From England’s finest to dethroned royalty: the rise and fall of Everton since 1985

From England’s finest to dethroned royalty: the rise and fall of Everton since 1985

It was possibly the most significant goal ever seen at Carrow Road, the home of Norwich City. Yet it did not mean a thing to the home team, who by then had already comfortably achieved their best ever league finish to that point. Neither was it a goal witnessed by millions around the world via live satellite or digital broadcast. In fact, the only coverage it did receive was during the ITN evening news, for it fell on a Bank Holiday Monday and neither the BBC nor ITV – then during a time of great uncertainty in the televising of both live and highlight packaged football – screened their shows, Match of the Day or The Big Match.

It was a rather scruffy goal, which came from the most unlikely of sources. Everton left-back Pat van den Hauwe was far more familiar with smashing wingers’ shins than smashing the ball past goalkeepers, but somehow on 4 May 1987, he found himself in the opposition penalty area for a corner kick in just the first minute of the game.

The ball bobbled across the six-yard line to the Welsh international who promptly dispatched it high into the net at the River End of Carrow Road with a wild swing of his right foot. It was just his second goal for the Toffees and third in his entire career. Psycho Pat, a Goodison Park cult hero, had secured Everton’s ninth and, to date, last championship victory.

At the time, it put them in a clear second place on the all-time list of First Division winners ahead of both Manchester United and Arsenal, but still well in arrears of neighbours Liverpool, who had dominated the top flight for the previous decade.

A second title in three years for Howard Kendall’s team had Everton supporters dreaming of a period of sustained success that would help them bridge that gap to the club from across Stanley Park. At the time, it didn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation. Having also won the FA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup during the same spell, and with Wembley already considered a second home, Everton looked set to challenge for honours for the foreseeable future, even accounting for the ban on English clubs taking part in European competition, which had seriously dented their ambitions just as they had become – arguably – the continent’s best team.

The 1986-87 season began with Everton wounded after the crushing finale to the previous campaign. Having been the league’s standout side for so long and overwhelming favourites to retain their crown from the year before when Liverpool were vanquished at Anfield in February, crucial injuries to Neville Southall (broken ankle) – then the world’s best keeper – and key midfielder Kevin Sheedy compounded the long-term absences of Derek Mountfield and Peter Reid, and suddenly almost half of the team that were so outstanding in 1984-85 were unavailable to Kendall.

All of this coincided with a loss of form that opened the door to Kenny Dalglish’s men, who themselves built up a head of steam as the fixture list reached its climax. The killer blow in the league came with a defeat at lowly Oxford United when even the prolific Gary Lineker had an uncharacteristically wasteful day in front of goal.

With the title relinquished on the final Saturday of the league season, redemption presented itself in the form of a third consecutive FA Cup final. The opposition? Liverpool.

For 60 minutes it looked as though Everton would do to Liverpool what Manchester United had done to the Blues 12 months earlier: deny them the league and cup double. Lineker used his searing pace to outstrip Alan Hansen to give his team a deserved half-time lead, and when Liverpool’s Bruce Grobbelaar tipped a long-range Graeme Sharp header over the bar and got himself embroiled in an altercation with teammate Jim Beglin, it looked as though Red heads had completely gone and that Everton’s name was on the cup for the second time in three years.

However, that ugly confrontation between the unpredictable Zimbabwean keeper and the emerging Irish left-back had a galvanising effect on Liverpool, and from then to the final whistle, they took total control of the cup final, registering a 3-1 win to plunge yet another dagger into Evertonian hearts.

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While Liverpool had the summer of 1986 to celebrate their monumental achievement, Lineker was enhancing his reputation as world football’s hottest property. Having already topped the scoring charts in England (40 in 57 appearances), he proceeded to win the Golden Boot at the World Cup in Mexico, announcing himself on the world stage in the process.

Barcelona, then managed by Terry Venables, tabled a £2.8million bid, eclipsing the £2.3million they’d paid out just a couple of months earlier to secure the services of Manchester United’s Mark Hughes. Kendall felt he had no alternative but to accept the offer. Everton, despite a reputation as one of the country’s richest clubs, needed money like everyone else, and without the promise of European football to keep England’s new star interested, it’s no surprise Lineker agreed to the glamour move to the Catalan giants.

