Stuart Roberts presents the depressing story of yet another season-long struggle against the drop for England's longest serving top-flight team
SEASON REVIEW, 1997-98
by Stuart Roberts
For most Evertonians the 1997/8 season began with wary optimism, and stuttered
into a weary and fortunate finale.
The Messiah was back. Howard Kendall had once again accepted the gargantuan task of rebuilding Everton, and, having done a fine job of strengthening Sheffield United, it seemed as though his personal problems were behind him.
During an all too brief close season Kendall had still managed to bring in players who were highly regarded, if a little inexperienced. In John Oster he had acquired the services of one of football's brightest upcoming stars and young Irish hopeful Gareth Farrelly joined from Aston Villa. The Croatian international defender Slaven Bilic had previously agreed to join the club from West Ham, a deal that was to be completed after he had helped steer the Londoners to safety. Utility defender Tony Thomas had also signed from neighbours Tranmere Rovers.
The Goodison crowd greeted the team with the optimism that goes hand-in-hand with a new season as the players took to the pitch for the first game against Crystal Palace. After a bright start, when Everton should have taken the lead on several occasions, the always-menacing Attilio Lombardo put Palace in front and they never looked back. Graham Stuart, playing out of position as a fullback fouled Lombardo clumsily in the eighteen-yard area and the game was effectively over when Bruce Dyer converted the subsequent penalty kick. A late Ferguson header was all the blues could manage in reply.
The second game brought Everton their first points of the season and the odd sight of David Unsworth in a West Ham shirt. Unsworth had signed for West Ham as part of the deal that took young midfielder Danny Williamson to Goodison Park. Everton won the game 2-1 with goals from Graham Stuart and Dave Watson. Manchester United were the next visitors to Goodison and went home with their now customary win with a 2-0 scoreline.
The first away game of the season was at the new Reebok Stadium in Bolton. This was a match covered live by satellite television, and in spite of a good performance by the Blues, an unusually entertaining goalless draw was shrouded by a controversial incident that is talked about by Bolton fans to this day. Following a corner, Bolton managed to scramble the ball over the goal line, but the referee and linesman failed to spot this. It was a poor piece of work by the officials, although justice was done, as Neville Southall was clearly fouled by Nathan Blake immediately prior to the incident. However, if the goal had been allowed to stand and the result had stayed at 1-0 to Bolton, then Wanderers would have survived relegation at Everton's expense.
A defeat at another new ground, Pride Park, the new home of Derby County soon followed and Everton dropped into the relegation zone for the first time. A win, a loss and a draw against Barnsley, Newcastle and Arsenal respectively were sandwiched by a 6-0 aggregate win against Scunthorpe United in the Coca-Cola Cup. Two heavy defeats followed. A 4-1 thumping in the Coca-Cola Cup at Coventry followed hot on the heels of a 3-1 reverse at Sheffield Wednesday.
Everton were in 18th position and at a very low ebb as Liverpool were the visitors to Goodison Park. Although Everton had enjoyed the upper hand in recent games against the old enemy, even the most die-hard fan could not have hoped for a performance of such command and quality from the inexperienced blues. An own goal by Neil Ruddock and a stunning solo goal by teenager Danny Cadamarteri were scant reward for a performance of verve and style that had the cumbersome Liverpool defenders chasing shadows. Goodison's largest crowd of the season of 40,112 went home savouring a wonderful 2-0 victory.
An improved performance in the league game at Coventry saw the blues return north with a well-earned point, and in true Everton fashion the blues managed to upset the applecart in the next match as well. Southampton have traditionally been whipping boys at Goodison, but a near post header from Matthew Le Tissier and a superb run and shot from wunderkind Kevin Davies gave the Saints a thoroughly deserved win.
Successive defeats at Blackburn, Aston Villa, and Chelsea and at home to Spurs had the alarm bells ringing at Goodison and Everton were well worthy of their 20th out of 20 position. The game against Spurs was to mark the end of an era. Veteran goalkeeper Neville Southall made his final appearance for the club after a glittering career that spanned the best part of two decades. The man was a legend for most Evertonians and while new boy Thomas Myhre, signed from Viking Stavanger in Norway, appeared to be an able deputy, 'Big Nev' will always hold a very special place in the hearts of the Goodison faithful.
Draws against Leeds and Wimbledon, while providing two useful points, could not lift the malaise over Goodison, although had Gary Speed converted his penalty at Leeds the pressure on manager Howard Kendall would have been alleviated greatly. It was not to be however, and Everton went to Leicester City knowing that it had been a year since their last away win. Once again, defying logic, the blues fought their way to what would have been a valuable point, but the Leicester goalkeeper Keller had a sudden rush of blood to the head and tumbled youngster Cadamarteri over in the penalty area. In spite of the now common apoplectic fit from excitable Leicester manager Martin O'Neill, the referee Jeff Winter pointed correctly to the penalty spot. To Gary Speed's credit he again shouldered the responsibility of taking the kick, and although Keller got a good hand to the shot, the ball found the net and the massive travelling support from Everton began their Christmas celebrations a week early.
A predictable defeat at Old Trafford on Boxing Day was followed by a valuable 3-2 win against Bolton at Goodison, with new Captain Duncan Ferguson leading by tremendous example with a superb hat-trick. This was sadly to be the end of Andy Hinchcliffe's Everton career, as a move to Sheffield Wednesday soon followed. The manner of his departure was in stark contrast to that of Gary Speed, which is covered later on in this review. Hinchcliffe didn't ask for a move, nor did he particularly want to leave but as the club needed the money he was prepared to sacrifice his place at Goodison. A real pro if ever there was one.
