Singing in the rain with 10,000 Evertonians: the personal story of an FA Cup away day at Notts County in 1984

Singing in the rain with 10,000 Evertonians: the personal story of an FA Cup away day at Notts County in 1984

During my years following Everton, it is often the unplanned trips to football grounds that end up being the best days out. On the evening of 9 March 1984, my mate Bart (real name Brian – don’t ask) called round to ask if I fancied going to watch Everton play the FA Cup quarter-finals away at Notts County the next day. There was only going to be one answer. Even better, it would involve a lift there and back, courtesy of his brother-in-law Frank, thus avoiding the horrors of a 1980s football special train. 

Football can surprise you in many ways, but so far this year had surpassed my most fanciful flights of fantasy. Eleven weeks earlier, on New Year’s Eve, I was one of the despondent and disillusioned members of a paltry crowd of 13,659 that witnessed a soporific stalemate with Coventry at Goodison. When the final whistle blew, the few remaining loyalists bellowed out a cacophony of booing which reverberated around the almost deserted stadium.

A grey cloud of dank desperation engulfed the departing Blues, who couldn’t get away from the stadium quickly enough. Even the normal cursory greetings of “all the best for the New Year, mate” seemed pointless at this juncture. Only the fact that I was invited to a potentially half-decent party that evening managed to lift my spirits.

Naturally, instead of the anticipated evening of revelry and romance, I spent the entire occasion ensconced with a cabal of fellow Blues in the kitchen, mired in morose musings about how awful our team was and how we should replace Howard Kendall before the next game. Football-wise, it appeared that 1984 would not be one to remember.

The innate pessimism of Evertonians was understandable. The school I used to work in often received batches of tickets for youngsters to attend Everton games for free, but as we approached December 1983, so dire was Everton’ s form that I was struggling to give them away – nobody wanted them. In fact, the joke in school at that time was that if Mr McParlan gave you detention, it was only so that he could give you an Everton ticket as a punishment.

Things were so bad that often I was reduced to standing outside St Luke’s Church on matchdays trying desperately to give away these tickets. More often than not, I just surreptitiously handed them to any unexpecting Everton fan with a kid in tow. Prior to the Coventry game, Everton’s highest home league attendance was for the opening fixture at Goodison against Stoke, which attracted 22,658. The last seven attendances at the stadium failed to attract another crowd above 20,000.

Everton lost three of their first six home games of the 1983/84 campaign, netting a meagre three goals in the process. Entertainment and winning football were conspicuous by their absence as desperation and despair descended on the Blue half of the city. Most supporters appeared to have given up on Kendall. When Everton played a League Cup tie against Chesterfield on the 26 October, leaflets were handed out prior to the game demanding, ‘Kendall and Carter [the chairman] out! Almost 30,000 missing fans can’t be wrong. Bring attractive winning football back to Goodison Park.’

Nevertheless, somehow Everton were transformed from the first of January onwards as Kendall seemed to have found that elusive winning formula. So far in 1984, Everton had morphed from an outfit who couldn’t win a game to one that had played 16 times and only lost once.

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This surge of form was propelled by progress in both domestic cups, as Everton were now into to the last-eight of the FA Cup and were due to meet Liverpool in a Wembley League Cup final. In all my years of watching Everton, never had I witnessed a team perform such a miraculous change of fortune. Everton fans found a renewed and rekindled faith in their side.

Indeed, 31,000 roared the side on as they dispatched Oxford in a League Cup replay where the crowd attempted to blow away the flurries of snow that threatened to have the game abandoned with Everton in front. For the next round, the semi-final, 40,000 urged the side to a decisive 2-0 first-leg win against Aston Villa. Everton were back, the crowds were returning, and we were experiencing a new emotion – hope. A current of optimism was engulfing the Gwladys Street terraces to the chorus of: “Tell me ma, to put the champagne on ice, we’re going to Wembley twice, tell me ma, me ma.” 

Frank knocked on my door at 10:00am, accompanied by Bart. He was driving a slick new Ford Cortina (commonly known as the Ford takeaway on Merseyside at that time so easy were they steal). Even better, Frank had the foresight to fill it with petrol from the company account, which lifted our spirits immensely. 

