FOR A CLUB WHOSE LONGEVITY IN ENGLISH FOOTBALL’S TOP DIVISION stands second only to Arsenal, Everton have a bit of an up-and-down history. Their fourth First Division title, in 1932, came on the back of a promotion that in turn had followed their first ever relegation. In total over the years, nine top division championship trophies have come their way; more than half of those have been immediately followed by finishes in tenth place or lower. Perhaps, then, that they should fall in the space of seven years from their most recent title to within nine minutes of the drop should not come as much of a surprise.

But this time, it could all so easily have been different.

It’s a story of managers, of course, but it’s not as such a question of managerial upheaval. Everton Football Club doesn’t do managerial upheaval. The club has had 21 permanent managers since the Football League was founded in 1888, and three of those were the late, great Howard Kendall (pictured).

The tributes that have poured in since Kendall’s death on 17 October offer ample evidence of the esteem in which he was held, and speak of a man to whom Everton was a lot more than just a club. And if that special relationship, for a boy from Tyne and Wear who followed Newcastle in his youth, was forged during a playing career in which he spent more than a decade in the top division and helped the Toffees to the title in 1970, it moved on to the next level after he took to the Goodison Park dugout for the first time, in May 1981.

It was only his second managerial job, after a couple of years player-managing at Blackburn, but over the next six years, this young, charismatic man would deliver seven trophies – two league titles, a Cup Winners’ Cup and an FA Cup, as well as three Charity Shields (the last shared with Liverpool after a draw) – not to mention three more cup finals and a league runners-up spot. He would often describe his relationship with Everton as a marriage – this, then, was their honeymoon.

It had started inauspiciously. Eighth place in his first season in charge wasn’t bad – and was a significant improvement on the 15th and 19th places that had gone before – although those were themselves preceded by a third and a fourth – but there wasn’t a huge sense of progress over the next couple of seasons, and with attendances falling and more and more grumbling from the remaining few, that could easily have been it.

Yet if the popular history of Manchester United saves a special place for Mark Robins, and the goal against Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup in January 1990 which is said to have kept Alex Ferguson in a job, Everton fans speak in similar terms of Adrian ‘Inchy’ Heath’s equaliser against Third Division Oxford in a League Cup quarter-final six years earlier.

The Us, though, were a team on the up that year and would be in the top league within two seasons, after winning back-to-back lower division titles under Jim Smith. Gillingham, on the other hand, finished the 1983-84 season seven league places lower than Oxford. They had been knocked out of the League Cup in round one; and just ten days after that storied 1-1 draw, it was them who came up against Everton, in the FA Cup fourth round. And this time, Inchy and his outfield pals played a distinct second fiddle to Kendall’s first signing of the lot, ‘Big Nev’.

Across two toothless Toffees performances, Neville Southall – whom Kendall had initially spotted playing for non-league Winsford United before picking up in 1981 from Bury – denied Gillingham time and time again, and it took until half an hour into the second replay, as the fourth hour of the tie approached, before Kevin Sheedy finally broke the deadlock. The dam broken, three goals in 11 minutes saw off the Gills, and Shrewsbury fell by the same scoreline in round five, before wins over Notts County and Southampton put Everton into the final. There, on 19 May, 1984, a 2-0 victory over Watford gave the Blues – who had earlier in the year lost the League Cup final to old adversaries Liverpool – their first major trophy for 14 years.

It was just the pick-me-up the team needed. By 12 days into the following January, a 4-0 win over Newcastle had taken them into a championship lead which they would not relinquish, and they didn’t stop there. A historic victory over Bayern Munich followed by a comprehensive one over Rapid Vienna gave them the European Cup Winners’ Cup, before Manchester United, in extra time in the FA Cup Final, denied them a treble.

Ahead of Southall, the composure of youngsters Derek Mountfield and club captain Kevin Ratcliffe bore ever more parsimonious results; further forward, the form of Sheedy, Trevor Steven, Graeme Sharp and Andy Gray meant that the injured Heath, who himself had started the season with a blitz of goals, was barely missed. Meanwhile, Peter Reid and Paul Bracewell, both bought as gambles after injury-hit careers, shuttled in between.

With such a blended, balanced, youthful team, if ever there was a moment that Everton seemed on the verge of dynasticism, it was May 1985. And then, barely two weeks after the Cup Winners’ Cup triumph, Liverpool fans clashed with Juventus supporters before the European Cup final at Brussels’s Heysel Stadium. Hundreds were injured, 39 were killed, and within a week, English clubs had been indefinitely banned from European competition. Everton would have fancied their chances of continuing the fine recent European Cup record of English clubs from Liverpool to Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa. They never had the chance.

On the domestic scene, initially not much changed. Gray left Goodison to join Villa, but that simply inspired Kendall to take a punt on a 24-year-old from Leicester called Gary Lineker. Three hat-tricks, 40 club goals in all competitions and the 1986 World Cup Golden Boot later, Lineker himself was off to Barcelona; in the intervening season, he had helped his team to the agonising successes of runner-up status in the league and the FA Cup, both to nemeses Liverpool.

