It's an oft-quoted fact that Everton have played more top-flight matches than any other English side. Founder members of the football league all the way back in 1888, the Toffees have suffered the ignominy of relegation just twice in their long and illustrious history - once in 1930, and a second time in 1951. The Blues quickly won promotion back to the First Division though, going up in the 1953/54 season, and have remained a constant at the top of the English footballing ladder ever since.
However, this enviable streak was very nearly broken on a couple of occasions during the 1990s, now considered a relative low point in the club's history. Twice the Blues came within one game of relegation, but twice they survived by the skin of their teeth. This week's Classics piece takes a look at the most dramatic of Everton's two ‘Great Escapes', the hugely dramatic game against Wimbledon on the final day of the 1993/94 season.
The scene was an absolutely rammed Goodison Park, on the afternoon of Saturday May 7th 1994. Mike Walker's Everton side sat in the relegation zone, 20th out of 22 teams following a dismal run of just two victories in their previous thirteen league matches. Lose and they were down. Draw, and they would have to hope for a Blackburn Rovers win against fellow strugglers Ipswich Town. Even a win would not guarantee survival, with Sheffield United, Southampton and Manchester City all needing positive results to avoid the drop.
Opponents Wimbledon sat in 6th place, and represented a difficult challenge for the Toffees having established themselves as a formidable Premier League outfit under manager Joe Kinnear (yes, that Joe Kinnear). A frenzied Goodison crowd buoyed Everton though, and they began the game that some were calling the most important in the club's history with a degree of optimism, or at least a strong sense of belief. It lasted all of four minutes.
A Wimbledon corner drifted harmlessly towards the edge of the box, where Everton's Anders Limpar conspired to head it against his own arm. Limpar, often his side's only creative spark during a dire season, sunk to his knees in despair, before Dean Holdsworth stepped up to stroke home the resulting penalty. Neville Southall, the sole survivor of the magnificent Everton sides of the 1980s, grasped at the shot, but the ball wriggled into the corner to give Wimbledon an early lead.
Things would soon get worse. Poor defending of a long ball into the penalty area allowed midfielder Andy Clark to volley a ball into the ground. The bounce deceived Gary Ablett, who had taken up a position in front of the goal, and the Everton defender's clearance sliced horribly over his head, dropping slowly, dreadfully into the net behind him. Ablett's desperate, scrambling attempted recovery merely added to the terrible, farcical scene that was unfolding in front of the stricken Blues support.
At this point, just twenty minutes into the game, all seemed lost, but something extraordinary was about to happen. First Limpar, scurrying and weaving like a man possessed, burst into the area and fell spectacularly under a ‘challenge' from Peter Fear. In truth the Wimbledon defender made almost no contact, but Limpar's con went some way towards making up for his earlier mistake.
Graham Stuart, at the time a young midfielder in his first season at Goodison Park, stepped up to take the spot kick and, without hesitation, slotted it into the bottom corner. A lifeline, and a catalyst for Everton, who now played with a fervour that had been missing in the opening minutes.
Half time came and went, and though the crowd's intensity remained at an almost impossibly high level, a sense of panic was beginning to seep into the old ground. Perhaps it was this that led midfielder Barry Horne to try an outrageous half volley from thirty yards out, despite having scored just one goal in sixty-five previous appearances for Everton. Whatever momentary inspiration came over him, Horne's dipping, swerving effort flew into the corner of the Wimbledon net. The match was level, and Goodison was rocking.
But it still wasn't enough. No news from Ewood Park was bad news for Everton, as a draw would leave them one point adrift of Ipswich. Something had to change. Fortunately, it did.
With less than ten minutes to go, Limpar jinked inside from the left once again and found Stuart outside the Wimbledon area. The midfielder's first-time ball into Tony Cottee was heavy, but the forward managed to set it back into his path, and the crowd held its breath as Stuart poked a weak effort goalwards. Goalkeeper Hans Segers was slow getting down to his right (so slow that he was later falsely accused of match-fixing), and the ball bobbled its way into the back of the net, sparking pandemonium in the Goodison Park stands.
There were still several agonising minutes to play out, but finally it was over. Mike Walker's team had survived - just - and Everton's immaculate league record remained intact. Stuart was mobbed by fans before leaving the pitch, having etched his name into Toffee folklore, and relief surged through the ground as the news arrived that it would be Sheffield United dropping out of the Premier League.
In the nineteen years since the club's closest shave with relegation, expectations have risen significantly. Fans would now be understandably disgruntled with a finish outside the league's top ten, let alone a tryst with the bottom three, but the Wimbledon game still resonates for a couple of reasons. The first is that it grants a sense of perspective with regard to how far the team has come since the those dark days under Walker, acting as both a reminder and a warning of the perils of poor management.
The second though, is that the game itself demonstrates all the aspects of a great football match: passion and drama; despair and delight; the sublime and the ridiculous. It speaks to the power of the game to stir emotions, but also, and perhaps most importantly, to the indomitable spirit that is synonymous with Everton, even when times are truly tough.
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