Manchester United’s Paul Ince carelessly lost possession deep into Everton territory. The Toffees launched a blistering counter-attack, ironically the hallmark of Alex Ferguson’s first great side, with Anders Limpar leading the charge. The Swedish winger, signed from Arsenal in March 1994 to provide much-needed guile to Everton’s forward line, covered a vast amount of ground before slipping the ball out wide to Matt Jackson. The right-back turned inside Gary Pallister, putting him on the floor, before squaring it to Graham Stuart.
Stuart leaned back and cannoned the ball off the crossbar from just eight yards, a contender for miss of the season, only to watch it bounce into the turf and onto the head of Paul Rideout. Sparing Stuart’s blushes, and despite the efforts of Denis Irwin and the presence of Steve Bruce on the line, Rideout nodded the ball into the net before raising both arms into the air and blowing kisses to the Everton faithful.
The forward had previous of playing under the Twin Towers of Wembley, scoring a hat-trick for England Schoolboys against Scotland at the same venue 15 years earlier.
The groans that had followed Stuart’s effort were replaced by ecstatic cheers. After one further hour of action, and approximately two hours after he exchanged pendants with former teammate Bruce, Everton’s 33-year-old captain and man of the match, Dave Watson, screamed “Get in!” as he lifted the famous trophy.
The 1995 FA Cup was Everton’s first piece of silverware for eight years and offered the club a modicum of revenge after Manchester United had defeated them at Wembley in the final ten years earlier courtesy of a Norman Whiteside goal. For most of the 1970s and 1980s Everton’s fierce rivals from across Stanley Park dominated domestic and continental football, yet the mid-1980s were also halcyon days for the Goodison Park outfit.
Howard Kendall was the architect of the Toffees’ golden era, leading the club to an unprecedented level of success in such a concentrated space of time: the 1984 FA Cup, the 1985 Cup Winners’ Cup, league titles in 1985 and 1987, and three successive Charity Shields were all won under his stewardship.
The events of 29 May 1985, when 39 Juventus fans were killed in Brussels’ Heysel Stadium before the European Cup final clash with Liverpool, had a major effect on English and European football, and Everton’s golden era also suffered. The club’s stunted progress, and exactly what they could’ve achieved had they been able to compete at the highest level of continental competition, is one of English football’s big what-ifs. With the riches of the Premier League around the corner, it’s not unfeasible to suggest that Everton could have become one of the game’s most powerful clubs.
Kendall left Goodison Park in 1987, somewhat frustrated by the ban, to take over the reins at Athletic Club in LaLiga. The majority of the team followed suit and proceeded to break up over the next few years, an exodus from which Everton have never really recovered.
The much-maligned Mike Walker spent less than 12 months during the calendar year of 1994 in the Goodison Park hot seat but is still synonymous with a period in which the Toffees almost lost their top-flight status. Two-nil down after 20 minutes on the final day of the 1993/94 Premier League season, Everton were facing relegation and needed to beat Wimbledon to ensure survival. A Graham Stuart penalty in the first-half went some way to settling Evertonian nerves, before a memorable Barry Horne goal drew the sides level. Stuart’s late winner proved decisive and the game has become part of Everton folklore.
Despite their last-gasp survival in May 1994, Everton failed to learn their lesson and the start to the following league campaign – eight points from the first 14 games – was the worst in their history. With Everton rock bottom and facing another battle against the drop, Mike Walker was fired.
Joe Royle, tasked with keeping the famous institution afloat, was his replacement and breathed fresh air into the club. Royle instilled confidence into his charges, and a steel that was previously lacking. This led to the christening of his team as his “dogs of war” – a tag he was not particularly fond of.
Whilst Everton were on a downward trajectory in the decade following Heysel, the opposite could be said of their 1995 FA Cup final opponents. Alex Ferguson took over in November 1986 and attempted to begin to turn around the off-course oil tanker that was Manchester United, with the explicit aim of “knocking Liverpool off their perch”. However, the drinking culture and reputation for being an exciting cup team without the stomach for a sustained league campaign wasn’t going to be changed overnight.