Kendall’s side was still not finished, and took back the city’s bragging rights by regaining the title in 1987. That triumph, fittingly enough for a club of Everton’s rollercoaster history, was built on two big pushes. The first, a free-scoring joyride which saw them win six in a row as Christmas gave way to the New Year, took them within an inch of the top; the second, seven straight victories from 14 March, meant that they would not be shifted from the top spot for the season’s final month.

And yet, while the club signed astutely enough that summer – both Stuart McCall and Pat Nevin would play more than 100 games for Everton before moving on – Kendall had been growing increasingly anxious to test himself in Europe. He had, after all, won the last continental competition a team of his had entered, and sure enough, a year after a move to Barcelona had fallen through, he left for Athletic Bilbao in June 1987.

In to replace him came Colin Harvey, previously the club’s first team coach, and Kendall’s former sidekick in the 1960s midfield ‘Holy Trinity’ alongside Alan Ball; and initially, Harvey seemed to be doing well enough. His teams finished fourth, eighth and sixth, at a time when Liverpool, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest and Arsenal were all rediscovering their mojo; but while they were tidy enough at the back, with Dave Watson becoming a mainstay, up front the spark was fading fast. Sharp and Wayne Clarke were the only men to make it to ten league goals. Heath scored nine; for a team that for years had been built on a combination of contributions, too many behind them scored none at all.

The next season, things started to creak in defence, while away from Goodison Park, the team started to lose their nerve. The Toffees managed just four wins on the road all campaign, scoring fewer away goals than relegated West Ham, and despite seeming to turn things around in 1989-90, a late wobble saw them drop from third to sixth over the season’s last three games. The summer transfer window was uninspiring – Mike Milligan, the only signing in a million-pound deal from Oldham, would be shipped back whence he came within a year, and at barely half the price – and soon things got even worse. By Halloween 1990 Everton were 18th, having picked up just seven points from ten games, and Harvey was sacked, albeit that, in true seasonal style, he was shuffled back into the backroom staff as Kendall made a hero’s return to the dugout five days later.

Second comings can be a tricky business, though, and Kendall was about to discover that man-management is a lot harder game to play with different men. He would salvage the wreckage of the 1990-91 season through a combination of the old guard – Sharp, Sheedy, Ratcliffe, Southall – and up-and-comers like Andy Hinchcliffe, Martin Keown and John Ebbrell, but once again, the cutting edge was absent, with British record signing Tony Cottee the only player to manage even ten goals in the league. Despite picking up Peter Beardsley from Liverpool in August 1991, the Toffees would drift slowly downwards – from ninth, to 12th, to 13th.

And so, perhaps feeling that he could no longer adequately motivate what was no longer really his squad, and with the team sliding closer and closer towards the prospect of relegation, Kendall resigned in December 1993.

It hardly seemed to help. Under Kendall’s replacement, former Norwich man Mike Walker, four matches unbeaten in February and early March was as good as it got, and after a 3-0 capitulation to Leeds, the Toffees went into the final day of the 1993-94 season in the bottom three.

It was tight. Just a point ahead, Southampton, Sheffield United and Ipswich Town were all locked on 42 points. A draw would be enough to save Everton if Ipswich – without a win in ten – lost to league runners-up Blackburn, but even that solitary point was far from a certainty. Wimbledon, revellers in their upstart status and coming themselves off the back of a run of seven wins in nine, were in town.

With supporters hanging from trees outside the ground in an effort to catch a glimpse of the game, it immediately went to form, with a penalty from Dean Holdsworth and a Gary Ablett own goal giving Wimbledon a 2-0 lead within the opening 20 minutes. Graham Stuart, who had taken on penalty duties a month earlier in the absence of any other volunteers, got Everton back in the match as half-time approached, but the Dons re-established supremacy, and it was against the run of play when, with 20 minutes to go, a Barry Horne long-ranger brought the home side level.

They still needed more. Ipswich and Blackburn were locked at 0-0, where their match would remain. Back at Goodison, the clock had ticked down into the final ten minutes by the time Cottee managed to win the ball and knock it back to the edge of the area; whereupon if, as fairy tale goal descriptions go, Stuart’s “I sort of half-tackled the bloke” leaves something to the imagination, it was enough.

Everton had made it, but by the skin of their teeth, and Walker didn’t last, being sacked in November after picking up just six wins in his ten months in charge. Joe Royle seemed to have steadied the ship (earning Everton their most recent major trophy, the 1995 FA Cup, into the bargain); and then there was a significantly shorter, and sadly equally ill-fated, third spell in charge for Kendall in 1997-98, culminating in another last-day escape achieved on goal difference despite a late penalty miss from Nick Barmby and an even later equaliser from Coventry City’s Dion Dublin.

Everton, then, is as Everton does – they came 17th again in 2004, David Moyes’s second season in charge, and there was a little wobble as recently as last year before one of Roberto Martínez’s late-season surges. But somehow, with Leeds going down and Northampton going under and Wimbledon going off up the M1, the Toffees remain a steady point in an ever-changing world. Nil satis nisi optimum, they say. Sometimes, though, just about enough will do.

By Harry Reardon. Follow @hsreardon