Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 5: Howard Kendall and Everton change the balance of power on Merseyside and beyond.

Part 1: Clough and Taylor conquer Europe (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings- The late 70’s and the 80’s when Football was really Football: Clough and Taylor conquer Europe.)

 Part 2: Bob Paisley and the legendary Anfield Boot Room dominate England and Europe (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 2- Bob Paisley and the legendary Anfield Boot Room dominate England and Europe.)

 Part 3: How Aston Villa won the League, then the European Cup, and were then relegated (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 3- How Aston Villa won the League, then the European Cup, and were then relegated.)

 Part 4: Elton John, Graham Taylor and the astounding rise of Watford (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 4- Elton John, Graham Taylor and the astounding rise of Watford.)

 In one of those strange quirks of footballing supporting fate, a sliding doors moment if you will, I perhaps could (some might even say should…) have been an Evertonian.

In my very early formative years as a football fan my father and great uncle (sadly no longer with us) used to regale me with tales of the “School of [Soccer] Science” and of the Blues’ midfield Holy Trinity of Harvey, Kendall and Ball. Indeed, the very first match I ever attended was at Goodison Park: a 2-1 victory over Arsenal the team that, thanks to the intervention of my cousin, seven years my senior, would become my own.

Even though I ended up following a different football-supporting path, Everton have always remained a club and supporter base that is very close to my heart. Now that Highbury is no longer with us, I still count the old traditional Goodison Park as my favourite football ground in this country. Mrs Football Nerd, who still remembers ‘fondly’ being dragged in the Boxing Day snow to visit one of football’s cathedrals for a distinctly forgettable match against Bolton, can certainly attest to that!

As a result, the story that we are about to explore is one that carries a personal resonance for me, not merely from the ‘anyone but Liverpool’ perspective that any self-respecting football obsessive of the 80’s not from the red part of Merseyside will empathise with, but more because of the bond that I continue to feel for the Toffees.

As has been illustrated through the preceding parts of this Coronavirus lockdown-inspired retrospective, while Liverpool were unquestionably the dominant force in English and European football in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the teams that stood out the most alongside them were those that challenged them (Watford), or beat them in the title race while also experiencing European Cup success (Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa). However, in 1984 a new threat to the Reds’ superiority emerged from just across Stanley Park, Howard Kendall’s Everton.

A founder member of the Football League, Everton became the first club to play 100 consecutive seasons in the top-flight, experiencing spells of significant success along the way and winning the title on seven occasions, albeit the last of those having come in 1969-70. Their relative decline however came just as their cross-city rivals were continuing to stamp their authority on English football under Bill Shankly and then Bob Paisley.

During the Seventies Everton failed to push on from their championship win at the start of the decade and instead had to watch as their rivals scooped up four league titles and two European Cups. In May 1981 former holy trinity member Howard Kendall returned to Goodison Park as player-manager having very nearly guided Blackburn Rovers to the First Division, missing out only on the basis of goal difference.

Kendall’s early seasons at the helm however provided little to suggest what was about to come with eighth and then seventh placed finishes in the first two campaigns. What Kendall had done in his first two and half seasons in charge was to lay the foundations for a resurgence of the club, bringing in goalkeeper Neville Southall, wide-midfielder Trevor Steven and a combative midfielder with an eye for a defence-splitting pass, Peter Reid, amongst a raft of others.

The Toffees started the 1983/84 season disastrously winning just six of their opening twenty-one league matches, the nadir coming in December 1983 when after a goalless draw against Coventry City, those remaining from the sparse 14,000 Goodison attendance booed the players from the pitch. At that stage Everton were hovering just above the relegation zone and rumours abounded that Kendall was on the verge of being sacked.

Just before then Kendall had completed another piece of astute transfer business with the signing of Andy Gray (yes that Andy Gray for anyone of the Sky Sports era!) still something of a star striker despite him nearing his thirties, for £250,000 from Wolves to partner fellow Scot Graeme Sharp at the tip of Everton’s attacking spear.

An away trip to Oxford for a League Cup game in January was the unlikely source of salvation for Kendall, where a blind back pass by the lower league team’s defender Kevin Brock was seized upon by Adrian Heath who equalized saving Everton’s blushes, probably their season and in all likelihood Kendall’s job.

The second half of 1983/84 was a very different story from the first as Kendall’s side seemed to click into gear, they won all but three of their remaining twenty-one league games and reached the finals of both the League Cup and the FA Cup, a side, a manager and a club very much transformed.

Frustratingly, they were held to a draw at Wembley by their great rivals from across the park Liverpool in the League Cup and then lost the replay at Maine Road thanks to the only goal from Graeme Sounness midway through the first half. The FA Cup Final however was a very different story, in that game goals from Sharp and Gray (albeit controversially as he ‘appeared’ to head it out of goalkeeper Steve Sherwood’s hands) were sufficient to win Everton their first FA Cup for eighteen years and to break the hearts of Elton John and Watford ( ).

