‘Never go back’, they say, Sage advice on the whole, but there always exceptions to the rule.
Having already become the most successful manager in the history of Everton Football Club during his glorious fist tenure at the helm between 1981 and 1987, Howard Kendall had already gone against that advice when he left Manchester City to return to Goodison for a second spell in 1990.
By then the once-mighty Toffees were already on the wane, however. Kendall’s former assistant Colin Harvey, so hugely influential and crucial to the club’s success during those trophy-laden years, had failed to mimic his former boss’s success as several of their best players left in search of European football, and when Howard returned, it was more with a brief to steady a ship that, while not exactly sinking, was certainly becalmed in the waters of mediocrity, and heading slowly towards a potential relegation iceberg. A few fans understandably dared to dream, but Kendall himself was under no illusions regarding the nature of the task in hand, and there was to be no repeat of his earlier triumphs.
Having moved the team away from the relegation places, they managed only mid-table finishes in the two subsequent seasons, and Kendall eventually resigned in 1993 after the board blocked his attempts to sign striker Dion Dublin from Manchester Untied.
More years of struggle followed for the Blues, with the low point coming in the 1993/94 season when, after an awful season under Mike Walker, they only just managed to avoid relegation after a now infamous last-day win over Wimbledon.
Another club icon, Joe Royle, briefly brought some glory back to the club when he won the F.A. Cup in 1995, but he left the club by ‘mutual consent’ after ongoing disputes with chairman Peter Johnson (something to which Kendall and subsequent managers would be able to relate) with the club in freefall in March 1997. Captain Dave Watson managed to scrape together the points necessary for survival as caretaker manager.
The hunt for a new manager began, with Johnson making another of what would become his trademark false promises when he assured worried fans that he would bring in a ‘world class manager’. This may have been the case had his initial pursuit of Bobby Robson borne fruit, but the former England manager elected to take a technical director role at Barcelona. Johnson’s next approach was to yet another club icon, former striker Andy Gray, who was unlikely to leave his cushy, well-paid gig at Sky Sports to take over at a club in disarray, even one he had such great affinity with. With the start of the season fast approaching, the chairman was getting increasingly desperate, and the club turned, once again, to Howard Kendall.
After a brief spell managing in Greece, Kendall had returned to English football with Notts County, before taking over at Sheffield United, at the time at risk of relegation from Division One. Having kept them up and subsequently steered them into the play-offs, when Johnson approached him, he once again answered the distress signal, no doubt aware of the difficulty of the task, to come to the aide of the club he loved, taking his Blades assistant, and yet another former Goodison favourite, Adrian Heath, with him.
Arriving in the last week of June, there was little time to prepare for the coming season, but Johnson assured fans they would be ‘pleasantly surprised’ by the calibre of players the club would bring in. They were certainly surprised, but pleasantly? Not so much. Croatian defender Slaven Bilic had already agreed a £4.5m deal to sign for the club before Royle’s departure, but his signing was supplemented by young players with potential, rather than the seasoned, top quality pro’s needed.
Midfielders John Oster and Gareth Farrelly were signed from Grimsby Town and Aston Villa respectively. Both were highly regarded young players at the time, and the latter would go on to play a pivotal role in the season, but if their lack of experience concerned fans, then signing players of the calibre of Tony Thomas from Tranmere didn’t help.
An opening day defeat at home to Crystal Palace was an early indication of the struggles that lay ahead. A win against West Ham the following week gave some encouragement, but the only point taken from the next two games was in a dreary yet controversial goalless draw away at Bolton’s new Reebok Stadium. Bolton should have been awarded a goal when the ball was clearly scrambled over the line following a corner, but wasn’t spotted by the officials. Bolton had clearly been robbed, and this result would prove definitive for both clubs come the season’s end.
Another poor result at a new stadium, a defeat at Derby’s Pride Park, followed, and as Everton dropped into the relegation places for the first time, the alarm bells began to ring.
A few weeks later, an abject performance at Sheffield Wednesday was followed by a humiliating 4-1 defeat away at Coventry in the Coca-Cola Cup. Such was his anger at the performance at Highfield Road, Kendall ordered his players to stay on the pitch after the final whistle for a public admonishment/warm down in a less-seen precursor of Phil Brown’s notorious on-pitch team talk for Hull several years later. Some senior players, including defender Craig Short and captain Gary Speed were visibly unhappy at the public shaming.
None of this, along with languishing in eighteenth place, was ideal preparation for the next league game, the first Merseyside derby of the season. As can often be the case with derbies, the form book was emphatically thrown out of the window with a superb 2-0 home win, including a brilliant solo goal from teenage striker Danny Cadamarteri. A quick return to Coventry followed, and a hard earned 0-0 draw went some way to making up for the shambolic performance of a week earlier, but these two results were mere blips on what was, by now, a solid downwards trajectory.
