In the classic 1980s comedy-drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet the morose, dishevelled Scouse character Moxey describes his plight thus when talking about returning home: “I reckon my chances on Merseyside are even worse than Everton’s.” A convicted arsonist trying to escape his perceived persecution by the police and any other establishment body you care to mention, his quip perfectly summed up the situation the Goodison Park club found itself in during the early part of the decade.
Not only were they failing to challenge for silverware anymore, to rub salt into the wounds neighbours Liverpool were rampant at home and abroad. They had household names throughout their team including the trio often dubbed ‘the Scottish mafia’: Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish. They strutted about the corridors of Anfield like they owned the place and treated the First Division and the European Cup in much the same way; with an arrogance and swagger befitting the dynasty forged by Ayrshire’s Bill Shankly.
In stark contrast, by late 1983 Everton were a shambles, from the boardroom to the boot room. Once known as both the ‘Bank of England club’ and the ‘Mersey Millionaires’, the patronage of Littlewood’s Pools tycoon Sir John Moores during the 1960s and 70s helped to keep the Toffees at the forefront of the British game. They won two league titles (1963 and 1970) and an FA Cup (1966) in the process, during what was possibly the most competitive era in post-war English football. But after Moores stepped down from the Everton board for the final time in 1977 aged 81, gradual decline set in. Although he retained a controlling stake in the club after his retirement, his interest was replaced by apathy as old age and ill health took their toll.
Attendances had dwindled from an average of around 40,000 in 1977/78 to barely half that just five years later. Given what was happening on the pitch, it was easy to see why.
Howard Kendall – along with Alan Ball and Colin Harvey one of Everton’s famed ‘Holy Trinity’ midfield of the late 60s and early 70s – was installed as manager later that same year, replacing Gordon Lee. And although he had taken Blackburn Rovers up to the Second Division in his two years as player manager there, it took a significant leap of faith to believe that Kendall had the credentials to restore Everton to anything like their former status, especially considering the parlous state of affairs he inherited from his predecessor.
With little in the way of funds to throw around on transfers, Kendall was forced to make do and mend. While other clubs in the top flight were breaking the million-pound barrier with regularity, Everton were very much shopping in the bargain basement. However, one element of the club that gave cause for encouragement was the youth set up that had already brought through future captains Kevin Ratcliffe and Steve McMahon.
At the turn of the New Year in the 1983/84 campaign, Kendall’s situation had become increasingly precarious. The patience of those fans that were still turning up to home games had worn thin, as the manager himself later recalled: “We couldn’t score goals, we weren’t winning games, confidence was very low and we had a young side who weren’t looking forward to playing, especially at Goodison Park.” It certainly didn’t help matters that across Stanley Park, Liverpool were sauntering to yet another League championship and a fourth European Cup win in eight years.
One of those faltering young players was Scottish striker Graeme Sharp. Bought by Gordon Lee from Dumbarton in 1980, he understandably struggled initially to make the transition from the humble surroundings of Boghead Park to the grandeur of the English First Division. Kendall, though, was his champion, and saw something special in the Glasgow-born forward, throwing him into the first team at the earliest opportunity. At 6ft 1in tall, Sharp was obviously, but wrongly, pigeon-holed by many as an archetypal target man. He was much more than that; he displayed a touch, vision and awareness often lacking in number 9s of the period who were frequently little more than big lummoxes towards which long, aimless balls were launched for them to fight over with the equally lumbering centre halves that populated defences in the early 80s.
Sharp’s burgeoning ‘big man/little man’ partnership with the busy, clever Adrian Heath was productive and full of promise, although in keeping with the disjointed nature of the team, they lacked cohesion with the midfield and the all-important aggression needed to lead the line.
Down in the Black Country, another Scottish striker’s career had ground to a virtual halt.
Andy Gray had moved to the Midlands with Aston Villa in 1975 having burst onto the scene north of the border at Dundee United while still a teenager. His impact in England was instant as the spearhead of the exciting young Villa side put together by Ron Saunders that formed the basis of the team that would eventually become English and European champions. Renowned for his bravery and combative style, Gray was voted PFA Young Player of the Year and PFA Players’ Player of the Year in 1978 – a double achievement only repeated since by Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
He was surprisingly sold to local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers for a British record £1.5million in 1979. The Molineux club, in a vain attempt to recapture past glories, rested their hopes of a revival on the shoulders of Gray, who had received his early footballing education at Drumchapel Amateurs – from where Alex Ferguson, David Moyes, John Wark, John Robertson and Alan Brazil, to name but a few, had all graduated.
