Whenever I attempt to justify to others my belief that Everton are still a big club I’m conscious that I sound a bit like some desperate middle-aged man, stranded in suburbia, consigned to life in a pointless, compromise job, married to a woman he no longer loves or respects, trying to explain to his teenage children that he too was once cool.
I’m aware of it but I don’t care. Everton are a great side. For over one hundred years (baring briefs hiccups in the 1930s and 1950s) we’ve held our place in the top-flight, and in terms or silverware, we are the fourth most successful club in England.
Periodically we’ve also excelled. And the greatest of these periods was during the 1984/85 season, when Everton briefly became one of the best clubs in the game. Under the guiding hand of manager Howard Kendall the club won the league, the Cup Winners Cup and very nearly scooped the FA Cup too.
But all of this almost never happened at all.
Kendall had arrived at the club in 81 and despite finishing in the top half in his first two seasons in charge, a poor start to the 83/84 season had given rise to a ‘Kendal Out’ campaign amongst the fans.
Kendall’s nadir came during a fourth round league cup game against Oxford, where a late Adrian Heath goal earned us a draw and saved the club from an embarrassing early exit. If we’d lost he would probably have gone. But the draw gave the chairman reason enough to stand by Kendall, marking the last time that the Everton board have acted in the club’s best interests.
From that point on Everton were transformed. The team that Kendall had been piecing together on a shoestring during the previous seasons started to knit together and two cup finals during the remainder of the season hinted at what was to come.
Although we narrowly lost out to the Sh*te in the League Cup, a few months later Everton overcame Watford in the FA to bring home the club’s first silverware in fourteen years.
It’s only now, having endured a similar silverware drought as a supporter myself that I fully understand the extent of the joy experienced by my parents and their mates. I was only nine at the time and without a football hinterland. I expected the team I supported to win trophies and so my joy was always diluted by a sense of entitlement.
The team that Kendall had been piecing together on a shoestring during the previous seasons started to knit together and two cup finals during the remainder of the season hinted at what was to come.
But even I was overwhelmed by what happened next. During the 84/85 season Everton were majestic. We won the league with a humiliating thirteen point lead over second placed Liverpool. We reached our first ever European final, sweeping aside Rapid Vienna to bring home the Cup Winners Cup. And we again reached the final of the FA, a sole Man Utd goal thwarting our defence of the trophy.
It was a testament to how quickly we had become accustomed to success that narrowly missing out on this left many fans utterly dejected.
That season is probably the finest in the club’s history. Going to games on a Saturday afternoon there was a sense of invincibility about the team, as if defeat was impossible. No mean feat in itself as it ran against the inherent pessimism that has been the Evertonians lot both before and since.
That the team shone with stars is perhaps an understatement. But whereas in the top flight today the big teams are filled with big names and players with big price tags, the Everton team of then was largely made up of unknowns, with a couple of possible has-beens thrown in for good measure.
Players like Neville Southall, who came from non-league Bury for the paltry sum of £150,000. Or Peter Reid, the simian Sid James, who arrived from Bolton for the ludicrously small fee of £60,000.
Along with players such as the captain Kevin Ratcliffe, Kevin Sheedy, who possessed the sweetest left foot in football history and the totemic Andy Grey, they formed the greatest Everton side to ever grace Goodison Park.
Most fans expected things to get better, for us to build on this solid foundation and try to match our neighbour’s dominance of the game in the future. And had luck gone our way it might have. But it didn’t.
A lot of Blues blame the Heysel disaster and the subsequent European ban for this. It robbed Everton, and its manager, of the chance to succeed in Europe, to attract the best talent and build something akin to what Ferguson has subsequently done at Utd.
There’s an element of truth to this. The ban took the wind out of the game, just as Everton had their sails up. We won the league again two years later but by then Kendall was itching to test his talents on a bigger stage. His exit to pastures Spanish at the end of the 87 season put an end to our brief dalliance in the limelight.
Over the following years, the great players started to age and were gradually replaced with lesser mortals. The team declined and within less than a decade we would find ourselves embroiled in a relegation dogfight, thoughts of challenging for the title consigned to the past.
But then we shouldn’t feel too sorry for ourselves. Few fans get to enjoy what Evertonians experienced in 1985; that sense of invincibility and belief that anything was possible. And you never know, if we ever get a few quid in our back pockets, it might even happen again.
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