As Bad As Things Got: Everton, 7th May 1994
If you ever wanted proof of the emotional pull of football, it can be seen most vividly at Goodison Park on the 7th of May 1994. On that day, Everton played Wimbledon needing a win to avoid relegation from the Premier League. The club were, after Arsenal, the second longest-serving members of the top division of English football, a founding member of the Football League, with forty consecutive seasons in the First Division and Premier League under their belt. They pulled through in 1994, but whilst they would have a closer shave just four years later and have finished just one above the relegation places again since then as well, it is the recollection of May 1994 that seems to carry the greater emotional pull.
Everton’s significant periods of achievement are slipping further and further from view, so it’s worth taking a moment to consider the scale of the club prior to its current, quarter-century long drought. They first became the champions of England in 1891, and have repeated the feat eight times since. There are only two blights on their time in the top flight in these 131 years, a relegation in 1930 which was followed by promotion straight back as champions, scoring 121 goals in the process, and becoming the champions of England at the end of their first season back, in 1932. The second came in 1951, when relegation from the First Division came again. This time they were away for three seasons before returning in 1954, the same season that Liverpool were relegated to the Second Division. All of this means that Liverpool is the only city to have had a club in the top division of English football in every season since 1888. Everton have played more games in the top flight and lost more games in the top flight than any other club.
Furthermore, their successful periods have tended to be relatively brief, but regular. Those nine championship wins are well spread out across the first century of English football. The club won the First Division in every decade bar the 1900s (when they did finish second twice), the heavily truncated 1940s (though as the 1938/39 Football League champions they were theoretically the reigning champions of England throughout the war), and the 1950s. A slow, steady drip-feed of success stretching all the way back to just three years after the Football League’s formation. The club’s current run without a major trophy recently overtook the period between their 1939 and 1963 league titles as the longest in their history.
In 1994, Everton’s last period of success was comfortably within memory. A decade earlier, Howard Kendall’s team had won the FA Cup final against Watford. The following year they won the league – by thirteen points – and the European Cup Winners Cup. They were beaten in extra-time – and denied a treble – by Manchester United in the FA Cup final. Two years later they won the First Division title again, this time by nine points. In the summer of 1987, however, Kendall left for Athletic Bilbao and the club was unable to sustain this success under his replacement, former assistant Colin Harvey.
It’s not that Everton under Colin Harvey were bad, per se. In his three full seasons in charge, they finished 4th, 8th and 6th in the First Division, and reached the finals of both the FA Cup and the Full Members Cup in 1989. During the 1989/90 season, they’d even led the First Division for a couple of weeks during the autumn before fading away again. The following season, however, began disastrously, with just two league wins from their first fifteen matches. By the end of October 1990, Harvey was out of a job. Howard Kendall, who’d left Bilbao for Manchester City in December 1989, was eventually rehired and the team recovered to finish in 9th place in the table. They’d been one place above the relegation places at the time of Harvey’s departure.
Kendall’s return to Goodison Park, however, couldn’t bring back the successes of the previous decade. The team seemed fairly stable in mid-table throughout his two full seasons in charge during this spell, in twelfth and thirteenth place in the table, but behind the scenes there were disagreements over transfer policy, whilst rumours were also starting to circle about Kendall’s troubled relationship with alcohol.
By the summer of 1993, then, tensions were starting to build behind the scenes at Goodison Park. These, however, were silenced a little by a strong start to the season, with Southampton, Manchester City and Sheffield United beaten in the first week of the season to put them briefly top of the Premier League. This strong start, however, was undone by their next three matches, all of which were lost, and without the team having failed to score a single goal.