Despite scoring the winning goal in the League Cup final against European champions Nottingham Forest in his first season with Wolves, Gray’s time there was blighted by the team’s rapid deterioration and, more significantly, by his own recurrent injury problems. By November 1983, his brittle knees were infamous within footballing circles. Wolves, who began to spiral down the divisions in a stadium that was crumbling around them, were desperate to recoup at least some portion of his massive transfer fee to help stave off the threat of liquidation. Under increasing pressure at Goodison, Kendall took the biggest gamble of his short managerial career to date on the 27-year-old for a fraction of the amount he had cost his previous club.
If the under-fire Everton manager expected an immediate impact from his new acquisition on the pitch, he was to be sorely disappointed. Indeed, after failing to score in his first few appearances, Kendall dropped Gray, sparking a disagreement between the pair that almost saw the Scot pass through the exit door before he’d even claimed himself a space in the club car park.
Over the Christmas period of 1983, the fans were staying away in their droves; those that remained handed out flyers demanding Kendall’s removal along with that of chairman Phillip Carter at a dire 0-0 draw with Coventry City on New Year’s Eve. The dreaded ‘R’ word – relegation – was bandied around as Heath’s goals dried up and Sharp was forced into a spell of inactivity because of injury.
Famously, Alex Ferguson faced the sack at Manchester United in early 1990 after three years of heavy investment and very little return before Mark Robins’ winning goal in a third round FA Cup match at Nottingham Forest supposedly saved his neck. United went on to lift the Cup at Wembley the following May, and the rest – as they say – is history.
Howard Kendall had his ‘Mark Robins’ moment at Oxford United in the Milk Cup quarter-final. Robert Maxwell’s minnows led with just eight minutes remaining, and just like Ferguson six years later, defeat for Kendall would almost certainly have led to the dole queue the following morning. Memorably, a woefully short Kevin Brock back pass was pounced upon by Heath who slotted home to earn Everton a replay. It is an incident that has gone down in club legend as the moment when everything changed.
In reality, Kendall was far from in the clear despite the face-saving draw at the Manor Ground. During those early months of 1984 he seemed to be within 90 minutes of unemployment every week only for the cup competitions to be his salvation. Wins over lowly Gillingham (after two replays) and Notts County in the FA Cup not only kept the axe from falling, but also helped facilitate an upturn in league results.
This lightening of the mood at Goodison coincided with the linking of Sharp and Gray in Everton’s attack for the first time since the latter’s arrival. It must have been a dream come true for Sharp to play alongside Gray; he has since admitted that he had been his hero growing up.
Yet, neither were prolific goal scorers at first; Kendall still had much to thank Heath – who dropped into midfield to make room for the Scottish pair up front – and Kevin Sheedy for in that respect.
But perhaps the secret to Everton’s resurgence and impending success was that Gray – an opinionated but eloquent personality off the pitch and a warrior who led by example on it – precipitated amongst his team mates the catfish effect. The catfish effect is a phenomenon supposedly observed by a Norwegian sea captain involved in transporting live sardines, in which the introduction of a strong, dominant competitor (the catfish) to the group causes the weaker constituents to raise their game in order to survive. Undoubtedly, a new team spirit and togetherness that was very evidently lacking before Gray showed up, was born.
Once Kendall’s position was secure, Everton built a head of steam, and reached the Milk Cup final where they met Liverpool at Wembley. The whole city seemed to move en masse to the capital for a weekend which the press tagged ‘Merseypride’. The Blues were only undone by a long range Souness effort in a replay at Maine Road after a goalless encounter under the Twin Towers. Suddenly, Moxey’s perception of the football landscape in his home town seemed redundant.
The Sharp/Gray partnership began to click from then on and Kendall’s side charged up the league table to finish a respectable seventh. Moreover, they had an FA Cup final to look forward to.