Ahead of the following season Kendall bolstered the squad further with the acquisition of Paul Bracewell, signed from Sunderland for £425,000 to play alongside Reid at the heart of the midfield, and Pat Van Den Hauwe a tough tackling left back from Birmingham City who revelled in his nickname of “Psycho Pat” to such an extent that he eventually opted for the moniker as the title of his autobiography at the end of his playing days.

In the traditional pre-season curtain raiser, the Charity Shield, Everton despatched Joe Fagan’s Liverpool who had won the treble of: League title, European Cup and League Cup during the previous season, thanks to a bizarre own goal off the shins of keeper Bruce Grobbelaar, providing the slightest hint that the balance of power on Merseyside might be beginning to shift and laying the foundations for what the vast majority of Evertonians recognise as Everton’s greatest ever season.

Everton romped to the 1984/85 League title topping the table with 90 points, 13 ahead of Liverpool and Tottenham, despite losing their opening two matches: 4-1 at home to Spurs and 2-1 away at West Brom. Kendall’s men wrapped up the title in early May with a 2-0 victory over QPR with five games still to play.

In the European Cup Winners Cup they were surprisingly made to work to get past Irish minnows and part-timers University College Dublin in the first round, eventually squeezing through just 1-0 on aggregate. However, they then breezed past Inter Bratislava from what was then Czechoslovakia, and then Dutch side Fortuna Sittard to set up an immense semi-final against West German giants Bayern Munich.

After a solid and creditable enough goalless first leg with something of a patched-up team in Germany, the second leg is widely regarded as Goodison Park’s greatest ever night. Even all these years later watching it on YouTube, the atmosphere created by the 50,000 Evertonians roaring on their team and the attritional sense of the contest that night are inescapable. The main battle ground was in the heart of the midfield where Reid and Bracewell not only stood up to but got the better of Lothar Matthäus and gifted Danish midfielder Søren Lerby.

Such was the intensity of Everton’s pressing and the way that the tackles were flying in that it prompted Bayern manager Udo Latteck to protest to the Everton bench, shouting: “Kendall, this is not football!’, only to be met with the resounding response of “F**k off!” from his Everton counterpart. Kendall later explained that his approach had been very much deliberate: “We decided before the game to bomb them. I felt the best way to approach the tie was to put them under immediate pressure”.  It did the trick and Everton won the match despite trailing 1-0 at the break, thanks to second half goals from the two Scots up front Sharp and then Gray and a third from Trevor Steven, and sealed a place in their first ever, and to date only, European final.

So to De Kuip in Rotterdam on the 15th of May and a final clash against Rapid Vienna of Austria.  The first half was one of few chances but for an Andy Gray ‘goal’ ruled out somewhat controversially for offside. Everton grasped the impetus in the second half and goals from Gray and Steven put them 2-0 up with just over quarter of an hour to play. With time starting to run out, a seemingly offside Hans Krankl pulled one back for the Austrians. Thankfully before panic could set in amongst the watching blue hordes, Sharp set up mercurial wide left playmaker Kevin Sheedy who lofted the ball over keeper Michael Konsel to ensure yet another European trophy success for English football.

The Blues had little time to celebrate their achievement however as just three days later they faced Manchester United with the chance to complete a treble just as their city rivals had the previous season. Maybe it was fatigue at the end of a long season as Everton, like their opponents Manchester United were playing their sixtieth match of the season, maybe it was the occasion being over-hyped but Everton failed to really get going despite United’s Kevin Moran becoming the first player ever to be sent off in an FA Cup Final for a fairly rudimentary lunge to stop Peter Reid in his tracks. In the end it was the ten men of United who won out in extra time thanks to a stunning curling effort from Norman Whiteside that would fill highlight reels and the intros to sports programmes on the BBC for years to come.

The team that so nearly won a fantastic treble was based around British football’s go to system of a traditional and solid 4-4-2. Southall in goal was so good that season that he won the Football Writers’ Player of the Year award. In front of him the well-organised defence pretty much picked itself with defensively solid but forward focused full-backs Gary Stevens and Van Den Hauwe flanking the ever-dependable centre backs: skipper Kevin Ratcliffe and Derek Mountfield.

In midfield many Evertonians would argue that the Steven-Reid-Bracewell-Sheedy quartet was even better balanced and more effective than the holy trinity of Harvey-Kendall-Ball in the 60’s. Up-front despite losing attacking protégé Adrian “Inchy (Inch-High)” Heath to injury in late Autumn Sharp and Gray proved more than capable of carrying the goalscoring load, netting a total of 44 goals between them. The duo were ably supported by a further 33 goals from Sheedy and Steven on the flanks and a staggering 14 from defender Mountfield who had a more than handy knack of getting on the end of set-piece crosses into the box more often than not from Sheedy’s wand of a left foot.