It was, perhaps, the first indication that while the club’s short-term prospects were still rosy despite the loss of their top scorer, in the longer term, clouds were gathering over Goodison Park.

It was another transfer of Merseyside football royalty that shifted the balance back in Everton’s favour somewhat when Liverpool’s own goal machine, Ian Rush, was sold to Juventus in July 1986. Although he was loaned back to the Reds for the 1986-87 season, many believe the impending loss of Rush helped to destabilise a Liverpool team that required a mini overhaul of its own if they were to keep themselves ahead of Everton, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and the growing threat posed by George Graham’s Arsenal.

The Merseyside giants kicked the 1986-87 season off at Wembley in the Charity Shield; a 1-1 draw saw them share the oversized octagonal trophy for six months apiece. A glance at Everton’s line-up on that day is telling. During the unprecedented success of the 1984-85 season, and long before the days of squad rotation, Kendall’s team virtually picked itself from one week to the next – to the point that the Gwladys Street terrace came up with a song celebrating that steadfast selection policy.

With the exception of the talismanic Andy Gray – who, with a ruthless lack of sentimentality, was cast aside to facilitate Lineker’s arrival – the remainder of that famous 11, and their stand-ins, were all still at the club. For that season’s curtain raiser, just four of them were eligible for selection, with faithful understudies Alan Harper, Kevin Richardson and Adrian Heath all getting their chance to run out under Wembley’s Twin Towers.

It was partly the legacy of the previous campaign that carried over. The exquisitely blended midfield duo of Peter Reid and Paul Bracewell were out with long-term injuries; indeed, the latter did not play a single minute of the title-winning year thanks to a serious ankle injury that finally caught up with him after months of hobbling on through the pain barrier. Southall was still several weeks away from fitness, Gary Stevens first reappeared just before Christmas and van den Hauwe was absent until February. Despite their recent pedigree, few observers would have tipped Everton to regain the championship in such debilitating circumstances.

Cash was spent to counteract some of these obstacles. Dave Watson – a boyhood Red – came from Norwich City in late August for £1 million to bolster the defence, although historically, many of Kendall’s best signings were done on a budget. Bobby Mimms and Paul Wilkinson were recruited from the lower divisions the year before, while Stoke City winger Neil Adams and Wigan Athletic midfielder Kevin Langley – both relative unknowns – were drafted in with little fanfare for a combined outlay of £270,000. Measly figures, even for 1986.

However, the key addition – and one of Kendall’s master strokes – was the veteran Manchester City left-back, Paul Power. Well respected and versatile – he could also play in central or left midfield – Power was fast approaching his 33rd birthday and had made well over 400 appearances in the sky blue of the Maine Road club, but as they looked to cash in on their long-serving captain, possibly believing they were getting the better end of the £65,000 deal, it was Everton who benefitted most from yet another shrewd foray into the transfer market by the canny Kendall.

With a patched-up squad, Everton made a solid if unspectacular start to their league fixtures, belying the depleted situation they found themselves in. However, by early October the cracks were beginning to show. Three league defeats on the spin were a body blow; more so than the defeat over two legs against Liverpool in the Screensport Super Cup – the hastily conceived and poorly received competition consisting of the clubs who otherwise would have qualified for Europe at the end of the 1984-85 season.

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Poor attendances dogged the tournament from the beginning and both Merseyside clubs insisted that the final be carried over into the 1986-87 season in order for it not to interfere with their title tussle in the spring of 1986. Such was its lack of importance, even between the usually fiercely competitive Blues and Reds, that Ian Rush is reported to have given the trophy away to a Goodison Park ball boy after its presentation.

As autumn turned to winter, and with familiar faces returning to the team, results took a dramatic upswing. Winning 10 of their 13 league games from early November 1986 through to the start of February 1987 elevated Everton from a disappointing eighth position to the top spot, proving the old adage of ‘it’s not how you start, but how you finish’. Kendall knew from the bitter experience of the previous year that nothing was won before the daffodils bloomed, but in sharp contrast to the conclusion of 1985-86, his squad was getting stronger and better this time around.