One of Frank’s work colleagues was coming along as well, a lad called Ian who worked as an accountant. He actually lived on the edge of our estate – the posher end – but our paths had never crossed before. Given that he was a massive Blue, frequented the same pubs as us and displayed the same taste in music, I still don’t know how we hadn’t met prior to this.

Nottingham was never the most accessible of places to reach from Merseyside. On my last visit there in December 1977, it seemed to take us at least four hours each way, but fortunately, the Cortina could shift, and we made excellent progress. It was reassuring to see the numbers of cars with their Everton scarves billowing in the wind as we headed down the motorway amazed at how many Blues you could fit into a Mini. Even the sight of pick up vans with fans huddled together to keep warm in the elements wasn’t that unusual. 

When we left, it was an unseasonably hot and sunny day but with the mantra of Merseyside mothers – “never cast a clout till May is out” – imbued in our minds, we threw some waterproof coats in the boot, just in case. It was to prove our best decision of the day.

As we approached Nottingham, the clouds grew darker and darker as we parked the car. Normally a few pints would be consumed prior to the match, but today we erred on the side of caution as over 10,000 Everton fans were expected to make the journey and the last thing we wanted was to travel all that way and not get in. Those were the days when limiting the number of away fans was never considered. It was a part of the unique atmosphere of the FA Cup, which has suffered since as a result. I loved those days when you could just decide to go to an Everton away match and set off, without having to be a member of a priority scheme to gain access to a ticket.

Trying to find your way to an unfamiliar ground was never easy, although at least in the 1980s, the lack of draconian parking restrictions still meant you could leave the car within walking distance of the stadium. The entrepreneurial spirit that Thatcher, Tebbitt et al were trying to revive in the country was alive and well here in Nottingham as we negotiated with some local street ragamuffins a “security fee” for minding our car.

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Like many other Blues, we spotted the floodlights and headed en masse for the ground on the banks of the River Trent. As we arrived, it became apparent that we were at City Ground, the home of Nottingham Forest, but we could see clearly now that the other set of floodlights were just across the Trent, so we turned back and walked to Meadow Lane. Frank and I had attended the same secondary school and, on our walk to the ground, we bumped into two lads who we were in the sixth form with and who we had not seen since we left. It was that sort of day.

As I looked around the younger generation of Toffees, it slowly dawned on me that the “scally look” that I had read about in such local magazines as The End was a definite thing. Benetton t-shirts, a mullet and adidas trainers were the mien of choice for the younger generation. Although I was approaching 30, in my Wrangler Jeans, tank top and Rod Stewart hairstyle, I started to feel incredibly past my sell-by date. Tempus Fugit, as they say.

In 1983/84, Notts County presented a much more formidable challenge than they would these days. Manager Jimmy Sirrell led them to promotion in 1980/81 and they had achieved 15th place in the First Division over the next two seasons. Sirrell was now “club manager” while ex-Liverpool defender Larry Lloyd was “team manager”, adding another reason why a win was so desired. Sirrell was a real old-style football manager who attended their last home game, despite his wife having died that very morning.

This campaign was proving to be more difficult, however, and they were struggling to avoid relegation. Just a month previously, we met in a league fixture at Goodison when an Adrian Heath hat-trick helped to secure a 4- 1 victory. Most Blues fancied our chances – until we heard the news that Heath, also our top scorer, wasn’t playing due to injury.

Kevin Richardson took his place after playing in a reserve game the night before to prove his fitness, with his wrist heavily protected by a cast. Arguably the same player produced one of the saves of the season in the first-leg of the League Cup semi against Aston Villa when he clearly handled the ball on the line but somehow got away with it.

Despite their lowly league position, County included a number of potential match-winners in their team, such as the highly-rated John Chiedozie and ex-Forest midfielder Martin O’Neill. With Trevor Christie up front, they possessed a potent goal threat, as indicated by their 3-3 draw at Old Trafford and their 5-2 demolition of Villa, European champions just 18 months earlier. Everton would have to be at their best; given the recent run of eight games in four weeks which included a Merseyside derby and a League cup semi, Kendall’s squad were running on empty.