Opponents Watford were the media’s wet dream: from their meteoric rise from the fourth division to the top flight under Graham Taylor (they had improbably finished runners-up to Liverpool in the league a season earlier), to superstar owner Elton John.
Everton, seeking their first major trophy in 14 years, were cast as the spoilers of the piece – a role they happily filled.
Watford fielded their own Scottish strike duo of Bellshill-born but Corby-raised George Reilly and a 21-year-old hotshot by the name of Maurice Johnston but were undone by goals either side of half time from – inevitably – Sharp and Gray. The senior partner’s effort just after the break was controversial but came to epitomise his ‘I’m going for that and I don’t care what happens’ approach. Trevor Steven crossed from the right, the ball a little too close to Hornets’ keeper Steve Sherwood. Gray, as committed as ever, nutted the ball straight out of Sherwood’s hands and into the net. It’s the type of goal that belonged to a bygone age. In many ways, so did the goal scorer.
While Elton sobbed, Everton danced. Us Blues, we all danced that day.
Kendall was just 38 and barely retired as a player but he quickly became a paternal figure to all the Everton players, even to the older campaigners such as Gray and Peter Reid. He was also a bit of an alchemist. It had taken him three years to conjure up gold from a variety of base metals but by the time he added the cultured passing of Paul Bracewell to the midfield, the team’s whole far exceeded the sum of its parts.
Still, not even the most optimistic of Evertonians – and there are very few of those – could have predicted what was to come over the next 12 months.
The 1984/85 season began inauspiciously but by mid-October, Kendall’s side were hiding in the chasing pack, still waiting to hit their straps. ‘Psycho’ Pat Van Den Hauwe – the final brooding, menacing piece of the jigsaw – was recruited from Birmingham City, and suddenly the genie was let loose from the bottle for good. Sadly for Gray, his old nemesis – those fragile knees – were aggravating him, curbing his ability to contribute.
In one momentous week, the season exploded into life.
On October 20th 1984, Everton made the short journey to Anfield to take on their old enemy. Then, as now, it was an unhappy hunting ground; the Reds were used to getting their own way and hadn’t lost to the Blues on home turf for 14 long years.
The Kop at one end – traditionally for the home fans but often populated with pockets of rogue Evertonians on Derby day – and the corner of the Anfield Road end at the other were seething masses of humanity, shoehorned in to play their part in the chaos at £2 a go. To be there was hugely exciting and utterly frightening at the same time; so many bodies swaying back and forth like shoals of fish being corralled in the ocean by their hunters. I was just eight-years-old, my female cousin six years older. Our fathers – brothers who had experienced this madness since the 1950s and their own childhoods – tried to keep us all together but it was impossible, every incident on the pitch and the crowd’s reaction to it propelled us further apart. By the end, my cousin had lost both of her shoes. I may not have known the meaning of ‘visceral’ at that age but that experience was most certainly it.
In typical thud-and-blunder Derby fashion, it was passionate rather than pretty; until one, glorious moment which became folkloric.
Just after half time, future Rangers full back Gary Stevens split the usually impeccable defensive line of Liverpool with a measured long ball to the wandering Sharp. The striker took one left-footed touch to bring it down and then with his right he blazed a shot that sailed over Bruce Grobbelaar and into the net from 25 yards out. The style and ferocity of the goal was not without precedent; Sharp had previous when it came to scoring screamers (not least in a game against Tottenham Hotspur from a few years earlier) but this beauty was on another level of significance, one that moved Match of the Day’s John Motson to declare: “The Evertonians have gone berserk. I haven’t seen a goal quite like that in a Merseyside Derby for years.” He’s right, we did go berserk. It was pure pandemonium. So much of that season was.
That single victory over our neighbours and that goal (which won the BBC’s goal of the season award for 1984/85) felt as good to us as any title win might but it was still far too soon to be thinking of a shot at the championship. We saved such frivolous notions for the following weekend.
Manchester United pitched up at Goodison level on points with Everton in third place in the league, searching for an end to their own title drought that had gone on three years longer than that of their hosts. Despite this they retained an unwavering glamour. England’s captain marvel Bryan Robson was the poster boy of Big Ron Atkinson’s side, with extra pizazz added by Gordon Strachan – brought down south from Aberdeen – and the silky wing play of the Dane, Jesper Olsen.
