After Everton’s escape from relegation at the end of the 1993/94 season, Birkenhead-based businessman Peter Johnson, once the owner of Tranmere Rovers, was now in charge of the Blues and brought with him promises of a bright new future. Given his success at previous club, levels of optimism were understandably raised amongst Evertonians.
Johnson promised “world-class” big money signings, with the aim of returning Everton to English football’s elite, and the likes of Jürgen Klinsmann and Roberto Baggio were linked with the club.
Finally, two weeks into the season, the search for a marquee signing ended when Nigerian international Daniel Amokachi, who was one of the standout performers at the 1994 World Cup, put pen to paper. Arriving for a fee of £3m, he became the club’s record signing. Given that Everton were anchored to the foot of the table, his acquisition was something of a coup.
Amokachi’s credentials were impressive. Still only 21, like many young African footballers of his generation, he started his professional career in Belgium, where he played for Club Brugge, scoring 35 goals in 81 appearances. He holds the record for scoring the first-ever Champions League goal, netting for Brugge against CSKA Moscow in November 1992.
Amokachi’s breakthrough year came in 1994. In April, he was a member of the Nigeria team that emerged victorious at the Africa Cup of Nations. Later, in the World Cup, in scoring a stunning strike against Greece he ensured that Nigeria topped a strong group, above Argentina and Bulgaria on goal difference. A narrow defeat against Italy during the next stage halted their progress but Amokachi’s performances grabbed the attention of clubs such as Juventus. His speed was a constant threat to defences and he claimed that he could run 100 metres in just 10.1 seconds.
Everton manager Mike Walker’s original intention was for him to form a partnership with the Brazilian Luís Müller, who, the club announced, they were on the verge of signing. However, in a classic case of an Everton transfer farce, Müller arrived at Goodison to complete his move and quickly scarpered when he discovered the salary offered was not tax-free. One can only speculate as to how fruitful that pairing may have been.
Yet,the successful acquisition of Amokachi proved to be noteworthy for another reason. He became the first high profile black player to sign for the club, at a time when Everton had somewhat unfairly been dubbed “racist” by sections of the media, ignoring the fact that Cliff Marshall made seven appearances for the club in the mid-1970s. One football periodical, in its guide to the 1994/95 season, even preposterously produced a wallchart showing Everton with a ‘no blacks allowed’ badge.
The fact Everton had attracted a high-profile African striker to the club guaranteed that he became the centre of attention. The player was always engagingly diplomatic when questioned on this sensitive topic, answering every query politely and outlining his reasons for joining the club. His unwavering affability and eagerness to impress defused any potential flashpoints. Most Everton fans dreamt that he would make the same impact as John Barnes had when he arrived at Liverpool.
Amokachi was introduced to the crowd at Goodison Park before the game against Nottingham Forest. The rapturous reception he received from all sections of the arena showed that footballing ability was all that mattered to the fans. Everton then proceeded to lose the game 2-1, showing how desperately the club needed a player of his pedigree.
After some difficulty securing a work permit, he made his debut in a 3-0 defeat away at prospective champions Blackburn. On 17 September 1994, he impressed on his home debut scoring against QPR in a 1-1 draw. Despite the goal, he fluffed a handful of clear chances and his lack of heading ability was an immediate concern.
Those doubts resurfaced as he failed to find the net in his next 11 games, by which time Walker had received his P45. Despite his lack of goals, Amokachi’s rampaging style and searing pace endeared him to the denizens of the Street End who in turn offered continual vocal support.
New manager Joe Royle introduced a more defensive system to stem the flow of goals conceded. He brought on Amokachi as a substitute against Liverpool and, playing in his preferred withdrawn striker role, he contributed to Everton’s crucial victory. Unfortunately for him, that evening produced a new fan’s favourite in Duncan Ferguson, and Royle knew who he preferred to be his main striker.