Liverpool were, again, keeping pace with Everton with a similar run of impressive form, which put them back on the top of the pile when Everton were surprisingly beaten at Watford in early March. This would only be a minor bump in the road for Kendall who engineered another winning streak of seven consecutive games to respond emphatically to the naysayers who may have expected another late season collapse – and any unspoken inner doubts the players may have felt too.

Another inspired transfer helped tip the balance back in his favour. Wayne Clarke – younger brother of Leeds United legend Allan Clarke – joined the party in March from second division Birmingham City to cover for injured striker Graeme Sharp. Clarke scored five vital goals in his 10 appearances; a crucial winner at Arsenal that put Everton’s title challenge firmly back on track was a particular highlight of his late season cameo role.

This time it was Liverpool’s turn to capitulate under the pressure. Losing five games out of seven just as Everton hit their straps dealt a terminal blow to Dalglish’s hopes of winning his club’s 17th league crown. Tantalisingly, Everton even had the opportunity to clinch it themselves in the derby at Anfield. A 3-1 victory for the Reds, which included a trademark free kick goal by the season’s stand out performer Sheedy and a two-fingered gesture to the Kop by the ex-Liverpool man, was a temporary reprieve that was dashed just a week later by defeat at Coventry City that virtually handed it on a plate to Everton, who just needed to rack up three points from their remaining three games to make things a mathematical certainty. And so to that Bank Holiday Monday in East Anglia.

Winning the league that year was an incredible achievement considering the apparently insurmountable odds Kendall and his assistant and friend Colin Harvey faced for virtually the entire campaign. Some would suggest, including himself, that it was his greatest achievement in management, even surpassing the feats of 1984-85 when Everton were simply irresistible and mesmeric to behold in full flow. 

Having first lost his 40-goal striker and then been shorn of more than half of his first-choice team until after Christmas – most of those internationals at the peak of their careers – and at one stage been nine points adrift of their city rivals, all seems just a little too much for any man to overcome. But that’s exactly what he did, through a combination of compelling man-management, transfer nous and bold tactics.

When captain Kevin Ratcliffe lifted the First Division trophy in front of a joyous Goodison Park crowd after the penultimate home game against Luton Town, most in attendance could only have imagined this to be just another in a long list of glory days. Few could have foreseen that it was, in fact, already the beginning of the end.

The Everton side of the mid-1980s rarely gets the credit it deserves for just how good they were. Swashbuckling and fearless, solid and dependable, they could adapt with ease to the different situations thrown in their path. There were, of course, superb players – but never any stars. That was left to the more glamorous, less successful teams of the day such as Tottenham and Manchester United.

Everton’s success was reliant on togetherness, teamwork and the alchemy of Howard Kendall. If anything, it was the manager who was the main attraction, despite not being overtly charismatic or gregarious in the same way some of his peers like Ron Atkinson or Terry Venables were. But ask almost anyone who played under Kendall – particularly for Everton at that point in time – and the affection and respect they have for him both personally and professionally is immediately evident and genuine. So imagine the seismic shock to the club’s foundations when, with the trophy cabinet barely restocked, Kendall tendered his resignation to take up the manager’s post at Athletic Club in Spain.

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The Bilbao club were one of La Liga’s top sides at the time and could give him what Everton no longer could through no fault of their own: European football. Keen to test himself against the continent’s finest again, he turned his back on the club he had served so illustriously as both player and manager. 

Undoubtedly reeling from the decision, the Goodison board moved quickly to facilitate a smooth transfer of power and maintain continuity by appointing the faithful assistant Harvey as the new boss. He was highly regarded by the players and directors alike; a hugely popular figure who was, perhaps, too nice for the dirty business of management.

While that enforced change of personnel at Everton was handled with stability in mind, it ushered in a period of change in the dynamic between them and Liverpool. The pair were virtually untouchable, Everton having caught – and some would argue surpassed – their neighbours who had dominated English football for so long with few equals. For a few years at least, any hint of animosity between the supporters of both clubs, which did exist before the mid-80s and most certainly exists today – despite the narrative spun about it being the ‘friendly derby’ – was replaced by kinship and solidarity during a time when the city of Liverpool was under siege on both economic and political fronts.