On paper, it looked like an intriguing clash of styles. Artisans vs. Aristocrats. The humbly assembled Everton taking on the United – all mouth and money belts.
Andy Gray, knees permitting, had returned but couldn’t force a way in to the starting 11 ahead of Sharp and Heath who were on a scoring streak that made them the hottest pairing in the land. Twelve months earlier he may not have waited so patiently for his opportunity to come.
By the end of that Saturday afternoon, Everton were second in the table having routed Manchester United 5-0 in the single most eviscerating performance seen by my generation. Sharp had – at just 24 years old – transformed into the most complete centre-forward in the league; the perfect focal point around which Kendall built his exciting team. That game perhaps demonstrated better than any other what Everton were now all about: fast, crisp passing; wing play and direct, purposeful attack; a high tempo ‘hunt in packs’ defence that relied on an intensity of pressing that didn’t need the media to pretend it had been invented in Germany by a charismatic coaching cowboy called Klopp. Everton simply played English football better than anyone else, with two teak-tough Scots in the vanguard.
From that stunning victory onwards, Everton just kept winning. And winning.
They topped the table in early November on an inexorable march towards the pivotal Christmas and New Year period. Even the loss of Heath to a serious injury, which ended his season in early December, proved to be just a bump in the road because champing at the bit to step in was a fit and ferocious Gray.
While it took the ex-Dundee United man until his 10th appearance after his reintroduction to the side before he himself scored, his link up play instantly brought the best from Sharp who was now scoring in braces rather than singles.
Everton only briefly relinquished their lead over Christmas. In early ’85 they went on to win nine straight in league and cup which included a 4-0 demolition of Newcastle United that sticks in my mind as the day I thought the championship was not only a possibility, but a foregone conclusion. It had media scribes scrambling for superlatives.
Once Gray did eventually start scoring in the spring – his double in a tight win at Leicester City a crucial waypoint on the championship charge – there was an inevitability about the destination of the title. A hat-trick against Fortuna Sittard of the Netherlands in the European Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final soon followed. Then came what most believe to be Gray’s zenith in an Everton shirt, in April at home to Sunderland.
The Mackems may have been relegation fodder but they needed dealing with in the same manner that Everton had been dealing with other first division teams since the autumn.
By now, with the finishing line in sight, the team had come through quite a few scrapes – most notably in the FA Cup against Ipswich Town – and their now unshakeable solidarity compelled them to keep topping each previous performance. The Sunderland game was only different in one respect; they had the audacity to score in the first minute through another former Dumbarton man, Ian Wallace.
Everton’s midfield of Steven, Reid, Bracewell and Sheedy were imperious thereafter, imposing their will on a hapless Sunderland. It allowed Sharp and Gray to run riot.
The equaliser was a little vignette of Andy Gray’s career; a low, driven cross met airborne and virtually horizontally with the forehead amongst the muck and bullets at the near post to power past a wrong-footed keeper.
His second header soon after was even better, coming at an angle to the goal and under severe pressure from a defender.
The diving header as an art form may be virtually extinct now, but Gray – probably the last and greatest exponent of it – at least got to install himself as the example by which all imitations must be measured.
Having come through another epic in the FA Cup semi-final with Luton Town an unprecedented treble was now within Everton’s grasp. The side was virtually unchanged from week to week and not a game went by when either or both of Everton’s rampaging Scots weren’t adding to the goals-scored column. It was now time to unleash the in-form pair on the continent’s finest in what will almost certainly remain Goodison Park’s greatest night.
Bayern Munich may not have been quite the force of the 1970s when Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller helped them to win three successive European Cups, but they still had players of immense pedigree. Indeed, after the goalless Cup Winners Cup semi-final first leg in Bayern’s iconic Olympiastadion, their legendary coach Udo Lattek was rather disparaging about the English champions-elect. So when the Bavarians arrived on Merseyside a fortnight later, the fire in Everton’s bellies needed no extra stoking than that gifted to them by their scoffing opponent.
