keep fighting.

"You keep waiting, wondering how many points you're going to get back, and it just feeds into the camp. You don't want it to, but it just naturally does -- people start talking about it, and you probably think about it too much, forgetting other things on the pitch. But we got four points back, reset ourselves, everything was going along nicely ... and then we get more taken off us."

Aside from Everton's two deductions this season, Nottingham Forest have also been hit with a four-point deduction by the Premier League for breaching financial regulations. Yet while the relegation battle has been impacted by those disciplinary penalties, the spectre of Manchester City's 115 charges for alleged financial breaches continues to hover in the background. City were charged in February 2023, over a month before Everton were first charged by the Premier League, but a veil of silence has since fallen over the process: last week, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters refused to confirm when the hearing will take place, saying only that it would be in the "near future."

The repeated action against Everton, with City's fate continuing to be delayed, has prompted Dyche to question the process. "Just like everyone else, we are all wondering what makes one rule for one and one rule for the other," Dyche said in February. "I don't know the ins and outs for every reason, but I think we are all asking that. The people in the street are asking: 'Why is it particularly Everton?'

"I don't know what the exact number is, but they reference over 100 charges [for City]. I don't know the implications of that either. I don't know the details of the charges, but you go, 'Well, we have one.' You just go with common sense -- I'm not talking about the rules. I'm [also] not questioning Man City or whether they've done stuff or not done stuff. The point is it is certainly a long time. That story has been going round for a while now about all these charges."

While nobody at Everton will be bold enough to say that they are through the worst with the Premier League, there is a sense that they have fought the hardest fight this season and emerged intact. Yet there's no doubt that question marks over their treatment will linger for a long time yet.

"Sometimes you think it's not our fault, it's not the fans' fault, whose fault is it?" Pickford said. "We don't know, but it's about how do we just keep going and keep giving the fans some enjoyment, some smiles on their faces, because they've had a tough ride over the last couple of years."

Everton fans have certainly had it tough. Neighbours Liverpool have won the Premier League and Champions League in recent years, while Everton have lurched from relegation battles to financial problems. Since Jurgen Klopp was appointed Liverpool manager in October 2015, Everton have had eight full-time managers and little or nothing to shout about. It meant that last month's 2-0 win against their neighbours at Goodison was a big deal -- it was their first derby win on home soil since 2010.

Toni runs the Goodison Café on Goodison Road, directly opposite the stadium, with its walls decorated with old magazine pages of great Everton teams from the past and the club's most memorable players. "The Liverpool game was amazing," Toni told ESPN. "The atmosphere before and after the game was buzzing."

One of Toni's customers, Paul, visits the café because he can no longer afford to pay to watch the team, but his passion for the club is clear. And while he is pragmatic about Everton breaking over a century of tradition by leaving Goodison Park, Paul is less accepting of the Premier League's treatment of the club with the two point deductions. "It feels like we have been victimised," he said. "Look, we broke the rules and admitted what we had done, so we deserved a deduction, but not to that extent.

"Everton is a big club, but we're not big enough to fight it. We don't have all the expensive lawyers that Man City have, so let's see what happens to them."

City's fate is one for the future, near or far, depending on the actual date that is set for the hearing. Meanwhile, Everton's future promises to be bright: new stadium, potential new owners and the Premier League punishment disappearing in the rearview mirror. But they're not there just yet. Everton are still bracing themselves for the next blow, wherever it might come from.

"Whatever happens, whatever mud gets thrown us, whatever the problems, whatever the angles, whatever the criticisms, we'll take it on," Dyche said. "We'll make sense of it and keep going forwards."