Even by the dystopian standard of dilapidated 1980s stadia, Meadow Lane was something else. A new sports complex now occupied what was the old Meadow Lane Stand behind the goal, with its garish brickwork façade facing the pitch. The home supporters were housed in the open Kop end which was divided into sections by stalag-type railings and a ghastly East German-style no man’s land to create a barrier from the away support.

I have no idea what the supposed capacity of this section was for visiting fans, but it looked dangerously overwhelmed. Having seen the massive queues trying to gain access, we decided to pay the extra money for a place on the terrace in front of the County Stand, which offered a degree of shelter from the elements. In a stadium which was effectively three-sided, half of the capacity was handed over to the Everton contingent. It was almost a home game.

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The official attendance was 19,534 – by some way County’s biggest crowd of the season, beating the previous best by 8,000. It confirmed that over half those present were backing the Toffees.

Notts County launched into Everton from the start. Neville Southall was in superlative form, producing a string of one-handed acrobatic stops to keep County at bay. Just when it seemed the home side would prevail, a swift break from defence led to an Everton throw-in. Gary Stevens lofted the ball into the County area as Andy Gray pulled two defenders out of position, leaving Kevin Richardson completely unmarked to head the ball into the net.

County continued to create chances, but Southall stood defiant, Everton were struggling to cope with the pace and movement of the opposition and, on 19 minutes, a cross from Iain McCulloch found Trevor Christie in space, looking certain to score. Southall twisted in mid-air to keep the header at bay, but John Chiedozie reacted quickest to prod home the equaliser. The remainder of the first half was end to end but Southall was displaying his full range of skills to keep the Blues in the game. Half-time: 1-1.

Six minutes into the second half came the decisive moment of the game. Kevin Sheedy whipped in a free-kick from the left into the County area. The ball found Gray unmarked just outside the six-yard box. It seemed almost impossible for him to make a connection, but somehow he flung himself horizontally forward with his chest virtually touching the ground and nodded Everton into the lead with the most outrageously improvised header I have seen to this day.

Gray recalled his piece of impromptu virtuosity: “As it was coming over I kind of misjudged it … I wanted to get it on target, and I was fortunate enough that I got a really good contact and it went across the goalkeeper. It found the bottom corner, it was a big goal for us.”

Captain Kevin Ratcliffe, however, saw it differently: “Andy was always better heading the ball than kicking it which is why I think he went in head first.”

An absolute biblical deluge now descended over Meadow Lane. The Everton contingent on the Kop were getting absolutely soaked as a ghastly, grey drizzle enveloped the stadium. We were thankful for the modicum of cover on our terrace and the fact that we brought our coats with us. Most Blues who were congregated on the open and exposed Kop section behind the goal resorted to using newspapers, programmes or even sandwich wrappers as cover to provide some shelter from the elements – but to most of them it didn’t actually matter: they bounced up and down on the terraces in full voice, singing in the rain.

Although the game was delicately balanced, a sideshow of entertainment was on offer as one Everton fan, desperate for a clearer view of events, proceeded to try and climb the floodlight pylon in the corner. The anti-vandal paint warning loomed large but our intrepid hero was not to be deterred.

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As he climbed slowly, each motion forward was accompanied by one backwards as he slipped down the frame, his clothes gradually becoming tarred with the cloying paint. In the end, a disconsolate figure, by now resembling a grisly, gigantic, grey slug, slid down for one last time before giving up. It was the type of task that ‘I’m a Celebrity’ should consider in the future.

The pitch was turning into an absolute quagmire making quality football impossible as the grassy surface disappeared, replaced by mounds of mud. Everton were now in charge and happy to defend their lead. In stoppage time, Graeme Sharp appeared to have sealed victory with a third goal, only for the mud to stop the ball trickling over the line. It didn’t matter: Everton were through. For the travelling Blues, soaked to the skin, it was worthwhile. As John Motson said in his MOTD commentary, “Memorable for the incredible away support which proves Everton are still a great club.” We always were, John.

We left Meadow Lane in good spirits. By the time we located the car we were completely drenched, however as soon as Frank blasted on the heating we swiftly dried out whilst discussing who we fancied in the semis. We discovered the other quarter-final scores on the radio. Of the teams left, we wanted to avoid Southampton or Sheffield Wednesday, but would have loved Third Division Plymouth. We would have to wait until Sunday to discover our fate. 

All in all, despite the weather, it was proving to be a brilliant trip. Everton were now on course for two cup finals in the space of three months, some turnaround from the dismal fare that was offered up on New Year’s Eve.  

The journey back to Liverpool was going exceptionally well. The conversation flowed, the jokes were cracked, and plans were made for a double Wembley weekend. By 7pm we were approaching Sandbach services on the M6, and within 40 minutes we would be home. Then it all started to go wrong.

The car unexpectedly veered one way and then another as Frank struggled to control the wheel. A sinking feeling came over us as we realised that one of the tyres had blown. We pulled over to the hard shoulder and got out to assess the damage. It was a puncture – not ideal but rectifiable. Frank opened the boot and located the spare tyre. It should have been a straightforward job to change with all of us on hand to assist. Except it wasn’t.

Frank retrieved the jack and the wrench from the boot of the Cortina. With the tyre jack primed, it was now just a simple matter of removing the wheel nuts with the wrench and fitting the replacement. Five minutes, tops, but it soon became apparent that matters weren’t going to plan. The wrench that was supposed to loosen the wheel nuts didn’t appear to fit, no matter which combination, alignment or angle we tried. Our levels of frustration increased; we were stuck in Sandbach with no obvious solution.

Bart pointed out that there was a bridge about 500 yards away. We edged cautiously along the hard shoulder in the dense darkness until we reached it. After scampering up the embankment, we made it to the top of the bridge where we could clearly see a small country road which led to a housing development.

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After a heated group discussion, Plan A was quickly formulated: Frank and Ian were to walk to the estate and see if they could spot a similar model Cortina in front of any of the houses. Then they would simply knock on the door and ask if they could borrow the wrench. But would you open your door to two complete strangers at that time of night?

The fates smiled upon us. Whilst Bart and I waited, Frank and Ian disappeared into the darkness. Seconds became minutes but miraculously before minutes could become hours, they returned with a wrench.

It transpired that they had spotted a similar model Cortina straight away. Frank then knocked on the door to be greeted by a woman in an evening gown, with a gin and tonic in her hand. He calmly, and in his best posh scouse grammar school voice, explained our plight. The lady smiled, turned around and shouted, “John, these two gentlemen from Liverpool would like to borrow your wheel wrench – can you help them?”

After ascertaining through a series of questions that he was not about to be seen on live TV as a victim of a Jeremy Beadle-type prank, he agreed to help us instead of calling the police.

Back at the vehicle, there was a nervous moment of anticipation as Frank tried the wrench again. It worked. The tyre was off, the replacement fitted. We jumped in, reversed back down the hard shoulder, and to the bridge. Frank and Ian jumped out and returned the wrench to its owner who. judging by the look on his face. might well have been expecting us to return in black balaclavas.

In spite of this unexpected setback, we made it back to Liverpool for eight and headed straight to the nearest pub, still trying to comprehend what had just happened. As the first beers went down, Bart was looking troubled. He explained that he had arranged to pick up his girlfriend at eight. He rang her from the phone box in the pub – never a good idea with all that raucous noise in the background – but Pam wasn’t happy.

She didn’t’ believe a single word of his explanation, which was understandable. Next, she went on to berate him for always putting Everton before her and slammed the phone down. Pam and Bart were no more. Nothing left than for Bart to spend the rest of his evening in the pub with us, we advised him to find an Evertonian in future.

That win at Notts County doesn’t always get the plaudits it deserves in the pantheon of Everton victories, but for me, it was a day when all the elements of the all-conquering 1984/85 side were becoming evident. Big Nev’s match-winning saves, Andy Gray’s ability to score goals at key moments in games, Peter Reid dominating the midfield, but most of all, the determination to win, to grind out a result.

The way Kendall and the coaching staff ran onto the pitch at the end to embrace every player showed there was a camaraderie and a togetherness about the club which we hadn’t seen for years. All was good at Everton again.

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

Photo credit: Liverpool Echo

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