Kendall knew his team had to earn the right to play against Bayern, who had plenty of muscle to go with their undoubted finesse. Blows and digs were traded and once Reid had been given a terrible gash to his right leg by Dieter Hoeness – which turned his white sock almost completely red with blood – Everton knew they had to turn up the physical pressure several notches.
Bayern took the lead – and vitally on away goals – before half-time to briefly stun the vociferous home support. During the interval, Kendall famously told the players “Just kick towards the Gwladys Street end, the fans will suck it into the net.” It wasn’t the first time he had directly referenced the weight of Everton’s support during that era when urging his players on to glory. But now more than ever, the crowd would need to play its part in getting the Blues to the final in Rotterdam.
Right from the start of the second half Everton increased their intensity, as the manager had requested. The fans responded immediately and created a cacophony of noise and a palpable charge of electricity to the night air that reverberated around and conducted through the old wooden treadboards and iron girders of Archibald Leitch’s grand structural masterpiece.
Sharp and Gray wreaked havoc; it was like bringing a pair of lump hammers to a playground scuffle. Gray, especially, dished out the punishment and visibly unsettled Bayern’s normally unflappable international sweeper, Klaus Augenthaler.
Within minutes of the restart Everton were level. Gray rose highest to flick a long throw to the back post with his head, and just as Kendall had prophesised, the Gwladys Street terrace – to the right of my position in the Lower Bullens Stand – appeared to exert a Uri Geller-like influence to intervene. Sharp’s deft header crawled agonisingly toward the goal across the tacky playing surface. It seemed only to reach its intended target thanks to the collective inhalation of air by thousands of blue bobble-hatted Scousers.
Amid the mayhem, it seemed inevitable that a second goal would come, but we had to wait and suffer a little longer, despite Gray’s herculean efforts.
On 75 minutes, it finally arrived. Again, it was the Sharp and Gray combination that made the breakthrough. This time Sharp created uncertainty at the near post from a long throw allowing Gray to poke home the flick on (which actually came courtesy of the flapping hands of keeper Jean-Marie Pfaff) from close range. By this point, the blue tide was drowning the West Germans’ defence as wave after wave poured forward. Bayern were battered into submission. The white flag had gone up. A third and killer goal came soon before the end when Steven – played in by Gray’s exquisite reverse pass – raced through to sweep the ball past a bewildered Pfaff.
The final whistle nearly brought the roof off Goodison Park. In the stands people were embracing strangers around them, scarcely believing what they’d just been a part of. On the pitch, all the Everton players went to Gray to hug and congratulate him, for he was the talismanic figure that had hauled his team mates with him to glory and a first European final.
Everton duly secured their eighth First Division crown just a couple of weeks later, and despite slackening off in the last few fixtures of the season, they won it with a then-record points tally, 13 points clear of Liverpool.
Our intrepid strike pairing once again delivered in the Cup Winners’ Cup final against Rapid Vienna. Gray scored a volley from a beautiful cut back by Sharp, who was instrumental in the second by Steven – dummying at a corner to allow the right winger to net – and when playing in Sheedy for a third after Hans Krankl’s goal had given the Austrians an undeserved lifeline.
That they lost the FA Cup final to 10-man Manchester United who gained revenge for the humiliating experience at Goodison in October just three days later on the energy sapping Wembley turf in extra time is something of a travesty. Some say they had celebrated their midweek European triumph a bit too vigorously, a charge the players have always strenuously denied. The domestic double was there for the taking; a treble when adding the Cup Winners Cup to the tally. Likely the players thought this incredible season was just the beginning of many more to come and that they were embarking on a period of success to match anything they had seen down the road at Anfield.
Sadly, of course, any hope of that was curtailed after the events of May 29th 1985 in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.
In the cold light of reality, the fallout from the Heysel disaster wasn’t the only factor that sent Everton into decline just as they were being lauded as the best team in Europe – not that many of the fans saw it that way at the time. Some still don’t.
The subsequent ban from European club competition for all English clubs which lasted five years (six for Liverpool) adversely affected the Toffees more than any other club, denying them a tilt at the big prize in 1985/86. In combination with the myopic handling of the club by the board, Everton failed to capitalise on their success and the absence from Europe only hastened the departures of key personnel: Steven and Stevens to Rangers for example, and Howard Kendall – the architect of it all – to Athletic Bilbao in Spain.
