Everton need spirit to overcome Lescott loss
For a man who was about to get the best part of £22m to spend, David Moyes looked awfully glum. Some would argue that is the Everton manager's natural demeanour, some that it is the consequence of beginning the Premier League season with back-to-back defeats, but he cut a miserable figure at Turf Moor on Sunday.
He couldn't quite bring himself to admit that Everton had accepted Manchester City's offer for Lescott ("if they say it's quite far on, it must be true") or that they had accepted defeat in one of the summer's lengthier sagas.
It was the second most lucrative deal for Everton, after Wayne Rooney's sale to Manchester United, and Lescott has become the second costliest British defender, behind Rio Ferdinand. But it was more than simply the transfer of a centre-back. It always had been.
Manchester City were flooding Everton's coffers, but exposing the frailty of their hold on a place in the top five. If it was deliberate, it amounted to a policy of divide and conquer, separating Lescott from Everton and, perhaps, parting the Merseysiders from the spirit and confidence that were evident for two-thirds of last season.
Unlike Arsenal, Everton were not sufficiently confident to be able to sell to City. Unlike Arsene Wenger, Moyes didn't have a phalanx of gifted understudies, ready to replace the Manchester-bound men. Unlike Arsenal, Everton were unable to provide immediate proof that there is life after the men City coveted.
The 6-1 defeat to Arsenal proved an ignominious farewell for Lescott, while the 1-0 setback at Burnley illustrated his significance. At Turf Moor Moyes complained, as he had done on several previous occasions, that City, unlike Real Madrid in their purchase of Cristiano Ronaldo, did not meet the sellers' valuation in June.
Mark Hughes could argue he was focusing on John Terry then. Yet the delay in finalising the deal suits City rather better than Everton. Moyes was left with little more than a week to find a replacement. Deliberately or otherwise, the timing helped undermine rivals.
Moreover, his options are limited. Hughes had spoken of "being creative" during a stalemate in negotiations. However, both Richard Dunne and Micah Richards earn a salary above Everton's wage ceiling, rendering a part-exchange unfeasible.
The need for newcomers is not disputed. Phil Neville deputised in the heart of the defence against Burnley. When asked if he regarded his captain as a long-term solution there, Moyes tersely replied "no". Moreover, Neville's deployment left Everton, unusually for them, susceptible to the crossed ball. Their problems were exacerbated by Joseph Yobo, the senior - and only available - specialist central defender, but no leader. Even in Lescott's unhappy send-off, it was notable that he seemed to provide the only communication in the back four.
His impact extended beyond that. He scored 12 Premier League goals in the last two seasons, five more than any other defender. In three full seasons on Merseyside, despite his once dodgy knees, he only missed two league games.
Now his former club's reputation for defensive dependability is under threat. It is a situation made more serious by Phil Jagielka's cruciate knee ligament injury, meaning he is unlikely to feature again in 2009. Moyes' unwillingness to compromise, a feature of the Lescott affair, was apparent again in his reluctance to play Jack Rodwell alongside Yobo even though he believes the future of the teenager, whom he has compared to Rio Ferdinand, lies in the back four.
Even before Lescott left, Moyes was eager to add a central defender. Yet neither Steven Taylor nor Philippe Senderos, two of those linked with Everton, are of a comparable standard to City's new recruit.
Such grounds for optimism as Everton can derive should lie in Moyes' record with centre-backs (apart from Per Kroldrup, who he concluded could not head the ball and was sold after two Premier League fixtures). Once a forthright central defender himself, the Scot has overseen the transformation of Lescott and Jagielka from Championship players to England internationals. Alan Stubbs, meanwhile, struggled dreadfully in his two final spells away from Goodison Park, but proved a solid presence in the Everton rearguard.
If that provides hope for the future, there are more worrying conclusions that can be drawn. Everton cannot match City as payers, as Lescott's weekly wage of £90,000 proves.
If they cannot withstand further advances from predators, what then for the best team the club has had in two decades? Both attitude and personnel may be at risk. Unity has been an integral ingredient to Everton's rise during Moyes' seven-year reign. He has transformed Everton's identity; once Goodison Park appeared the lucrative last stopping point for various ageing players.
The exit of the elderly brought the arrivals of younger, hungrier players, such as Lescott, Jagielka, Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta who, like Moyes himself, identified with the club. The message projected at a fiercely proud club was that Everton is the ultimate, rather than a bridge to better things or a last stopping post before retirement. In Moyes' time only Rooney and Thomas Gravesen, when he joined Real Madrid, have left Everton for bigger or wealthier clubs.
But rejection provides a pain that can go beyond financial compensation. Just ask David Moyes.