January 18th 1984 may not be a date that jumps out at most football fans, indeed it may not strike much of a chord when Evertonians look at it. But this date, and more specifically the game that took place on that cold Wednesday evening is one that all Toffees fans remember fondly.
Manchester United have their famous legend about Sir Alex Ferguson’s job being saved by a cup goal from Mark Robins at Nottingham Forest. Six years earlier the very same scenario stared Everton manager Howard Kendall in the face.
Kendall, one of the club’s revered ‘Holy Trinity’ of midfielders in the late 60’s and early 70’s alongside Colin Harvey and Alan Ball, had taken over in the Goodison Park hotseat in the summer of 1981, charged with reviving the fortunes of a team living in the shadow of its near neighbours Liverpool, who were winning everything shiny both at home and in Europe.
During his early days at the helm, Kendall worked with a relatively small budget and many players of dubious standard came and went without much of an improvement in Everton’s standing. One thing that did flourish for the Blues’ was their investment in young talent, both home-grown and purchased.
Players such as Graeme Sharp, Kevin Sheedy and Neville Southall were brought in cheaply to play alongside youth team products like Kevin Ratcliffe and Gary Stevens. Kendall had been given three years to mould these players together, but a disappointing start to the 1983-84 campaign meant that his time was running out fast.
Languishing in 18th place in the First Division just above the relegation zone, Everton went into their Milk Cup quarter-final at the Manor Ground desperate for a win to save their season and to save the manager’s job. A defeat to Oxford United would almost certainly have led to Kendall’s exit, therefore altering the club’s subsequent history.
Oxford, despite being from two divisions below their more celebrated opponents, were expertly managed by the wily Jim Smith. The ‘Bald Eagle’ had masterminded the downfall of Newcastle United and Leeds United from the Second Division in the early rounds then after two replays conquered the mighty Manchester United in the 4th round.
Both sides lined up in front of a sell-out crowd wedged into the quaint Manor Ground to play on a pitch more reminiscent of a day at the beach, such was the amount of sand dumped on it.
The early skirmishes saw Everton go close through Sheedy and Oxford threaten with set pieces and the pacey George Lawrence on the right wing. Alan Irvine showed there was nothing wrong with the Toffees’ spirit or attitude with a crunching tackle on Trevor Hebberd which earned the Scotsman a yellow card. Such a tackle today would probably see the Everton winger jailed for assault!
Jim Smith, with more than a passing resemblance to Derek Trotter or Arthur Daley in his flat cap and camel-hair coat, reorganised his side following Hebberd’s departure and brought them in at half-time with the score a creditable 0-0.
Smith’s team talk at the break must have been a good one as United poured forward at every opportunity, heaping constant pressure on Kendall’s men. They were finally rewarded with a deserved breakthrough on 67 minutes when Everton’s Paul Calf-lookalike, Alan Harper, conceded a free kick down their right hand side.
The resultant free-kick was swung over by Kevin Brock and after a far post knock down, Bobby McDonald prodded home to give the minnows a shock lead in the tie. The thread by which Kendall’s job hung was becoming increasingly frayed.
As the clock ticked down, Oxford looked in control. Kendall withdrew ineffective former Kop hero, David Johnson and pushed Adrian ‘Inchy’ Heath up front in an attempt to grab an equaliser for the Merseysiders.
With just 8 minutes to go, and with Kendall’s P45 being readied for the morning post, Oxford midfielder Brock, who had been instrumental in the goal that put them ahead, carelessly played the ball back towards his keeper.
Livewire Heath stole in behind the Oxford defence to round Steve Hardwick and calmly slotted home to bring Everton level and spare their blushes. Despite one more valiant effort from Oxford in the closing minutes, Heath’s vital goal earned his side and more importantly his manager, another bite at the cherry.
Thanks to that goal Howard Kendall avoided the sack and Everton went on to win the replay 4-1 at Goodison.
For Oxford United and Jim Smith, their elimination would not put a damper on their season as they went on to clinch the Third Division title. The club owned by crooked media walrus Robert Maxwell would achieve more success over the next two years as they won the Second Division championship in 1985 and a shot at the big time followed by League Cup glory in 1986 when they defeated QPR 3-0 at Wembley.
This result not only saved Howard Kendall’s career, but proved to be the springboard for a spell of success never before seen by Evertonians.
Although the Blues would eventually lose the 1984 Milk Cup Final to local rivals Liverpool in a replay, they would finish the season like a rocket, climbing from 18th to 7th in the league table and securing their first trophy since 1970, when defeating Watford 2-0 in the FA Cup final.
More silverware would follow. Two league championships and the European Cup Winners Cup added to the haul which could have been more without defeats in other cup finals.
Kendall himself left Everton after their 1987 League Championship triumph to try his hand on the continental stage with Athletic Bilbao in Spain, the ban imposed on English clubs after the Heysel Stadium tragedy twice denying his team a chance at European Cup glory.
But without Adrian Heath’s goal on that January night, Kendall and Everton would have had none of those heady days to look back on.