After a couple of wins, though, poor form returned and this time there seemed to be nothing that Kendall could do to steady the ship. Off the pitch, the flux had hit critical mass. The club’s patrician since the early 1960s had been John Moores, of the Littlewoods Pools company, but his withdrawal and eventual retirement from the club from the late 1970s had produced something of a power vacuum and his death in September 1993 led to a near-total state of paralysis as an unseemly battle between the theatre impresario Bill Kenwright and businessman Peter Johnson for the ownership of the club started to grow. Johnson, who’d retained his shareholding in his former club, Tranmere Rovers upon taking the Everton chairmanship, was viewed with suspicion by supporters. For one thing, the FA’s rules stated that one person could not own a controlling interest in more than one club. Johnson agreed to sell shares in one club by 1998, and subsequently appointed his then girlfriend Lorraine Rogers at Tranmere.
The pall over the club was clear. Players leaving throughout the late 1980s and the early 1990s had been followed by inferior replacement, whilst some – were including legendary goalkeeper Neville Southall and captain Dave Watson – were coming to the end of their top flight playing careers and were not the players they had been. After beating Liverpool on the 18th September, Everton didn’t win again in the league until the start of December and were dumped out of the League Cup in the Fourth Round by Manchester United. On the 4th December 1993, Everton finally won in the league again, 1-0 at home against Southampton at Goodison Park, but Howard Kendall resigned after the match.
The events of the next few weeks would come to have a lasting effect upon the club. With disorganisation behind the scenes, no decision on a replacement for Kendall was made for five weeks, during which time Everton lost six out of seven league matches under caretaker Jimmy Gabriel. He finally departed the club on the 3rd January,with the team having dropped to just one place above the relegation places. The former Norwich City manager Mike Walker arrived five days later.
The appeal of Walker was obvious. The previous season, he had taken Norwich City to third place in the table behind Manchester United and Aston Villa, and his team had legitimately been in the race for the title until just a few weeks before the end. This league success had carried them into European competition for the first time in the UEFA Cup, where they’d beaten Vitesse Arnhem and Bayern Munich (including a win in Munich) before losing fairly narrowly to Internazionale, a run that remains Norwich’s only ever involvement in European football. For a club looking to regain its poise and push towards the top of the table, the Norwich City team of the previous season offered a promising template.
Walker arrived at a club in turmoil, and his first few weeks in charge only saw things deteriorate further. A week after his arrival, Everton were dumped out of the FA Cup at home by Bolton Wanderers after a replay, while the demolition of the Park End stand at Goodison Park reduced the capacity of the stadium. Not that testing the capacity of Goodison Park was much of an issue by the start of 1994, that is. The crowd for Everton’s first home league match of the season against Manchester City had been 26,036. Howard Kendall’s last game was watched by just 13,677 people. Over the course of the first three and a half months of the season, crowds had almost halved. None of this was in line with the “whole new ball game” that supporters of all clubs had been promised in the summer of 1992, as the First Division transmogrified into the Premier League.
Briefly, though, it looked as though Walker might steer the team back towards safety. His first match in charge ended in a 6-2 win against Swindon Town, and he would only lose one league in his first six in charge, that loss coming at Old Trafford against Manchester United by the odd goal. Following a 2-1 defeat in the return Merseyside derby at the start of March, though, the team’s form fell off a cliff. They picked up just one point from their next five matches and, after the brief respite of ending that run with a win at West Ham United, the relegation places started to come back into view again.
There were four games to play of the season, and Everton failed to win any of the first three. They lost to an 87th minute goal at QPR, were held 0-0 at home to Coventry and collapsed 3-0 at Leeds United, all of which that meant they would start the final day of the season in the relegation places. Only Swindon Town had already been relegated, but Oldham, Sheffield United, Ipswich Town, Southampton also all went into the day threatened by the drop, with two relegation places available. Furthermore, none of these five clubs were playing each other.
The atmosphere around Goodison Park on the 7th May 1994 was febrile to the point of chaotic. Everton were at home against Wimbledon, and this was no guaranteed win. The Dons were in sixth place in the Premier League table. But demand was high. The capacity of Goodison Park had been cut from 38,500 to 31,500 with the removal of one stand, earlier in the season. This hadn’t been a problem throughout most of the season, as crowds dropped below 14,000, but Everton remained a club with reach and it was surprising – and probably a reflection on the way it was being run at the time – that the club didn’t make it all-ticket. Supporters were perched from every vantage point to watch, even though it was being shown live on the television by Sky Sports. Inside the ground, the noise of the crowd hit fever pitch early on, and largely stayed there.