In the summer of 1985, Andy Gray moved his family permanently to Merseyside from the Midlands, having held off for the best part of two years not knowing where his long-term future lay. His dodgy knees were functioning again and at 30 years old, after the season he’d just had, he had every right to expect to be with Everton for a while longer. He’d even earned a recall to the Scotland squad for a World Cup qualifier with Iceland, two years after his last appearance.
However, he was in for a shock when rumours about Gary Lineker joining the club from Leicester City were confirmed by the unsentimental Kendall. No longer guaranteed his place in the team, Gray promptly returned to the Midlands with former club Aston Villa. His career meandered to a conclusion thereafter with mixed results at West Bromwich Albion, Rangers and Cheltenham Town.
Everton’s style of play changed markedly once Gray was replaced by Lineker. Sure, the younger man was fitter, faster and scored goals by the bagful – 40 in all competitions in his solitary season at Goodison – but Kendall became enamoured with the direct approach as the way ahead. Sharp also netted 29 times that year in a season when Everton somehow contrived to finish empty-handed (Liverpool doing the League and FA Cup double over them just to rub blue noses in it).
More than that, the team never really played with the same vitality and joy that the 84/85 vintage had done, and for that, Gray’s departure – greatly mourned by the supporters who had come to love his wholehearted commitment – must be held greatly responsible.
Graeme Sharp was perceived as the support act to both Gray and Lineker, despite being a better player than both. Once they were moved on Sharp rightly took centre stage and by the time he left Goodison Park in 1991 during Kendall’s second spell in charge, he had become Everton’s highest post-war goal scorer, second only to the incomparable Dixie Dean on the club’s all-time list.
He too became a Scotland international but he was vying for inclusion during what was possibly the toughest decade to be chosen up front for the national team: Frank McAvennie, Mo Johnston, Charlie Nicholas, David Speedie, Steve Archibald, Ally McCoist and, of course, Kenny Dalglish to name just a few who were regularly in contention. Therefore, to have won a dozen caps – and been one of six Everton players who went to the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico – was respectable enough, although Scotland never managed to tap into Sharp’s all-round ability as a centre forward for the likes of Davie Cooper, Gordon Strachan and Pat Nevin to feed off.
After a disappointing spell as the manager of Oldham Athletic, Sharp returned to his spiritual home of Everton in the capacity of club ambassador, meeting and greeting fans and performing various roles at corporate and media functions. While hardly the stereotypical dour Scot, he lacked the fizzy persona of his ex-colleague when in front of the TV cameras.
If you look back at any of Gray’s interviews during his playing days, he was always an erudite and willing talker. Therefore, it was no great surprise that he was able to carve himself out a hugely successful career as the first real super-pundit of the Premier League satellite TV age.
Sky Sports almost lost Gray’s services in 1997 when Everton needed to replace Joe Royle as manager. Given his history as a player, he was the popular choice at a time when the club were desperate for an inspirational figurehead to lift the torpor around Goodison Park. The deal was practically done when his employers sensed some reluctance on Gray’s part. They jumped in at the last minute and offered him a bumper new contract to remain and spearhead their leap forward into the technical side of football analysis. Fearing he couldn’t cut it in the precarious world of the dugout, he backed away and subsequently lost a degree of the respect from Evertonians that he’d built up in his time as a barnstorming forward a decade earlier.
Alex Young – the former coal miner and Hearts forward nicknamed the Golden Vision – may be the most revered Scot to pull on the royal blue jersey of Everton, but even he didn’t have the impact of Andy Gray and Graeme Sharp. What’s all the more remarkable is that the duo started barely 50 games together. Yet, they achieved so much and still engender a huge amount of affection from Evertonians for the partnership they cultivated during the club’s most successful era. They may not have elevated Everton to the summit of European football by themselves – the manager’s alchemy and the rest of the team had a large part to play in that – but the Glasgow goal-getters were the special ingredients that turned a good side into a great one, albeit far too briefly for those – like myself – who idolised them for their telepathic understanding of one another’s game and strong-arm approach to their craft.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Everton have been searching in vain for their successors ever since.