I had originally planned to get this written when things were looking pretty bleak for Everton under the stewardship of Agent Rafa, the Spanish Championship League-winner who was surely placed at Goodison by Liverpool fans hoping to get their rivals relegated.
Due to my slow start, Benitez has been sacked and replaced by Frank Lampard’s Chelsea Frank Lampard and the threat of relegation has probably disappeared in a puff of smoke unless, you know, Frank actually isn’t a very good head coach after all?
But, right now (especially if I get this finished sharpish) the Premier League table still looks a little bleak for the Toffees – but, admittedly, not quite as bleak as it did when the Everton fans woke up and considered what they would have for breakfast on May 7th, 1994.
An overworked stat in football – or should that be fact? – is that Everton have played the most top-flight matches in English football history having only ever been relegated twice and not staying relegated for very long.
In fairness, the club had barely even battered its eyelashes at the second tier, Second Division, Championship, First Division (when it was the second tier) or whatever it has been called – let alone flirted with it.
That was certainly not the case on the final day of the 1993/94 season when Everton needed to beat Wimbledon and hope that Stoke could do them a bit of a favour against Dave Bassett’s Sheffield United.
Founder of the Football Pink, Mark Godfrey – an Everton fan of many years – gives us a little more background;
I could go on forever about 93/94 but I won’t!
Essentially, the club was allowed to just drift along in the early 90s. The boardroom malaise set in; good players were replaced by poorer, cheaper alternatives and Howard Kendall walked away for a second time because he felt undermined and unsupported by the board – particularly over a failed move for Dion Dublin. We should never have been in any danger considering we were one of the 5 wealthy clubs that really instigated the Premier League in 1992. And we should always have had enough to never get into the state we did.
Once Kendall left they didn’t appoint a successor for weeks. Jimmy Gabriel took caretaker charge and I think we lost 6 out of 7 and barely scored. They pursued Mike Walker who was the upcoming manager in England at the time and had done wonders with Norwich, so it looked fairly bright. We certainly didn’t expect to end the season staring at relegation on the final day.
Anyway, he took over and the football got worse. He tried to overcomplicate the style of play and we sleepwalked into the relegation zone. All the fans could see it but Walker maintained a veneer of calm and confidence while all around him burned. I’m sure there’s a meme to fit the situation!
The last day scenario against a decent Wimbledon side looked hard enough on paper before what transpired…
Ah, yes – that last day scenario. Having lost 3-0 to Leeds the previous weekend, Everton kicked off in the bottom three. They sat a point behind Southampton, Sheffield United and Ipswich Town and one point above future manager Joe Royle’s Oldham Athletic.Â
There were permutations aplenty to hand but, keeping it as simple as some of the football on show in the era, Everton just had to win and hope for the best.Â
Goodison Park was packed and determined to make it as intimidating as possible for the visit of Wimbledon, well on track for a Premier League best finish of 6th place – a decent side, make no mistake. They were unbeaten in nine, having won seven of those matches. The task in front of the Toffees was sizeable – sizeable enough that the fans thought they could help unsettle the Crazy Gang by setting fire to their team bus the night before the game.Â
As per FourFourTwo in 2012, “It was win at all costs,” recalls former Everton right-back Ian Snodin. He and his team-mates knew that if Everton drew they would need Ipswich to lose at Blackburn in order to stay up they would be unable to catch Southampton and Sheffield United, who had vastly superior goal differences. “No matter what we did, if everyone else won their game we’d be relegated,” says former striker Tony Cottee. “We were relying on others.”
Sheffield United were, of course, managed by former Dons boss Dave ‘Harry’ Bassett who no doubt hoped his old boss Sam Hamman could do him a good turn by getting the result the Blades desperately wanted.
“Sam Hammam felt he had been snubbed once by Everton and wanted to see their demise,” says Bassett in his book Harry’s Game. “He even offered his players a holiday in Las Vegas if they won.”
Despite the noise of the crowd, Everton did not get off to the flyer they hoped for. Within four minutes, they were a goal down. Anders Limpar, for no other apparent reason other than brain freeze, handled in the area. Robbie Hart gave the penalty and Dean Holdsworth tucked it away. No matter though, there was a lot of football to be played – stay calm, folks.
If that was a bad start, it got worse in the 20th minute. One of those Wimbledon free kicks, put in an area, caused confusion between ever-reliable Dave Watson and David Unsworth. Their collision allowed Andy Clarke to get a shot away, albeit off-target. Trying to clear the danger in front of him, the late Gary Ablett turned the ball into his own net. Everton trailed 2-0. The jig looked very much up.
I was at home, 200 miles away, for that game; listening on BBC Radio 2 or 5Live (can’t remember which it was by then). I hadn’t really had time to get nervous or consider the consequences of defeat and we were a goal down. Even though it was so early – and calamitous – the panic hadn’t set in yet. That came when we conceded an equally soft second goal on about 20 mins. The knowledge that not only did we have to win, and other results go our way, really hit home at 2 down. Almost all my mates were Newcastle fans. They were on the way up and loving life under Keegan and there’s no way they would give me an easy ride if Everton went down. It would have been a hellish summer of pisstaking if they were about to challenge for the title while we were forced to go to Grimsby on a Tuesday night. What a mess for a club of Everton’s stature!
Straight after the second, Holdsworth missed a sitter that would have made it 3-0 and killed Everton off. It was a chance Wimbledon, and Sheffield United, would come to regret missing.