Considering Liverpool’s history of commerce, migration and diversity, even in the best of times it’s a place that perpetually teeters on the brink between vibrancy and volatility. The 1980s were a microcosm of that delicate balance. In 1981, against a backdrop of recession and mass unemployment, riots broke out in the Toxteth area when tensions between police and the black community erupted into violence and widescale civil disobedience. Four years later, more rioting occurred as the viability of Liverpool as a civilised and functioning municipality began to almost disintegrate entirely.

Formerly something of a conservative bastion until the 1950s, the people of Liverpool could reasonably have expected the Thatcher government of the day to come to the rescue of a city that was on its knees economically and socially speaking after decades of decay and decline. However, the opposite was true, and if anything, they were deliberately, and with calculated callousness, left to rot as a post-industrial relic of the old British Empire – its labour and its people no longer required in the new capitalist, privatised world of Thatcher’s modern Britain. 

This had the effect of politicising the population and Liverpool became a breeding ground for socialism from all parts of the spectrum, most notably the radical Trotskyite faction of the city’s Labour Party, Militant.

The Militant group took control of the Labour council in the city and by the mid-80s were on a collision course with the Westminster government as they set illegal budgets to spend more money than they had in order to build new housing and improve public services. While these were undoubtedly noble socialist ideals with the aim of providing much-needed regeneration, thumbing their nose to the Prime Minister and her Cabinet with such abandon was only ever going to end in disaster. And it did: Liverpool city council was almost bankrupted and thousands of workers were made redundant in a spectacularly failed political manoeuvre. The most recognisable face of the Militant tendency was the council’s deputy leader, Derek Hatton, a regular match-going Evertonian.

All of this is to emphasise that the people of Liverpool struggled on through some desperate times, and while it may be far too simplistic, and certainly far too romantic, to insist that football brought everybody together regardless of their persuasion towards blue or red, it did have the paradoxical effect of suspending normal hostilities, just when the rivalry was at its absolute height.

Bar the signing of Ian Snodin in the latter part of the 1986-87 season, Everton’s board – or perhaps the new manager – didn’t feel the need to invest heavily to renew the squad in the summer months after the 1987 title win. It proved to be a careless error of judgement.

Standing still is tantamount to going backwards in football. It had happened to Liverpool after they won the double. They didn’t make the same mistake again, most notably procuring the services of Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, John Aldridge and Ray Houghton. The outcome of that transfer policy was spectacular as they became arguably Liverpool’s finest team. For Everton, the summer of ’87 was yet another body blow from which they’ve never truly recovered; the most obvious of which was the ban on English clubs competing in Europe between 1985 and 1990.

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The Heysel Stadium disaster cost 39 lives – mostly Italian – when a wall collapsed under the pressure of hundreds of Juventus fans who were fleeing a mob of Liverpool supporters who had broken through a supposedly neutral zone; thousands of whom had been drunk and out of control in the city of Brussels for most of the day of the 1985 European Cup final on 29 May.

The subsequent ban undoubtedly hit Everton hard, perhaps the hardest of all of the English clubs denied the opportunity to face Real Madrid, AC Milan and the rest. It also undoubtedly led to the Everton supporters’ feelings of bitterness towards Liverpool that is used as ammunition by the red half of the city in petty squabbles between the two opposing sets of fans to this day. Liverpool Football Club’s inadequate response to the tragedy in the immediate aftermath did nothing to dampen the fury, both for the loss of Everton’s sporting opportunity, but also in not properly acknowledging the role played by its supporters in the day’s tragic events.

In truth, the Heysel ban was not – and is not – solely responsible for Everton’s failure to remain amongst the elite of English football; either during the latter part of the 1980s or into the era of the Premier League, BSkyB and astronomical 21st-century wealth. There are many more contributing factors to that story. Heysel was just the beginning – a terrible, unnecessary beginning. But still just the beginning.

