The 1990s – what a time to be an Evertonian! Brushes with relegation, financial ups and downs, a club drifting without purpose; it was a decade that saw Everton fall off the pace, abandoning the club’s long-held position as a member of English football’s elite. Jim Keoghan’s Highs, Lows and Bakayokos explores this transformative time for one of the game’s oldest and grandest clubs. It searches for the causes of Everton’s troubles, looking for reasons why peers raced away, grasping the opportunities presented by the dawning of the Sky era.
It’s May 1998, the final game of the season, and for the second time that decade Everton FC are fighting for survival. Third from bottom, the club needs to win and hope that relegation rivals Bolton Wanderers stumble. With Everton 1-0 up at home to Coventry City, and Bolton losing away to Chelsea, survival seems assured. A penalty for the home side late on in the second half appears to provide the opportunity to put matters to rest. But back then, when did Everton ever make life easy for their fans…
Nick Barmby stood over the ball, in front him the goal and behind that 10,000 Evertonians standing in anticipation, the entire Gwladys Street waiting to erupt in celebration. He ran up and struck it hard to the keeper’s right. I can still see the ball’s trajectory if I close my eyes. From the moment it left the spot and the keeper started to move the right way you just knew it wasn’t going in. It was too close to Hedman, too easy to push behind for a corner. Everton’s chance to finish this game had been and gone.
‘I dropped to my knees, the tears started to build, I couldn’t believe they were putting us through this. We had a chance to kill them off and we blew it. I actually get sad now just thinking about it,’ says Jeff Nolan, who was sitting in the Family Enclosure. The miss was equally frustrating for the players too. ‘It was one of those moments when your feelings are perfectly in tune with the crowd. You just think “shit”. We were so close and there was so little of the game left. To this day, I’m not sure why Barmby took the penalty. I mean, it took guts for him to take the ball but it was a bad one,’ says Michael Ball.
If ever you wanted to illustrate to someone what it’s like to be an Evertonian then show them the closing moments of the Coventry game. In those final minutes the nature of Evertonianism is perfectly captured. The highs, the lows, the way in which the club refuses to give its fans an easy ride.
A few minutes after the penalty miss, with collective nerves still on edge, Coventry did what they had been threatening to do for some time.
‘Burrows swung in a left-wing cross, Dublin rose and Myhre, caught in two minds whether to parry or catch, let the ball slip through his hands. It was 1-1 and the entire complexion of the game changed. Goodison’s cauldron of noise was immediately transformed into a mass of jangling nerves and loud whistles as 40,000 people bayed for the final whistle,’ wrote Lyndon Lloyd on ToffeeWeb.
Was it too much to ask that on this most vital of days the side could maintain its concentration for a few extra minutes, that our centre-halves could handle one optimistically pumped cross or that our goalkeeper could manage to palm away a relatively innocuous header? Almost in the blink of an eye, Everton had guaranteed that the closing minutes would be some of the tensest in the club’s history, for players and fans alike.
‘I can honestly say that those few minutes were among the worst I ever endured as a footballer. You could feel the tension in the air and the sense of responsibility weighed down upon me. I think all any of us could do was throw in tackles and if we won the ball simply get rid of it and pump it up their end as far as possible,’ says Craig Short.
Since their transformation from underachieving yet strangely glamorous London sometimes-rans to a global footballing powerhouse, Chelsea have slid down the list of clubs tolerated by fans as a whole. While not yet reaching Liverpool or Manchester United levels of hostility, the men from Stamford Bridge are not particularly liked in most circles and are regarded by many as a club wallowing in self entitlement and followed by a bunch of bandwagon-jumping glory hunters. But on two separate occasions, in 1994 and 1998, Chelsea did Everton a massive favour, not least in providing a rare glimpse of sunshine in those wretched dying moments of the game.
‘I remember standing watching the match, my legs shaking with nerves. Then, in my left ear, where I had my radio, I heard the commentator screaming that Chelsea were two up. I went mental. That was Bolton finished. All we had to do now was hang on,’ remembers Lyndon Lloyd.
As word spread around the crowd, a wave of cheers briefly broke through the blanket of whistles that had previously filled the air.
‘We heard the cheers but, to be honest, everything was a bit of a blur. So much had happened in those closing minutes that it was all I could do to keep concentrating on the game. I think all the players were focused on keeping the ball out of our half as much as possible,’ admits Don Hutchison.
When the whistle arrived it was greeted by a deafening roar from the Blues within Goodison. Survival would always have engendered a rapturous response but you got the sense that noise had been accentuated a few decibels because of the way in which Everton had secured safety. The fight to avoid the drop had been hard won in those last minutes, asking more of the fans than the club really had a right to.
‘When that whistle went I was flooded with relief and complete elation. I couldn’t believe that we’d managed to survive when it looked like it could go against us so easily. I couldn’t believe that those last few minutes were finally over. Survival was the outcome I didn’t see happening, I was convinced we’d need the win so it was obviously a sense of, “How the hell did we manage that?”’ remembers Becky Tallentire.
As had been the case after the Wimbledon game, the pitch was instantly invaded by Blues from all directions, everyone eager to get near the players and be part of the congregating mass.
‘Like most of the players I was absolutely buzzing after the whistle went. The relief was immense. And I felt that way right up until I saw thousands of Blues streaming towards me. I panicked and legged it as fast as I could. I was all for celebrating but we were about to be mobbed,’ laughs Cadamarteri.
It was during that time on the pitch that I experienced one of my most bizarre and cherished memories during 35 years of following the club. My brother and I had managed to navigate our way down from the back of the Lower Gwladys and eventually, probably as part of the second wave, got ourselves on to the pitch. We headed towards the centre circle, where most fans had congregated.
At the time, our dad was a steward in the Park End, one of the many charged with stopping such an invasion from taking place. Ahead of us, and I might be remembering this through slightly dramatically tinged spectacles, the crowd seemed to divide and through the parting waves of happy Blues my dad walked towards us, like Moses through the Red Sea, but Moses in a high-vis jacket. With a smile and a nod he told us to ‘get off the f**king pitch’.
This is an extract from Highs, Lows and Bakayokos, the new book by Jim Keoghan and published by Pitch Publishing. It is available right here.