The nervous atmosphere didn’t take long to significantly affect the Everton players, and within twenty minutes all the worst deficiencies of their season had reared their heads to make the team’s position look unsurmountable. Just three minutes had been played when Anders Limpar needlessly handled a cross from the left and Dean Holdsworth converted the inevitable penalty kick to give Wimbledon the lead. Just over a quarter of an hour later, some Keystone Kops-like defending saw David Unsworth and Dave Watson jump for the same ball inside their own penalty area, bouncing the ball into the path of Andy Clarke, whose low shot was heading well wide until it bounced of a lunging Gary Ablett and looped high up into the air, before bouncing over the line to give Wimbledon a 2-0 lead.
Four minutes later, though, signs of life. Limpar found a tiny amount of space on the left and fell as he passed defender Peter Fear. There hadn’t really been any contact, but Limpar had successfully gamed referee Robbie Hart and a penalty kick was awarded. Graham Stewart converted it in front of an empty, quarter-built stand to drag Everton back into the game. Half-time arrived with the score still at 2-1 to Wimbledon, but results elsewhere weren’t going so badly. They were still in the fight.
It took a combination of the sublime and the ridiculous to rescue their season, in the end. Midway through the second half – and with Holdsworth having had a chance hacked off the Everton goal-line just a couple of minutes earlier – a thunderous Barry Horne volley from 25 yards brought Everton level. None of the other sides at the bottom had been losing at half-time, but Sheffield United took the lead at Chelsea with an hour played, so they still needed that win. With eight and a half minutes to play, though, the moment fell to Graham Stuart, whose low and relatively weak shot took a small deflection before rolling into the Wimbledon goal.
It was a soft goal and, in light of match-fixing allegations later made against the Wimbledon goalkeeper Hans Segers, a memorable one, but the home supporters didn’t care. Mark Stein levelled for Chelsea against Sheffield United at Stamford Bridge with a little under a quarter of an hour to play, and in the last minute he scored again to take Sheffield United down into the relegation places. Sheffield United were the only one of the relegation-threatened to lose that day. They and Oldham Athletic – who drew 1-1 at Norwich City – joined Swindon Town in the relegation places. Everton finished in 17th place, their 40 consecutive seasons in the top flight intact.
One might expect that such a close shave would have had an impact upon the club in a positive sense, but the start of the 1994/95 season proved to be no better than much of the previous campaign. Everton picked up just four points – all draws – from their first twelve matches., and by the time their results started to improve it was too late for Mike Walker. He was sacked on Bonfire Night 1994, following their first win of the season, at home against West Ham United.
Walker’s replacement looked like a canny appointment. Joe Royle was a former Everton player who’d performed little short of miracles in getting Oldham Athletic into the Premier League, and the new manager bounce was immediate. Royle’s first match in charge was at home against Liverpool and they won 2-0, the first of three straight wins to kick-off his time in charge of the club. They eventually levelled off to finish the season in fifteenth place. Everton’s real success, however, came in the FA Cup. A superb 4-1 win against Tottenham Hotspur in the semi-final at Elland Road set up a final against Manchester United for which they were the overwhelming underdogs, but an early Paul Rideout goal proved to be the only one of the match and Everton snatched, what remains to this day, their last major trophy.
Briefly, the team was revived under Joe Royle. Having spent a club record £5m to sign Andrei Kanchelskis from Manchester United in the summer of 1995, Everton finished the following season in sixth place in the Premier League, their highest league position in six years, but tensions were starting to build again behind the scenes at the club and Royle resigned in March 1997 over a dispute with Peter Johnson concerning Johnson’s refusal to sanction the purchase of two players, Claus Eftevaag and Tor Andre Flo, with the club just four points above the relegation places. With former captain Dave Watson in temporary charge, they finished the 1996/97 season in fifteenth, two points above the relegation places.