Although Everton’s board did sanction a transfer splurge in the summer of 1988 in response to Liverpool’s imperiously facile championship victory of 1987-88, it was definitely a case of shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted. The quality of the players brought in was, on paper, very decent in Pat Nevin, Stuart McCall, Neil McDonald and Tony Cottee. The environment into which they were entering, however, did nothing to help them settle and thrive.

The old guard, who had helped Everton ascend to the top of English football, were either becoming restless and looking to move on or had formed their own cliques where complacency had usurped hunger for more success. It all combined to produce some pretty underwhelming football and results. Everton were no longer Liverpool’s equals and by the end of the decade had been overtaken by Arsenal and others.

At the turn of the 1990s, and with the flow of silverware having dried up, more money was thrown at the problem in a desperate attempt to recapture what had so readily been lost. Howard Kendall, having first been tempted to return to England by Manchester City, was brought back for a second spell as manager. Although there were sporadic green shoots of recovery, even he struggled to conjure up the magic of the mid-80s in his second coming.

The money men at English football’s so-called ‘Big 5’ – Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur – had, by that time, become restless and decided to pool their resources and energies into agitating for change. Football club ownership at the highest level had already begun morphing into a different animal to that which had gone before. 

On their way out were the local boys done good with their haulage firms and scrap metal yards, and in came investors, consortiums and PLCs in their stead. The comfort of the closed shops was being replaced by something far more dynamic: ambition. And nothing screams ambition more than the creation of monetary wealth.

The Premier League concept was born out of this ambition to make more money, particularly in the wake of the success of the TV coverage of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Football was suddenly box office entertainment again. Everton were one of the key instigators of this revolution in English football and rightly expected that they would be one of the fortunate few to reap the benefits. Sadly, they made an absolute pig’s ear of exploiting the new opportunities that opened up to them.

While the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal recognised the need to expand their merchandising operations, improve brand recognition, upgrade existing facilities, modernise scouting at home and abroad, and – to be perfectly blunt – begin shamelessly viewing their fan base as customers with disposable incomes to be harvested, Everton failed to get on board with the same message, keeping ticket pricing low and remaining insular and hesitant to change.

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By the time Manchester United were hoovering up trophies like they were going out of fashion, Goodison Park was barely fit for purpose; the team had nosedived towards relegation and the board had withdrawn all interest and investment. It was a recipe for sporting and financial disaster that Everton flirted dangerously with for most of the decade.

Even the 1995 FA Cup win – the club’s last piece of silverware – was sandwiched between two heart-stopping final day relegation escapes. The first of which, against Wimbledon in 1994, is a tale of rumour, skulduggery and redemption worthy of an article all its own.

More opportunities were missed after 1995. The arrival of Peter Johnson as chairman promised much but soon descended into a poisonous war between owner and supporters which further handicapped the club’s efforts to remain relevant as one of the country’s biggest football institutions, let alone a successful one.

A third short and excruciatingly awful stint under Kendall did nothing to alleviate the gathering gloom. In just 10 years Everton had gone from champions of England and European kings to Premier League paupers and annual relegation fodder. To call it mismanagement would be a colossal understatement.

By the time David Moyes was brought in as a replacement for Walter Smith in 2002, with Everton staring relegation in the face yet again, the club had re-mortgaged virtually everything they had just to stay afloat. Any player worth their salt was quickly sold and rumours of imminent administration swirled around the internet on supporter message boards.

Wayne Rooney’s move to Manchester United illustrated that fact more than any other. The teenage sensation and boyhood blue burst into Everton’s team aged just 16 and became England’s next big hope quickly after. Having shone at Euro 2004 in Portugal, Sir Alex Ferguson moved quickly to secure his signature for £27 million, a significant portion of which had been demanded by Everton’s bank to stave off the immediate threat of defaulting on its financial obligations.

With incumbent chairman Bill Kenwright either unwilling or unable to muster up worthwhile transfer resources, the future at Goodison appeared bleaker than ever. By the beginning of the 2004-05 season Everton were slated as favourites for relegation by bookmakers and pundits alike, having seen little or no investment in the team in the wake of Rooney’s departure.