A few minutes later, the lifeline the Everton fans had been praying for was offered free of charge. Limpar, clearly keen to atone for his earlier error bought a penalty of his own, going down under a ‘challenge’ from Peter Fear in the box.Â
Up stepped Graham Stuart – possibly the most important shot, unopposed, from 18 yards an Everton player had ever had to take. There was life.Â
But was there? Five minutes after Stuart scored, news filtered in that Jostein Flo has scored for the Blades at Chelsea and then right before half-time, Matthew Le Tissier curled a free-kick home to draw Southampton level against West Ham. Everton went into the break with scores elsewhere going against them, let alone the fact they were still trailing themselves.Â
“Having got a goal back, there was no need for me to start shouting,” says Mike Walker, whose players were not made aware of what was happening elsewhere. “The players still knew what they had to do.”
“It helped that it was still win or bust,” says Cottee. “We had to go out and keep piling on the pressure. And we did. I don’t remember Wimbledon having too many chances in the second half.”Â
Everton reappeared in the second half knowing that scores elsewhere were immaterial unless they could score twice with no reply in the next 45 minutes.Â
That said, eyes were being kept on the other scores – naturally. Southampton went ahead, a result that would make them safe if they could hold on. Chelsea equalised but then Bassett’s team scored almost immediately – starting to believe they were home and dry.Â
Everton needed to do something, urgently. And in these moments, you often find the most unlikely of heroes.Â Â
A ball broke loose to Barry Horne who, as you’d expect, had barely got a shot on target all season let alone scored. The roof came off Goodison when he smashed one home from fully 30 yards.
“Oh, Horne!” cried Barry Davies on Match of the Day.Â
It bought Everton a ticket, but there were no lottery wins on the table just yet – even with Horne’s wonder-strike, they were still facing second-tier football full in the face.Â
Then, in the 77th minute, the screw started to turn a little more – Mark Stein levelled things up for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Nerves could start to get at the Blades if they thought about it too much…Â
The 81st minute. Stuart takes a tame-ish pot-shot at the goal of Hans Segers, having linked up with Tony Cottee. The ball squirms under the Dutch goalkeeper – move along, nothing to see here (especially after all claims of match-fixing were thoroughly refuted and never, ever proven). Everton led with nine regulation minutes of the season remaining and, more importantly, were out of the relegation zone for the first time that day.Â
Then came the fightback. Fragile at first; a dodgy penalty; the unlikely thunderbolt from Barry Horne; results elsewhere slowly turning in our favour. At 2-2 with about 8 minutes left, I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous in my life. That late in the day we were still down. Then Stuart’s winner went in and I remember going berserk! Our dog got the fright of her life and cowered behind the sofa as I charged and screamed around the living room. Then last few minutes were also fraught, desperate for the final whistle and news from other grounds.
The news from the other grounds, indeed. When the Ev went ahead, Ipswich were down. They piled forward, understandably panicking. Then, a late, late, hammer blow at the Bridge. Mark Stein scored again. Sheffield United were now the ones staring into the abyss and, unsurprisingly, Ipswich started pushing forward a little less. The final whistle went and the Blades were down – and, somehow, Everton were not.
“When you play Russian Roulette, you sometimes get the bullet,” said a pensive Dave Bassett after the game.
Â Mike Walker had certainly dodged a bullet.
Â “The scenes after the game were unbelievable,” said Walker. “There were grown men crying.” Although the champagne corks popped in the Everton dressing room, not everybody was in the mood for celebrating. “From my point of view it was a time of relief,” says Cottee, who left the club four months later. “Celebrations are for cup finals and winning the league.”
The fans rejoiced – and rightly so.
â€œWho needs Cantona when weâ€™ve got Barry Horne?â€ was the most popular post-match chant as Everton fans celebrated their unlikely escape from the drop.
And what about Everton fan, Mark Godfrey?
When that came the feeling of relief and elation were indescribable. Shouldn’t have felt so happy that we had won that game because we should never have been in that situation. It’s a season every Evertonian wants to forget, but that game against Wimbledon is impossible not to remember fondly. It was one of the few days in the past 30 years when everyone was united and behind the team when it needed us. It was said that Everton should never be allowed to get in such a position again, but we did – a few times – and the 21/22 feels a lot like 93/94 in so many ways, it’s no surprise that the supporters are starting to panic. We all have that as our reference. And remember: you’d have to be in your 80s to even remotely remember the last time Everton were relegated. The fear then – and now – was unbearable.
At the time of reaching the conclusion of this piece, Everton sit 17th in the Premier League – three points above Roy Hodgson’s Watford, though with two games in hand over the Hornets.
Lampard has not had the effect many had hoped for – yes, there was the 1-0 home win over Newcastle recently but the 4-0 FA Cup defeat to Palace tells us much about where the team is at.Â
Lampard seems keen to deflect the team’s current situation away from being anything to do with him – it’s all Rafa’s fault remember – which begs the question of what he is actually doing with the players during the week. After all, a new manager is brought it knowing the situation – brought in to manage the situation and coach their way out of it.Â
With 11 Premier League fixtures remaining, this will be the closest Everton have come to going down since the 90s.Â
Can they survive? On paper, you’d think so – Everton fans will hope so. But lurking right below their still relatively inexperienced manager are two men with many, many successful relegation battles under their belt – Sean Dyche and the aforementioned Hodgson.Â
Will the trip to the Emirates to face Arsenal on May 22 be as pivotal as the visit of Wimbledon back in 1994? We will have to wait and see.
Thanks to the previous guardian of the Football Pink, Mark Godfrey, for his input into this piece and quotes are mainly taken from FourFourTwo’s excellent piece on that final day here.