On a cold winter’s evening in January 1984, everything changed. ‘Kevin Brock Back-Pass’ is a phrase that has entered Everton folklore as a transformative moment in the club’s fortunes. The Blues faced Third Division Oxford United in the fifth round of the League Cup (or the Milk Cup as it was horribly labelled back then). At the time Everton were struggling in the league and defeat at Manor Ground would have piled more pressure onto the head of the club’s young manager, Howard Kendall.
Strong rumours circulated that if Everton did not win that game, then Kendall would be dismissed. Patience seemed to be running out. At a particularly grim match against Coventry a few weeks earlier, just 13,000 had turned up to watch the side struggle their way through a 0-0 draw. Despite the meagre turnout, the shouts of ‘Kendall Out’ had been deafening.
Kendall had arrived at Goodison a few years earlier, charged with reviving the fortunes of the struggling club. The 1970s had been frustrating for Evertonians. Despite winning the title at the beginning of the decade, the Blues had spent the following decade bouncing around the table and as the 1970s bled into the 1980s Everton were more likely to be found in the lower reaches of the division.
To make matters worse, the decade had been dominated by Liverpool, a club that seemed to possess an almost supernatural talent for success in this era, gathering league titles and European trophies with ease.
“It was a tough time, a time when broad shoulders were needed. Having left school in 1980, my secondary school years in the mid to late 1970s were hard as that shower swept all before them. As everyone of my era will readily remember there were plenty of gobshites ready to taunt you every Monday morning, the common denominator being that not one of them actually went to the match,” says John Black, season ticket holder at Goodison during the 1970s and 1980s.
It was hoped that the new boss could arrest Everton’s relative decline and restore some pride to the club. Kendall had been a player/manager at Blackburn Rovers since 1979 and pulled the Lancashire club out of the Third Division and into the Second. Having narrowly missed out on promotion to the top flight during the following campaign, he had caught the eye of a few clubs.
But despite the sense of expectation that always hangs over any Everton manager, there was no urgent pressure to emulate the success of the club’s rival across Stanley Park, as Black explains: “I don’t think anyone expected us to challenge for the title right away and if they did then the quality of the players brought into the club would have left no doubt that it was going to be a rebuilding exercise. Personally, I thought we could maybe win the FA or League Cup and if we managed to get into the UEFA then that would be a bonus. But most of all you want to see progress on the pitch, tangible signs of a decent side being built.”
This lack of immediate expectation was probably just as well, because Kendall struggled initially to get his project off the ground. Despite some positive signs, periods of good form and the acquisition of a few decent players, the fans were underwhelmed. Kendall was only impressing sporadically and the despondency that had settled over Goodison persisted.
And so to that winter’s night; a side struggling, supporters mired in gloom and a manager facing the sack.
After a spell of near ceaseless pressure, Everton had gone behind midway through the second-half. With Oxford well on top, it looked as though an embarrassing exit was on the cards. But then fate intervened. Caught in possession outside his own box and under pressure from a swarm of Everton players, Kevin Brock – the Oxford midfielder whose free-kick had led to the opening goal – played a suicidal back-pass to his own keeper.
“It was woefully under-hit,” remembers lifelong Evertonian John Bohanna, “and Adrian Heath – brought from Stoke City by Kendall in 1982 – was able to latch on to the pass, take it around the advancing keeper and slide the ball into the back of the net. There were ten minutes to go and if it hadn’t been for that mistake I doubt we’d have got the draw.”
Oxford were dispatched 4-1 in the replay, setting Everton on the path to the League Cup final. But perhaps more importantly, that match acted as a catalyst.
Even though form had been picking up slightly, prior to that momentous visit to the Manor Ground, Everton were languishing near the bottom of the league and finding wins and goals hard to come by.
After Oxford, the side played 31 games and lost just four of them, drawing 10 and winning 16 (most Blues refuse to count the League Cup defeat to Liverpool in light of Alan Hansen’s deliberate handball on the line).
The 1983-84 campaign would end with the club seventh, runners-up in the League Cup and that season’s victors in the FA Cup – Everton’s first piece of silverware since the 1970 First Division title.