At the dawn of the 1990s there were few signs of progress, and with the fans staying away, the Scot almost paid with his job. A famous Mark Robins goal in the third round in January 1990 was the catalyst for an FA Cup run which ended with Wembley glory. By 1995, despite missing out on the title six days earlier after an Upton Park stalemate, United were still arguably the best team in the country and the bookies naturally had them as heavy favourites for the final.
In the modern era, cup competitions are often seen as distractions from the Premier League. However, the 1994/95 run galvanised Everton’s season, taking them from bottom of the table pre-Christmas to a 15th-place finish, five points from the drop zone. Leading up to the final, Everton had only lost six of the last 33 games, a run that included a 1-0 league victory over Manchester United.
Derby were eliminated in round three before a solitary Matt Jackson goal knocked out Bristol City. The plastic surface clearly suited the lower league hosts, and Everton were lucky to escape with victory. Norwich and Newcastle were beaten in rounds five and six, and after four cup games legendary Welshman Neville Southall – a survivor from the 1985 vintage – had yet to concede a goal.
Noted cup side Tottenham, who finished seventh in the league, were trounced 4-1 in the semi-final at Elland Road, Everton’s best performance of the season. The Londoners knocked Liverpool out at Anfield in the quarter-finals with the duo of Teddy Sheringham and the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year Jürgen Klinsmann doing the damage, although they were unable to repeat the trick against the blue half of Merseyside. Everton’s victory scuppered the dreams of the media, desperately hoping for a Spurs-United final.
Victory over Sheffield United at Bramhall Lane kicked off the Red Devils’ cup run, a stunning Eric Cantona chip following a breakneck counter-attack the particular highlight. Home wins over Wrexham, Leeds and Queens Park Rangers followed, before Crystal Palace were denied in the semi-final after a replay. Roy Keane was dismissed in the first game for a stamp on future England manager Gareth Southgate but his three-match suspension would be served in time for the final.
Blackburn Rovers, buoyed by steel magnate Jack Walker’s millions, won the league title in 1994/95, Manchester United missing out on the last day of the season after an agonising draw with West Ham. Six days later they had to lift themselves for the FA Cup final – and the pressure was on to prevent the club’s first trophyless season for six years.
Although United were heavy favourites with the bookmakers, the team news hinted at a surprise Everton victory. The Toffees were more or less full strength, although Duncan Ferguson had to settle for a place on the bench after coming through a late fitness test following a recent hernia operation. Daniel Amokachi, the star of Nigeria’s 1994 World Cup side, joined him amongst the substitutes. The Nigerian comically brought himself on in the semi-final, prematurely replacing Paul Rideout who was receiving treatment, although he made up for the mishap with two goals that helped propel his team to Wembley.
Cantona was missing for Manchester United, halfway through his suspension for famously kung-fu kicking a belligerent Crystal Palace fan at Selhurst Park the previous January. Flying winger Andrei Kanchelskis was injured, Andy Cole was cup-tied having represented former club Newcastle in the third round, and Ryan Giggs would have to wait until half-time before entering the fray. In Gary Neville and Nicky Butt, Manchester United fielded the two youngest and most inexperienced players on the pitch.
At 3.00pm on 20 May 1995, following the usual rituals, Worcester’s Gerald Ashby blew the whistle to commence the 50th post-war FA Cup final to take place at Wembley. The 80,000 crowd – containing 26,000 fans from each club – enjoyed a fast start to the game, with Lee Sharpe heading over the bar for United after just 64 seconds. Within a minute, Limpar forced a save from Peter Schmeichel that resulted in the game’s first corner, in front of the Everton contingent situated at the tunnel end of the ground.
The game soon settled down, with the ball spending a lot of time either in the air or in the middle third of the pitch. Sharpe fooled 23-year-old right-back Jackson – suffering from a lack of protection from Limpar – after nine minutes to earn his side a corner. Two minutes later, Brian McClair produced a tame effort that was never going to test Southall. After 14 minutes, Sharpe snatched at a chance that bobbled straight into Southall’s hands. If either side was going to score, it was looking like Manchester United.
The challenges continued to fly in, although the lenient Ashby let the game flow, much to Everton’s chagrin. The blue half of the stadium shouted “cheat” on more than one occasion, cheering sarcastically when he finally awarded them a free-kick. After 20 minutes Bruce pulled his hamstring, which would prove pivotal to the game’s outcome. Five minutes later, the Manchester United captain asked for a stay of execution in order to run off the injury; a decision that would prove costly.