An abysmal run of five successive defeats against Southampton, Blackburn, Aston Villa, Chelsea and Tottenham left Everton rooted firmly to the bottom of the table.
One of few relative bright spots was the form of cult hero Duncan Ferguson, who was having one of his more consistent seasons, albeit one punctuated by characteristic disciplinary issues. His first, and only, career hat-trick at home to Bolton brought a 3-2 win. He would also form an important partnership with new signing Mickael Madar, the French striker arriving on a free transfer from Deportivo La Coruna, with both strikers among the goals in important wins against Crystal Palace and Chelsea.
As Big Dunc was showing his worth in a struggling side, three other fan favourites were all to play their last games for the club within a few weeks of each other. Left back Andy Hinchliffe, a cup winner in ’95 whose left footed crosses and corners had been a valuable source of goals over several seasons, was sold to Sheffield Wednesday as Johnson attempted to balance the books, and legendary keeper Neville Southall was replaced by Norwegian ‘keeper Thomas Myhre. Although now in his forties, the Welshman was as intrinsically linked to the club’s most successful period as his manager, but most fans accepted some new blood was needed between the posts.
Far more tumultuous, though, was the departure of club captain, the late Gary Speed, to Newcastle.
A former season ticket holder at Goodison, Speed has been one of the club’s best and most important players since signing from Leeds, but he wasn’t happy with the situation at the club, nor with his manager, and handed in a transfer request. When quizzed by stalwart local sports writer David Prentis on his motivation, Speed said mysteriously, “If I came out and said why I handed in a transfer request it would tarnish the good name of Everton Football Club – and that is something I would never do.” Instead, it was his own name that was tarnished by fans who felt betrayed by their captain. Speed’s reasons, cloaked in mystery for many years, have recently been addressed elsewhere, and the boyhood Evertonian had long been rehabilitated in the eyes of most Evertonians before his tragic suicide in 2011. But at the time, the feeling of desertion fans felt served to exacerbate a growing feeling of desperation and almost inevitability about where the club was heading.
A failure to put together a run of anything more than isolated wins or draws left Everton going into the last two games desperately in need of points. Unfortunately, the first of these games was away to an Arsenal side that were romping to a league title. Arsene Wenger’s side were merciless, and ripped a weak opposition apart in a 4-0 victory, leaving Everton 18th in the table.
So, as it had against Wimbledon four years earlier, it all came down to the final game of the season. Like in 1994, Everton had a much-needed home advantage, but unlike then, their fate was not in their own hands. This time, even a win wouldn’t guarantee their survival. If Bolton were to win away to Chelsea, Everton’s long run in the top flight of English football would finally be at an end.
Gareth Farrelly has been in and out of the team all season, having struggled to establish himself in a challenging season, but he cemented his place in club folklore after just six minutes. Lofting a hopeful ball forward, he followed in a typical Ferguson knock-down, controlled the ball on his chest and struck a superb volley which curved away from Magnus Hedman in the Coventry goal and into the corner of the net.
Despite Nick Barmby missing a late penalty and Dion Dublin, so pivotal in Kendall’s departure from Everton years earlier, increasing nerves with an even later equaliser, Everton managed to cling on as news came through that Bolton had lost 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. The fact that Everton survived only on goal difference ahead of Bolton showed just how crucial the 0-0 draw earlier in the season had been.
Inevitably, Kendall’s third spell at Everton would not last beyond this season, but rather than being dismissed immediately, he was forced to read endless speculation linking Martin O’Neil and Gordon Strachan with a job that was still technically his, and subjected to a protracted wait for the inevitable, a fate he later compared to the drawn-out death suffered by a bull at the hands of a matador.
It was an ignominious end to his Everton career, and not one befitting a man of such status within both the club and the game as a whole. He had taken on an almost impossible task out of love for a club where he’d enjoyed his best times as both a player and a manager, and Johnson’s failure to treat him with the respect and dignity he deserved speaks volumes.
Some of Kendall’s methods were outdated in the modern Premier League; he continued a tradition of stopping for fish and chips on the way home from away games, while at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger was extending the careers of the likes of Tony Adams with a focus on diet and nutrition.
Clearly though, the bulk of the blame for the state the club was Johnson’s. Forcing his manager to scramble around in the bargain basement, as well as selling his best players, left the boss with a mountain to climb.
Johnson would eventually be forced out of the club after he made his position untenable by selling Duncan Ferguson to Newcastle behind then manager Walter Smith’s back.
Johnson would only subsequently be spoken of in derogatory terms by Evertonians, if at all, whereas even a season as poor as this one did nothing to dent the reputation and love felt for one of the best managers of his era, and a man whose achievement at the club are unlikely to ever be surpassed.