“I’d followed Everton since the 1950s. I’d seen the dross of that decade, the greatness of the 1960s and the up-and-downs of the 1970s. I’d also watched helpless as Liverpool got better and better. For me, being an Evertonian had become a frustrating experience. So you can appreciate how wonderful that cup victory felt. I can honestly say that it was probably the happiest I’d felt as an Evertonian for a long, long time. Of course, I wasn’t to know that things would get even better,” remembers Stan Osborne, one-time Everton trainee and the author of Making the Grade, a memoir about his time with the club and his life as an Evertonian.
No-one, not just Stan, expected the season that was to follow. In part, you can attribute that to the naturally pessimistic outlook of Evertonians. There have been too many disappointments, too many false dawns, too many occasions when hope has turned quickly to despair for optimism to ever take hold amidst the blue half of the city. When as a club you have two championship winning sides broken apart by World Wars, you get the troubling sense that luck is not on your side.
But equally, despite the club’s decent form during the 1983-84 season, nobody thought Everton had what it took to go on and challenge for the treble. It’s only with hindsight that we look back on the Everton side of that season and recognise the quality that existed within. At the time, it appeared to be staffed largely by a mix of unknowns, youngsters and journeymen.
Players like Neville Southall, a former bin man picked up from non-league Bury for £150,000 by Kendall in 1981, Trevor Steven, a young midfielder bought from Burnley for £300,000 in 1983 and Andy Gray, the grizzled Scottish forward, signed from Wolves for £250,000 a few years earlier; these, and others, were not big money signings, players that had been hotly sought after across the game or those tipped for future success. They were simply men whose talent Kendall had recognised and who he believed could fit into the system that he wanted to play.
And it was a system that would thrill the supporters. For fans raised on tales of the School of Science and the Holy Trinity of Kendall, Harvey and Ball, the 1970s had been a difficult period to endure. The footballing fluidity that had characterised Harry Catterick’s title winning Everton sides of the 1960s had gone missing for over a decade as a succession of managers failed to live up to the standards that the great man had set.
Really, though, it should have come as no surprise that a graduate of the School of Science and a key member of Catterick’s midfield Holy Trinity would be the first to restore the traditions. Kendall’s sides played football the way Evertonians demanded. His sides might have boasted two old-fashioned centre forwards in Graham Sharp and Andy Gray, but they also knew how to pass it around, how to press and harry, how to mix Plan A and Plan B.
Evertonians had seen the beginnings of what would become the majesty of the 1984-85 side during the previous campaign. “We’d played really well towards the end of the 1983-84 season,” remembers John Bohanna. “The side was almost unrecognisable to the one that had started the campaign. But Everton still seemed slightly unpolished and most people feared that this was just a patch of good form, one that would be difficult to maintain in the long-term.”
And, as the season began, those fears appeared to be confirmed, as Everton conspired to lose the first two games of the campaign (including a 4-1 hammering at home to Spurs on the opening Saturday).
“There was a feeling of ‘typical Everton’ around then. All the promise and hope being short-lived as we crashed back down with an almighty thump,” says John. But those defeats would prove to be the exception rather than rule.
Kendall’s men did things that season that the club hadn’t done for years. Peers were swept aside with ease; Everton’s 5-0 demolition of Manchester United at Goodison rightly standing out as a particular highlight.
“We also beat Liverpool twice, including a 1-0 away win at Anfield in the October ’84. That latter victory was so important. We hadn’t won at Anfield for fourteen years and so you could see that as symbolic, Everton putting down a marker in the back yard of our greatest enemy and team that we wanted to emulate,” says John.
After that win at Anfield, Everton went on a breathtaking run, barely losing a game.
On 6 May, after a 2-0 win against QPR at Goodison, Kendall’s men were crowned champions. The season would end with the club on 90 points, 13 ahead of nearest rival, Liverpool.
“What a moment that was,” remembers Stan Osborne. “It had been so long coming that it almost didn’t seem real when it did. But possibly one of the most satisfying aspects of what happened was the way in which we won the title. Everton’s transformation took our breaths away. On a Saturday afternoon you didn’t think ‘would Everton win?’ All you really thought about was ‘how many would we win by?”