Schmeichel argued with the immobile Bruce in the aftermath of Rideout’s goal, replays clearly showing that the central defender was occupying a poor position and was unable to leap to stop the header as it crossed the line. For the rest of the half, the Everton fans were buoyant and although United dominated the ball, their play lacked spark in the final third.
However, on the stroke of half-time, Butt sprung the offside trap to get on the wrong side of Gary Ablett – the first man to feature in an FA Cup final for both Liverpool and Everton – and could have won a penalty.
Inevitably, Bruce was taken off and replaced by Ryan Giggs, a change that would require a tactical reshuffle. Keane dropped into the right-back slot, with Neville joining Pallister in the heart of the defence. With Sharpe operating from the left, Giggs was given a free role, encouraged to get close to fellow Welshman Mark Hughes – looking for his fourth FA Cup winners medal in 11 years – and cause havoc in Everton’s half of the pitch. Paul Ince took over the captain’s armband.
The substitution almost immediately proved inspired, with Giggs creating a chance just a minute after his introduction. Everton replaced goalscorer Rideout – who suffered a knock at the hands of Neville – with Ferguson. Although the change was enforced, it was a clever one nonetheless; the big Scot could attempt to latch on to the shorter and more inexperienced Neville and give Everton an out ball in an attempt to alleviate the pressure.
United continued to dominate the game although, as it became more and more stretched, Everton had their own moments of joy. After 68 minutes Giggs created another chance for McClair, although the effort looped onto Southall’s crossbar and was eventually cleared away.
Amokachi replaced Limpar after 68 minutes, while Paul Scholes came on for Sharpe four minutes later. Both sides had rolled the dice for the final time. United’s most clear-cut chance of the game came after 76 minutes when Scholes forced an excellent double save from Southall after more great work from Giggs. The goalkeeper once again displayed agility that belied his age and number of miles on the clock.
Southall was called into action once again after 80 minutes, saving from a Pallister header, and Neville was booked after 85 minutes as frustration began to boil over, the game ebbing away from Manchester United and into the hands of the gleeful Evertonians. Schmeichel joined the attack for the last five minutes but it was to be in vain. Ashby blew his whistle and Everton had their hands on the FA Cup for the fifth time in their history.
Southall, ever the non-conformist, drove straight home after the game and declined to take part in the typical post-match celebrations. During his pre-match team-talk, Royle had urged his players to enjoy the occasion, and they certainly were as they paraded the famous silver trophy around the Wembley pitch. Pallister, who partnered Bruce at the heart of United’s defence, later graciously told BBC Sport: “Everton raised their game, we didn’t match it and on the day they probably deserved to win.”
The cup final defeat completed a miserable week for United, although the club would bounce back to win another double in 1995/96 before dominating English football for the next 15 years. In the immediate aftermath of the Everton defeat, Hughes, Ince and Kanchelskis were all sold – the latter, ironically, to Everton.
The transfers sent shockwaves through English football, confused players, and even led to protests by a small pocket of over-zealous fans. Alex Ferguson, always one step ahead of the rest, knew the so-called Class of ’92 were ready to come of age and take the club to the next level, a masterplan that culminated in the 1999 treble.
Everton would finish the following season in sixth position before dropping to a lowly 15th in 1996/97. Royle resigned in March 1997 and, less than two years after the FA Cup final, the honeymoon period was over. The 1997/98 season saw the club survive relegation on the last day of the season, courtesy of a better goal difference than Bolton. Mirroring the glory days under Kendall, once again pride preceded the fall.
The 1995 FA Cup represents Everton’s last major trophy. For many Evertonians, the spectre of Heysel still looms large, even 33 years later. The proposed new Bramley-Moore Dock stadium and investment from Farhad Moshiri suggests better days may be around the corner, although Marco Silva’s side aren’t providing clear signs of progress on the pitch.
What the club would give for another cup final to boost spirits. Only next time, Evertonians will hope, it will act as a springboard to further success rather than an ominous warning that murky waters are ahead.
By Dan Williamson