At the start of the 1985/86 season Everton pulled off the capture of a certain Gary Lineker from Leicester City who had the previous season finished joint top-scorer in the First Division alongside Kerry Dixon of Chelsea with 24 goals. The £800,000 fee, while by no means a record, signified how highly the then 24-year old was rated. Surprisingly it was Ron Atkinson’s FA Cup holders who set the early pace winning their opening ten matches, their unbeaten run would eventually stretch to fifteen games before they came a cropper at Sheffield Wednesday losing 1-0. United then fell away spectacularly losing ten of their remaining twenty-seven matches and ultimately finishing fourth.

As United faltered the title race boiled down to a battle between reigning champions Everton and the era’s most dominant side Liverpool, now led by player-manager Kenny Dalglish in an intriguing head-to-head tussle. Although another surprise package, West Ham United, powered by the goals of Frank McAvennie and Tony Cottee (who would eventually sign for Everton in 1988), would hang on the coattails of the Merseyside clubs right to the end, eventually finishing third their highest ever league finish.

After a slow start to the season Everton deposed United at the top of the table in early February and after a 2-0 win at Anfield later that month they stood 3 points ahead of United with a game in hand and 8 points ahead of Liverpool, the championship looked very much as if it was in the bag for a second successive season. Liverpool bounced back from that home defeat and reeled off a run of ten wins and just one draw to maintain the pressure on Kendall’s men. During that run-in Everton slipped up at both Luton and Oxford giving their great rivals the chance to pip them at the final post if they could win at Stamford Bridge in their final game, which they duly did thanks to a solitary goal from their manager.

Worse still was to follow for the Blues a week later when two goals from Ian Rush and another from Aussie international Craig Johnston saw Liverpool come from behind to clinch the modern era’s third Double, the fifth in history. Everton finished the season empty handed save for the Charity Shield and Gary Lineker’s golden boot thanks to his 30 league goals. Lineker would go on to play a starring role at the Mexico World Cup where his six goals clinched another golden boot and a transfer to join Terry Venables at Barcelona.

After being cruelly denied by Liverpool on two fronts and without their leading goal scorer Everton didn’t make any marquee signings going into 1986/87 other than central defender Dave Watson a £900,000 purchase from Norwich City. They were to prove the strongest team once again and won the title thanks mainly to two strong surges of: six straight wins either side of Christmas and a run of seven consecutive wins through March and April.  They clinched their second title in three years at Carrow Road with a 1-0 win thanks to a goal from Van Den Hauwe.

Wayne Clarke, youngest brother of Leeds legend Alan “Sniffer” Clarke, joined from Birmingham in the Spring as a belated replacement for Lineker and scored 5 goals in 10 appearances. However, Everton’s strength that season was that they shared the goal scoring around the team with Steven with 15, and Sheedy and the fit again Heath with 14 a piece, being the leading contributors.

Tragically the sad events at Heysel in 1985 and the resulting exclusion of English clubs from European competition meant that Everton were never able to test themselves in the European Cup although you would be hard-pressed to find any Everton supporter who wouldn’t suggest that they would have almost certainly joined Liverpool, Forest and Aston Villa as winners of Europe’s premier trophy in the Eighties, at least once!

Howard Kendall, deservedly voted Manager of the Year for a second time in 1986/87, announced in the summer that, frustrated by the lack of European competition, he was departing for a new challenge at Athletic Bilbao. He was replaced by fellow Holy Trinity member Colin Harvey who could only guide the Blues to fourth, eighth and sixth place finishes before being sacked in October 1990 to be replaced by Kendall. This time Kendall couldn’t rekindle the magic and Everton haven’t genuinely challenged at the top of the English game since.

8 thoughts on “Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 5: Howard Kendall and Everton change the balance of power on Merseyside and beyond.

  1. I remember watching this team at the height of their powers against Sunderland. The march featured a classic headed goal by Grey from a cross by Sheedy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A classic Gray diving header, he was only inches off the ground if I remember correctly. I think we also saw Lineker score a hat trick where Reid just lobbed balls over the high defensive line for him to chase, can’t remember who it was against though, maybe Sheffield Wednesday?


  2. I had the pleasure of meeting Howard Kendall in 1994, when he brought Xanthi FC for a training trip to the UK. They stayed at Essex University student accommodation, I was helping out with the Summer School there and trying to get into a very cute Belgian student’s knickers. My brother Alfonso and me met Howard at the Uni’s training facilities, as Xanthi prepared for a friendly vs Colchester United. He was very approachable and friendly, we arranged to meet at the union bar later on after he’d sent the players to bed and were astonished when he actually turned up that evening. Once there he proceeded to flirt (in jest, he wasn’t really serious) with the Belgian girl which spurred me on to make my move (successfully! So really that was down to him, for which I am very grateful). We played several games of pool and he cheated throughout, winning every game. He also ordered three bottles of the most expensive wine in the bar and insisted on paying for all the drinks. He was was witty, generous, informative and great company. I so wish I’d taken up his offer to visit him in Greece, with the promise of free game tickets and a pool replay! He seemed so genuine that I’d like to believe he would have remembered us. And that’s my Howard Kendall anecdote, as a football nut I was made up to meet him, but also pleasantly surprised at what fun and a nice person he was. RIP


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