The Nigerian didn’t feature in a first-team squad again until mid-March, not even making the substitutes bench. When both Paul Rideout and Ferguson were missing due to injury at QPR in March 1995, Royle recalled the inept, ineffectual, insipid and incompetent Brett Angell to lead the line, though at least Amokachi was named on the bench. Little did he realise that his fortunes were about to change, with Everton’s supporters playing a role.
Angell’s performance was even worse than anticipated and when he was booked after 25 minutes, some of the Everton fans could be heard shouting “Send him off! Please!” When he lost possession with his next touch, the roar from the away section grew louder and the chant “Amo! Amo!” echoed around the stadium.
QPR led 1-0 at the interval. At the start of the second period, Amokachi appeared and a new dynamism was added to the Everton attacks, which culminated in an Andy Hinchcliffe free-kick in the 90th minute sealing a 3-2 victory. Amokachi’s appearance turned the game and he was now back in the manager’s thoughts.
He played in the next game, a 2-1 home defeat to Blackburn, but was back on the bench for Everton’s biggest game of the season, the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham. Although Spurs were clearly favourites, Everton quietly fancied their chances. In a scintillating performance, Everton were leading 2-1 but Tottenham remained in the ascendancy. With 20 minutes remaining, Rideout picked up a knock and Royle told Amokachi to warm up.
Trainer Les Helm signalled that Rideout would be unable to continue, but Royle wanted to give him another five minutes. On the touchline, tracksuit off and ready for action, the Nigerian felt that this was his moment. He convinced another member of the coaching staff that Royle wanted to bring him on and suddenly his name was on the substitute’s board. With the manager shouting frantically, Amokachi ignored him and entered the pitch. He said to himself “I hope this works”, as if it didn’t it could have proved to be his last game for the club. Royle watched on helplessly.
Fortunately, the self-appointed substitute made the right call. Eight minutes from the end, Anders Limpar charged forward and played a pass to Graham Stuart who crossed the ball for Amokachi to head home to make it 3-1. With a minute remaining, Gary Ablett led a counter-attack and, once again, the Nigerian smashed the ball home, sealing a memorable 4-1 victory for Everton. He milked the applause of the adoring fans as the chant of “Amo! Amo!” reverberated around Elland Road.
Afterwards, Royle ironically mused that the introduction of Amokachi was the “best substitution I never made” and took no credit for the match-winning switch. Privately, within the sanctum of the dressing room, he informed the hero that if he tried a stunt like that again, he would be out of the club.
Royle now had little option but to start Amokachi and he played in seven of Everton’s last eight fixtures, scoring a further three goals. However, once again, Royle appeared not to trust him for the big occasion as he only appeared as a substitute in Everton’s FA Cup final victory over Manchester United. Nevertheless, for a youngster who had grown up in Nigeria watching the finals year after year on TV, this was still a moment to remember.
With Ferguson absent for most of the first half of the 1995/96 season, Amokachi earned himself a regular place in the starting XI, yet a return of three goals in 16 games saw him lose it not long after. After February, he made just four more starts for the side. It was obvious that his future was insecure and, as he entered the final year of his contract, Everton, realising that he could soon leave for nothing, were anxious to attract a buyer.
During the summer, Amokachi had, not for the first time, shone in a major tournament, scoring for Nigeria in their Olympic final victory over Argentina in 1996. Despite this, the club accepted an offer of just £1m from Turkish club Beşiktaş. Although the move was initially successful, a persistent knee injury meant his career was over before the end of the 90s.
Perhaps Royle was simply the wrong manager to utilise the range of unique skills that Amokachi offered to the team. The manager could be quite dogmatic and inflexible in his thinking at times and Vinny Samways was another skilful and popular player whose face simply didn’t fit. Midfielder Joe Parkinson was amongst many players who felt that the decision to release Amokachi was an error.
Yet Amokachi is still revered by Everton fans of all ages, who thrilled to his rumbustious style of play and his infectious never say die attitude. Most of all, though, the Nigerian is remembered for those stunning goals at Elland Road that set Everton on their way to win their last trophy to date. Daniel Amokachi: a gamble that never quite hit the jackpot but was certainly well worth the punt.
By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan