Everton vs Wimbledon, a relegation dogfight on the last day of the season, there's only one thing that could settle it, a sloppy 20 yard effort from Graham Stuart....
What makes a great goal? For some it’s the culmination of an individual’s jinking run though a sea of players, for others a forty yard belter into the top corner and for others still, some piece of technical brilliance, like a well-timed volley or a delicate chip over a helpless keeper.
But for me, it’s not what the goal is that matters but what it means. And for an Evertonian no goal has greater meaning than the very shit one scored by Graham Stuart in the last ten minutes of the final game of the 1993/94 season, when Everton took on Wimbledon in a fight for their Premiership survival.
As a supporter I’ve seen us win the FA Cup, been there when we’ve grabbed the title and even witnessed our sole success in Europe. But in emotional terms, all three pale in comparison to that game.
If your team is embroiled in a relegation dog-fight, taking their tussle for survival to the last game of the season then as a supporter you’re in line for one of the most exhilarating, stomach-churning ninety minutes of your life. Like riding a roller-coaster in a really s****y fair, where the possibility of coming off the rails constantly lurks at the back of your mind.
The 1993/94 season had been a bad one for Everton. Despite starting brightly (we used to do this) things had pretty quickly turned sour. Adhering to the laws of diminishing returns, Howard Kendall’s second spell at the club was mired in mediocrity; the aging squad proving ill equipped to match the fan’s lofty expectations.
In the end, Kendall quit mid-season, citing the board’s refusal to sanction the purchase of Dion Dublin as his reason; an episode that managed the neat trick of reflecting badly on both parties.
His leaving might have helped Everton reduce their bar tab but it did little to benefit the club. Under the disastrous leadership of caretaker manager Jimmy Gabriel we managed to lose six and draw one of the next seven matches; failing to score in six consecutive games.
Adhering to the laws of diminishing returns, Howard Kendall’s second spell at the club was mired in mediocrity; the aging squad proving ill equipped to match the fan’s lofty expectations.
The club was in desperate need of leadership and looking for a managerial genius to turn things around. But instead we turned to Mike Walker.
This was the man with the Midas touch, had everything Midas touched turned to s***. Over the following months, seemingly unaware of our gradual slide towards oblivion, Walker treated the club like his own personal plaything, trying out different formations and playing styles on a weekly basis and making unfathomable decisions, such as the elevation of Brett Angell to the starting line-up.
The result was that by the penultimate Saturday of the season we found ourselves in the relegation zone and facing the challenge of needing to beat an in-form Wimbledon to have any chance of staying up.
The atmosphere that Saturday was an odd one; the excitement of a big game filled the air but there was an undercurrent of fear, something new to most of the Evertonians seated in the ground.
That fear, along with a growing sense of disbelief, soon became dominant as Wimbledon established a two goal lead after twenty minutes, causing any initial excitement to drain away. The goals, a penalty and a Gary Ablett ‘comedy’ own goal, seemed to suggest that maybe luck was against us.
Although we managed to claw a goal back before half-time, as the teams came out following the interval few Evertonians were feeling confident. And initially that lack of confidence was well placed. Wimbledon threatened for twenty minutes, coming very close to scoring again and also having a blatant penalty call ignored.
With twenty minutes to go and plenty of Evertonians in the ground mentally preparing for life in the first division, things changed. Barry Horne, known until then more for his tackling skills rather than his ability to score goals, got the better of Vinnie Jones in a midfield tussle and surged forward. To the delight and disbelief of everyone in the ground, Horne promptly sent a thirty yard belter into top corner.
If I close my eyes I can still see the moment that Stuart’s shot crossed the line. It has lodged itself in my memory more so than any other goal I have ever seen Everton score.
Although results elsewhere meant a draw would be of no use to us, Horne’s goal brought a real sense of belief amongst supporters. For the first time that day, there was a feeling that Everton could do this and that we might just survive. The team, who until that point had been pretty lethargic, seemed to pick up on the fans’ sense of hope and started to push forward with an urgency that had been missing at Goodison for months.
With just under ten minutes remaining this pressure paid off. Tony Cottee managed to knock a ball back into the path of Stuart on the edge of the area. His shot at the goal was bit rubbish, the kind that should have been easily saved. But somehow it managed to evade a lethargic dive by the keeper and nestled itself beautifully into the back of the net.
Goodison erupted, sparking the kind of jubilation that I had never experienced before and arguably haven’t since; an unreal, dizzying mixture of exhilaration and hope.
The remaining minutes of the game were a horrible experience, as Everton spent every opportunity knocking the ball towards the opposition’s corner flags, desperately hoping to waste as much time as possible. When the final whistle came, the pitch was flooded with ecstatic blues, each one of them, and every other Evertonian in the ground, deliriously happy but also sickeningly aware of how close we had come to the dreaded drop.
If I close my eyes I can still see the moment that Stuart’s shot crossed the line. It has lodged itself in my memory more so than any other goal I have ever seen Everton score, and still retains its ability to evoke the feelings of joy and disbelief that it conjured up all those years ago. It might have been a bit c***, but Stuart’s eighteen-yard-bobbler remains the most glorious goal I have ever seen.
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