But the clinching of the league title was only part of that season’s story. Although an early exit from the League Cup might have suggested that the club’s focus was on the league, that wasn’t to be the case. During that glorious season, the Toffees reached two other finals, the FA Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup.
Everton, despite a few attempts over the years, had never tasted glory in Europe. And judging by the team’s performance in the two legs of the first tie, that trend seemed set to continue. University College Dublin (UCD) were the opponents, a semi-pro football club that through a surprise victory in the FAI Cup had found themselves playing in Europe for the first time. Everton could not have hoped for an easier opponent. Or so the club thought.
Two spirited displays by the Irish minnows almost resulted in one of the most historic giant killing outcomes in European football. Everton were held to a 0-0 draw at Tolka Park, despite putting out a near-full strength side. At Goodison, a single goal, courtesy of Graeme Sharp, separated the sides, enough to just about put Everton through. But it was a close run thing. In the dying minutes, UCD hit the bar. If the shot had been a few inches lower, the visitors would have had an away goal and passage through to the next round.
To Everton’s credit, the scare was put in the past and over the course of the next few rounds, opponents Inter Bratislava and Fortuna Sittard were dispatched with ease. This set up a semi-final with proper European royalty in the shape of Bayern Munich; a true test of whether Everton really had what it took to succeed at this level.
The first leg took place at the Olympic Stadium. Howard Kendall takes up the story in his first autobiography. “We went out there and did a truly professional job in the most intimidating of circumstances. We played so well that Bayern were reduced to long-range shots long before the interval. We closed them down, denied them space in which to build and suffocated their talented midfield section. It was a brilliant performance, different class, as we say in the game.”
The return leg at Goodison is often regarded as the greatest game to have ever taken place at the ground. It was a match whose narrative lent itself to the formation of stirring memories. One goal down at half time (vitally an away goal), Everton, attacking the Gwladys Street End, had 45 minutes to rescue the club’s European dreams.
Kendall again takes up the story: “After exerting tremendous pressure, we were finally rewarded when Graeme Sharp headed in at the near post after the Bayern defence had failed to clear Gary Stevens’ long throw in. Our second goal was almost a repeat performance with Stevens again unhinging our opponents’ defence with a huge throw in. This time it was Andy Gray who profited. Bayern just could not cope with an unfamiliar tactic and seemed to be on the verge of capitulation.”
Trevor Steven added a third in the dying minutes to seal the win. Everton had overcome the mighty Germans in a thrilling second half. “The scenes at the final whistle were unbelievable as thousands and thousands roared their approval,” Kendall later wrote.
In some ways, the Bayern game was the final. Like many Evertonians, I felt that the match against Rapid Vienna in Rotterdam was almost a foregone conclusion. Bayern had been the team to beat, the only side in the competition capable of matching Everton for quality. Their vanquishing had removed the sole obstacle to success. And so it proved. Rapid Vienna were swept aside with comparative ease. Everton ran out 3-1 winners; a scoreline that flattered the Austrians.
“The victory in Europe felt like a statement,” argues lifelong Evertonian Greg Murphy. “It illustrated that what Kendall was building was something special, a side capable of operating at the kind of level that had been Liverpool’s preserve for so long. It was the sort of success to put us on the map.”
But Everton weren’t finished there. There was still the FA Cup final against Manchester United to take part in. Kendall was something of an FA Cup maestro during his first spell in charge of the club. His sides reached three finals in succession, in ‘84, ‘85 and ‘86.
The 1985 final is still one that frustrates Evertonians. Back in the 1980s, little thought was given to the scheduling of major games. The idea of playing a Cup Winners’ Cup final in Rotterdam on the Wednesday and then an FA Cup final a few days later seemed perfectly natural. And so, it was a tired and slightly below par Everton side that ran out to face United on that Saturday afternoon in May.
Although the side didn’t play well, nor did United. When Kevin Moran was sent off in the 78th minute, reducing United to 10 men, the match seemed there for the taking. But despite the numerical advantage, Everton’s couldn’t rise to the occasion. Extra-time seemed to deplete what reserves of energy were left in the side and, when Norman Whiteside scored in the 110th minute, Everton wilted.