A disappointing home defeat in the FA Cup 3rd Round by Newcastle was bad enough, but Everton nemesis Ian Rush scored the all-important goal after coming on as a substitute. As Rush came onto the field, the eerie sound of 20,000 Everton fans saying simultaneously 'oh God, he'll score the winner I guarantee it' reverberated across Goodison!
The free-transfer signing of French forward Mickael Madar from Deportivo La Coruna was greeted with great excitement by Everton fans. Rumours of his ability and fiery temper led to comparisons with Eric Cantona, and there is no doubting Madar had a big hand in the subsequent survival of the blues.
The win against Chelsea was to be the last game Gary Speed played for Everton. Citing disciplinary and training ground problems throughout the club, Speed demanded a transfer. To make certain that he got his move quickly he refused to travel to West Ham with the team, failing to turn up for the coach journey south. He was eventually granted his big money move to Newcastle United. His selfish attitude compares very unfavourably to that of Andy Hinchcliffe and even more so when one considers that Speed was supposed to be an Everton fan.
Draws in the aforementioned game at West Ham and at Barnsley left Everton in 15th place when disaster struck. Derby County were the visitors to Goodison Park and were being summarily outplayed when Duncan Ferguson was held back when through on goal. The Scotsman's reaction was to lash out with an elbow at Costa Rican forward Paolo Wanchope who made the most of the situation with an astonishing piece of play-acting. Nevertheless, the referee correctly sent Ferguson off, and Tony Grant, who had been playing so well, immediately picked up an injury that would keep him out for the rest of the season. Derby then took the lead to culminate the worst five minutes of the season for Everton. The match finished 2-1 to Derby, but the knowledge that Ferguson would miss a large part of the run-in meant that all the relegation nightmares came flooding back. Ferguson's last contribution for a month was a valuable goal in the 1-1 draw at Anfield.
Ex-Liverpool midfielder Don Hutchison joined the fray after a transfer from Sheffield United and made his debut in an awful 0-0 stalemate with Newcastle United. This game was most memorable for the abuse meted out to Gary Speed who had so recently left the club under such a cloud. A defeat at Southampton in a game Everton should have won comfortably led to nervous glances over the shoulder. Everton were in 16th position and time was running out.
A scrappy 1-0 win against Blackburn Rovers when John Spencer, a loan-signing from QPR made his debut, lifted the pressure slightly, but in the next game Everton were destroyed by Dwight Yorke and Julian Joachim in a superb Aston Villa performance. Villa ran out 4-1 winners, but no one could have complained if they had scored a couple more.
A 1-1 draw at struggling Tottenham Hotspur was the precursor to a massive result for the blues in the next game. Leeds United were the visitors to Goodison, and a goal from Don Hutchison and Duncan Ferguson's first goal since his four match suspension saw off the Yorkshiremen to the tune of 2-0.
Draws against Wimbledon and Leicester meant that Everton were by no means safe, but a win against inconsistent Sheffield Wednesday would be enough to guarantee the blues their safety. Unfortunately Paolo Di Canio had not read the script and he single-handedly destroyed Everton with a mesmerizing performance. Panic had begun to set in. Unless Everton could get something at soon-to-be-crowned champions Arsenal they would go into the last game of the season occupying one of the relegation slots.
Arsenal duly despatched a dispirited Everton side 4-0 and, while the Gunners were being presented the championship trophy, the horror among the sullen Everton fans was clear. The blues were in the relegation zone with one match to go. Against Coventry City they would have to get a better result than did Bolton at Chelsea. If Bolton were to win at Chelsea, then Everton were down irrespective of what the blues achieved against Coventry.
The match started in the most dramatic fashion, with Gareth Farrelly belting a volley into the Park End goal with an astonishing shot. The law of averages suggested that sooner or later Farrelly would get one on target, but his timing was perfection personified. Amid rumour and counter-rumour of events in West London, the game continued at a good pace. The news was confirmed that Bolton had gone a goal behind, and the Everton fans started to celebrate prematurely.
Everton were given a wonderful chance to secure the three points and almost certainly ensure that Premiership football would be played once again at Goodison Park next season. A dubious penalty was awarded when Danny Cadamarteri went down after appearing to be pushed, but Everton fans were not going to argue. Nick Barmby stepped up after a long protest from the Coventry team. He was clearly unnerved as his penalty was well saved by the Coventry goalkeeper. No matter, as long as the results stayed the same we would be safe.
Of course, Coventry were to equalise on their next attack, a header from Dion Dublin should have been palmed away by Norwegian goalkeeper Thomas Myhre but his attempt to catch the ball resulted in it slipping from his grasp into the back of the net. Meanwhile at Stamford Bridge, the Bolton fans relayed this information to their team, urging them to seek the equaliser that would guarantee them safety. Bolton were committing men forward when a quick Chelsea break lead to Gianluca Vialli making it 2-0 to Chelsea, and as long as Everton could hold out at 1-1 then we were safe. This they duly did and the scenes after the game were reminiscent of Wimbledon in 1994, another last gasp survival.
Relief soon turned to anger at the mismanagement of the club, and long and loud protests against deeply unpopular Chairman Peter Johnson were heard. Once again, the familiar words of 'never again' were uttered by fans leaving the ground.