The decision on a new permanent manager came early in June 1997. Howard Kendall. Again. Since his last departure from Goodison Park, Kendall had been unsuccessful in Greece with Xanthi and had two reasonable spells back in England at Notts County and Sheffield United, but ownership battles were again undermining the club from the inside and the 1997/98 season turned out to be as much of a disaster as several of their other recent seasons had been.
As if to underline the decline of the team and the club’s increasingly parlous financial position, throughout the 1997/98 season Everton lost the services of Neville Southall, Earl Barrett, Andy Hinchcliffe, Gary Speed, David Unsworth, and Graham Stuart, while among the new faces to arrive at the club during the same period were Jon O’Kane, Don Hutchison, Mitch Ward and John Oster. The phrase “fire sale” is an emotive one and it should be used more sparingly than it is, but Everton’s transfer business in the early months of 1998 certainly looked like one. The team’s performances on the pitch throughout this period mirror that decline. They only won one league game from the end of January on, all of which led to them going into the last day of the season in serious danger of relegation for the second time in five seasons.
This time around, Everton cut their margin for staying up to the bone. On the last day of the season they were at home against Coventry City, needing a result to have any chance of staying up. A Dion Dublin goal for Coventry cancelled out an Gareth Farrelly goal, but the one point they did pick up proved to be enough, keeping them up on goal difference above Bolton Wanderers. Had Coventry City scored a second goal, Everton would have been down. Howard Kendall left the club for the last time almost immediately after the match and was replaced later in the summer by the former Rangers manager Walter Smith.
Everton have finished just above the relegation places once since then. They qualified for the Champions League in 2003, but the following season finished in seventeenth place in the table, though relegation was never really a serious prospect. Coincidentally, the two clubs who finished either side of them that season, Manchester City in 16th and Leicester City in 18th, have both lifted the Premier League title since. David Moyes, who was in his second season in charge at Goodison Park at the time, would stay with the club for a further decade, before becoming the ill-starred successor to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
But what might have happened to Everton had they been relegated during the 1990s? It’s easy to presume that a club of this size would have bounced straight back. They were only away for a year in 1931 and for three years in the early 1950s, after all. But it might not have been as simple as that. The financial difficulties behind the scenes at the club and the wrestling match for control that only ended at the end of 1999 when Bill Kenwright finally bought Peter Johnson’s 68% shareholding in the club, a sale which valued Everton at just £30m at the time.
We have seen elsewhere that other clubs clubs of a similar size to Everton – Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Aston Villa, for example – have found the Premier League considerably easier to fall into than to clamber out of in an upwardly direction. All four of the aforementioned clubs – three of which have also won European trophies – have spent more time in League One than the Premier League since the relegation that broke their clubs. There are no guarantees that Everton wouldn’t have suffered a similar fate, with the combination of the power vacuum at the top of the club and the expensive costs of renovating Goodison Park – which was close to dilapidated by the time of The Taylor Report – both having the potential to drag the club lower than just the second tier.
In the spring of 1998, the situation at Everton was serious. As the team misfired and the club’s financial situation deteriorated, relegation could have been as disastrous as it turned out to be for, say, Nottingham Forest. That point won against Coventry City on the last day of the season might be the most valuable won in the club’s entire history. But 1993/94 remains As Bad As Things Got because of its place at the heart of Everton’s history, and because of its drama, not to mention its connections to a goalkeeper who was later involved in a match-fixing court case and who was also found guilty of breaching regulations by the FA. It’s a human story, from the crowds queued up to try to get into a stadium that so many had vacated that season, through the slapstick defending of the first twenty minutes, to the slices of luck and outrageous brilliance that allowed the team to claw its way back to redemption at the last. The 1-1 draw against Coventry City may have been more valuable to the club, but the 3-2 win against Wimbledon had the narrative.