I cried when the final whistle blew – the only time a football match has moved me to tears. I might have been 10, and therefore understandably prone to extremes of emotion, but the sentiment was one shared across Evertonians. The club had come within a whisker of something truly remarkable.
Despite faltering at the final hurdle, many Evertonians felt that the club was set to emulate the success of our neighbours in the years to come. “We expected greatness and saw no reason why we couldn’t do ‘a Liverpool’. Everton were always a big club but had also been a sleeping giant. Kendall had woken us up and we were so impressive, you simply expected it to continue,” says Stan Osborne.
And for a while – albeit slightly less impressively – it did. Kendall would remain at Everton for two more seasons. During that time his sides would be pipped to the double by Liverpool in the 1985-86 campaign and claim the title again in 1987. But, although the teams he put together during those two seasons were good, they never reached the heights of the class of 1985.
In some ways Kendall was undermined by circumstances beyond his control. In 1985, with Everton champions and salivating at the prospect of a crack at the European Cup, English football began a period of enforced isolation. In the wake of the Heysel Stadium disaster, all English teams were prohibited from participating in European competitions.
“Heysel, or more specifically the reaction to it, took the wind out of Everton at just the moment something magical was happening at Goodson. It broke Everton’s momentum and that’s something that’s very difficult to get back,” says James Corbett, author of Everton: The School of Science.
Although the squad remained packed with quality and was capable of winning trophies, you got the sense that the head of steam that had been built up in 1984-85 gradually dissipated. The inability to compete amongst the elite, and bring and keep the best talent at Goodison, also ensured that Kendall’s eyes would inevitably be drawn elsewhere. At the end of the 1985-86 season he had come close to joining Barcelona, a move that signalled his desire to leave the club.
It was a desire that became a reality the following year when it was revealed to Evertonians everywhere that Kendall was off to Spain to manage Athletic Club. Along with a wish to have a more coaching-oriented job and a need to test his ability in a different country, Everton’s most successful manager has long been consistent in the view of the role played by Heysel in his decision.
As he wrote at the time: “Inevitably, one of the major reasons why I felt so drawn to the continent was the UEFA ban on the participation of English clubs in the European competitions, imposed in the wake of the Heysel Stadium tragedy. I missed those nights of European glory very much indeed.”
For Everton, parallels can be drawn here with Manchester United and that club’s relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson. Like Fergie, Kendall took some time to get going, enduring a period when it seemed that his removal from the manager’s chair was inevitable. Just like the Scot, Kendall then turned things around, building a side that appeared equipped to challenge Liverpool’s dominance of the game. But here the parallels end.
Unlike Ferguson, Everton and Kendall were denied the chance to build a lasting relationship because the European ban ensured that a manager of Kendall’s talent was always destined to leave this country in pursuit of football played at the very highest levels. Manchester United’s fortunes could have been very different had they lost their talismanic manager just when the club was starting to build something special.
Although Kendall would return to Goodison, first in 1990 and again in 1997, conjuring up the old magic proved elusive second and third time round. By his final stint Everton had been ejected from the elite, more likely to be found fighting for survival than fighting for the title. And Kendall was no longer the manager he had been. The game had changed, and left him behind. A new generation of managers were setting the pace, with Kendall’s approach consigned to the past. Rather than rekindling success, he instead became a cautionary tale, the living embodiment of the maxim that you should never go back.
But despite what would happen in the 1990s, and regardless of the sense of a project undermined in the 1980s, as Evertonians we still have our memories of that glorious 1984-85 season to cherish; a time when so much seemed possible.
With his collection of youngsters, unknowns and ‘has beens’, Kendall produced something truly remarkable. The Everton of that season were glorious to watch, thrilling to follow and possessed that magical sense of invincibility that is a hallmark of all great sides. We were fortunate, despite what later happened, to have witnessed something so beautiful. The class of 1985 was Everton at its best, Nil Satis Nisi Optimum brought to life.
By Jim Keoghan @jimmykeo