Incredibly, in one the most stunning pieces of management in the 25-year history of the Premier League, Moyes piloted his rag-tag group of misfits to fourth place in the league and qualification for the following season’s Champions League, albeit having to face a playoff to reach the group stages.

Everton, as a club from one of Europe’s elite leagues, could have expected to have been paired with minnows from one of Europe’s football outposts, yet a spanner had been thrown in the works – predictably by Liverpool and their famous Champions League final win when they got up off the canvas at 3-0 down to a star-studded AC Milan team to complete the mother of all comebacks just a few months earlier. It was they who were drawn to face lesser known opposition in their play-off to reach the 2005-06 group stages (their win in Istanbul providing their only path to the competition again) while Everton could not have been given a much stiffer task – two legs with highly respected La Liga side, Villarreal.

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It seemed like a cruel joke had once again been played on Everton. And thus, it played out so. Having just about managed to remain in the tie over one full and one half leg of the play-off, Everton began surging at the Spaniards on their home turf. A famous come-from-behind win looked a distinct possibility until a seemingly legal Duncan Ferguson headed goal was ruled out by the highly respected Italian referee Pierluigi Collina. It was inexplicable and felt like another bitter pill had been rammed down Everton’s throats as momentum ebbed away and the chance of a lifetime was ripped from their grasp.

Collina retired immediately after the game in the wake of changes to refereeing criteria in his native Italy. He took up a lucrative deal with Champions League sponsors, Opel. To this day, a large portion of Everton fans are convinced that more things had come into play than bad luck and bad judgement in both the selection of theirs and Liverpool’s draws for that year’s Champions League playoffs, and the way in which Everton were dumped out of the competition they had miraculously qualified for.

This was certainly a sliding doors moment for Everton. Had they progressed and been subject to the windfall of the Champions League television money, it may well have meant the club could have put itself on a more even footing with its traditional rivals and been more competitive than it ultimately became. As it was, Moyes continually had his best players sold from under him to satisfy the club’s creditors while eking out the little cash he did have to spend on bargain buys from lower divisions and abroad – something he accomplished with great success on a repeated basis.

Everton’s finances were murky to say the least and even though on-field performances had become stable, if occasionally uninspiring, Kenwright’s inability to attract either a consortium or a sugar daddy to supply the large amount of capital needed to turn things around began to frustrate the manager and attract the ire of the supporters. At times, it seemed like open warfare would break out at any moment.

Kenwright’s precarious position was exacerbated by three failed proposals to move the club from its home of 125 years to a brand new purpose-built arena that it has been crying out for the best part of two decades. Although Goodison Park is one of the grand stately homes of English football, steeped in tradition and atmosphere when the supporters are in full cry, its facilities are outdated and have hamstrung the club while others have felt the significant financial benefits of either redevelopment or relocation.

Now, however, with the arrival of Farhad Moshiri as the club’s major shareholder, it seems that finally, Everton will be able to compete for honours once again after over a quarter of a century of wasted time. A new stadium has been given the go-ahead at Bramley-Moore dock on Liverpool’s waterfront, signalling Everton’s intent to get things right off the pitch with an iconic new venue, while the next few seasons promise to be exciting with the prospect of substantial moves in the transfer market to build a team worthy of the ambitious plans for Everton’s new home.

Encouragingly for its fans, there is also a generation of youngsters emerging at the club that have already bagged themselves the Premier League 2 title and seen the likes of Tom Davies emerge as key first-team players under the stewardship of Dutchman Ronald Koeman.

On 4 May 1987 I was 11-years-old and had already witnessed my team gobble up four major trophies in three years and just missed out on the same amount again. I, like thousands of others, naively believed that this was how it was always going to be as an Everton fan. Thirty years later, we are still waiting to call ourselves champions again, but have renewed hope that we are as close now as we ever have been since 

By Mark Godfrey    @TheFootballPink

Mark is the founder and editor of The Football Pink, friends of These Football Times and creators of a lovely print magazine, the latest of which is on 1990s English football. Check out their shop here and website here

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