There are few that will dispute that the highlight of Everton's largely successful pre-season came against Italian champions Juventus in San Francisco last month. From the fluid, confident manner of the Toffees' play, to the counterattacking prowess of Kevin Mirallas, to John Stones' majestically ‘shanked' penalty in the climactic shootout, it was certainly a friendly to remember.
But it wasn't just the fact that Roberto Martinez's side put in an excellent performance that had Evertonians glued to their computers in the early hours of the morning, although that certainly helped. The match was a chance to see the Blues up against one of the great European sides - a sight that has sadly become a novelty, rather than a constant since the club's heyday in the 1980s.
Before their matchup in the International Champions Cup, Everton and Juventus had never met, in a competitive fixture or otherwise, but they did come close to doing so on one previous occasion: the matches that would have made up the 1985 European Super Cup.
Everton of course, had qualified for the contest as winners of the European Cup Winners Cup, and were due to face the victors of the European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool, however the tragic events at Heysel Stadium, and the subsequent ban on English clubs from entering European competition, meant that the match would not be contested. The Turin side beat Everton's Merseyside rivals in a game that is remembered more for the devastating occurrences prior to the kick off, but though they would go on to (unsuccessfully) defend their title the following season, it would be almost thirty years until the Old Lady and the Blue half of Liverpool would cross paths again.
While the circumstances of the teams' previous almost-meeting make for grim recollection, the occasion also manages to bring to mind the brilliance of that 1985 Everton side. The Everton that beat Juventus in California bears little resemblance to the Championship winning team of 1985, but the victory offers a perfect excuse (if one was ever needed) to look back on the night of the Toffees' first, and to date only, European triumph.
It was on May 15th 1985 that Everton defeated Rapid Vienna in Rotterdam to claim the Cup Winners Cup. Having beaten Watford to win the FA Cup the previous year in order to qualify, the Blues had progressed through four rounds to reach their first European final, dispatching University College Dublin, FK Inter Bratislava, Fortuna Sittard and famously Bayern Munich in the process. The two-legged semi-final against the Bavarian giants is worthy of its own post, but suffice it to say that after overcoming the German champions in style, Everton were heavy favourites going into the final.
What Toffees fans might not have anticipated however, was the sheer extent to which they would dominate their opponents in arguably the biggest match in the club's history.
Lining up with the same eleven that had started the second leg against Bayern, Howard Kendall's selection makes for stellar reading. Neville Southall naturally took his place in goal - the Welsh keeper would be name the Football Writers Association's Player of the Year for 1985 - and in front of him was a back four of Gary Stevens, Derek Mountfield, the captain Kevin Ratcliffe, and Dutchman Pat Van Den Hauwe.
Peter Reid and Paul Bracewell made up the Blues' central midfield partnership, and they were aided on the wings by the pace and trickery of Trevor Steven and Kevin Sheedy. Leading the line were Graeme Sharp and Andy Gray. The former would become Everton's highest post-war goal scorer, and the latter had netted four times already in the tournament, including a memorable quarter-final hat-trick; together they formed as deadly a strike partnership as the Toffees have ever possessed.
Watching the game now, what's immediately apparent is the speed and ferocity with which Everton played. In a breathless opening thirty minutes, Rapid were rarely allowed to venture beyond the confines of their own half, their defenders harried ceaselessly by Sharp and Gray whilst Bracewell and Reid commanded the centre of the park and Steven and Sheedy wreaked havoc on the wings.
Indeed it's somewhat baffling that the score remained goalless at half time, although Gray had a header disallowed for offside before the interval. Zlatko Kranjcar had threatened on occasion for the Austrian side, but otherwise Everton were every inch the better team: direct, confident, and relentlessly intense.
It would be twelve minutes into the second half - during which Van Den Hauwe was forced to deflect a Kranjcar shot against his own bar - before the breakthrough came, but when it did the result was effectively sealed. The alert, prowling Sharp was finally gifted an opening, and the Scot stole in to intercept a wayward back pass, twisting away from the Rapid goalkeeper Michael Konsel before deftly chipping back into the path of the onrushing Gray. Denied in the first half, Everton's number nine volleyed home emphatically on this occasion.
From that point on, Everton were rampant - even more so than they had been previously. Reid was a whirlwind of fierce energy in the centre of the park, Steven an agile, slippery menace on the right, and Sheedy's wicked crosses continued to test the Rapid defence. Steven might have doubled his side's lead after his superb swivel and shot was saved by Konsel, but minutes later he made amends.
A Sheedy corner was missed by a Rapid defender, and bounced through to the far post where Steven was poised to fire home. The winger celebrated passionately, thrusting his fists in the air as he was mobbed by his teammates, and Everton's victory was all but assured.
It was fitting that even when the Toffees were pegged back by a late Rapid goal, they weren't really. Less than a minute had elapsed following Hans Krankl's late strike when a Southall punt was flicked on by Gray towards Sharp. The forward plucked the ball out of the air before laying it into the path of the advancing Sheedy, who proceeded to thunder his shot in off the underside of the bar. An apposite conclusion to a seminal Everton performance.
And that was it. The trophy was presented to Ratcliffe and co. in front of 25,000 or so Evertonians, and the Blues stood on the cusp of becoming, as the Liverpool Echo's report put it, ‘a major new force in European football'.
Except it was not to be.
Of course, there's no way of knowing how different things might have been should the Toffees have played Juventus, and gone on to represent England in the European Cup the following season, but regardless, the brilliance of that night in Rotterdam remains. It stands, and will continue to stand, as both a testament to that greatest of Everton teams at the peak of its powers, and as the apex to which the great Blues sides of the future will aspire.
More from Royal Blue Mersey:
- School of Science: Writer Predictions
- Royal Blue Mailbag: Pre-season edition
- School of Science: Tactical Analysis
- School of Science: Transfer Targets
- School of Science: Schedule Analysis