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Everton classics: Into the Millennium

Walter Smith: Endured a frustrating time in charge at Goodison Park.
Walter Smith: Endured a frustrating time in charge at Goodison Park.

Continuing our look back at the history of Everton FC we focus on the turn of the century, with Walter Smith in the manager’s hot seat and a new chairman at the helm....

Smith’s small but talented squad produced some memorable performances in the 1999/2000 season, raising hopes of a European place. This was both through a league finish and a run to Wembley as the Blues reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. With first division Bolton lying in wait in the semi-final the fans sensed a run all the way to the final.

But a nightmare start at home against Aston Villa saw them go a goal down after barely five minutes and despite American Joe-Max Moore’s equaliser, Benito Carbone’s finish in first-half stoppage time was enough to send the Midlands side through. They would go on and reach the final, losing to Chelsea at Wembley.

Sadly, injuries began to catch up with the squad in the tail end of the season and a final finish of 13th, despite being in the top ten for much of the year, was disappointing. However, the nucleus of a good squad was there and a few key additions could give us the platform to push on.

The summer of 2000, I believe, was a crucial one for Everton and we are still feeling the effects of some catastrophic failures during that summer even now. For starters, Smith’s talented team was broken up for varying reasons. John Collins wanted to move to London so left for Fulham, a contract dispute saw Don Hutchison flogged to Sunderland for a paltry £2million (and absolute travesty that in my opinion) and perhaps the most controversial of all, Nick Barmby - who had seen his career revived by Everton - turned round and said he wanted to join Liverpool. He was still booed by the crowd when playing for Hull at Goodison two seasons ago.

Therefore a complete and needless overhaul of the squad took place over the summer with big money spent on the likes of Thomas Gravesen, Alex Nyarko, Steve Watson, Niclas Alexandersson, Paul Gascoigne and Duncan Ferguson. Plans were also revealed for a state-of-the-art waterside Stadium at the Kings Dock. It seemed Everton were moving forward.

But yet again this all proved to be a false dawn.

Over time it was revealed that much of the cash spent was on the assumption that a media deal with cable company NTL was about to go through. The deal collapsed at the last minute, meaning we had once again splurged millions of the bank’s money.

The Kings Dock deal would eventually collapse, with Everton unable to raise their share of the costs. The sight of the brand new Echo Arena on the site is a constant dagger to the heart of Everton fans and a reminder of what might have been, especially with Goodison continuing to crumble in front of our eyes.

To makes things worse Smith’s new signings proved disastrous. Watson was steady I suppose, but Gravesen would not come good for another three years, Alexandersson was a winger with no pace, Ferguson was constantly injured (along with Kevin Campbell and Francis Jeffers) while Alex Nyarko was one of the worst players ever to pull on a Blue shirt.

I remember watching a pre-season game against Manchester City when he scored a back-heel from the edge of the area (true!) but once the season started he played like a rabbit in the headlights, culminating in an incident at Highbury where a fan ran on the pitch to try and swap shirts with him (indicating that he was so bad the fan could do better) Nyarko substituted himself in a huff and vowed never to play for the club again (he did, but not for two years).

The low point of that turgid season? Probably a 5-0 hammering away at Man City in December, the worst game I have ever, ever been to.

We probably finished 14th that year, maybe 16th, certainly no higher than 13th, either way it was crap.

So, therefore, expectations were lowered for the 2001/02 season. The overdraft needed addressing so two of the club’s brightest Academy graduates were sacrificed (sound familiar?). Francis Jeffers had been angling for move anyway, and £11million to Arsenal was a great deal, especially when he flopped at Highbury. Michael Ball couldn’t hide his despair at being sacrificed to appease the banks, but his injury woes while at Rangers meant the £6.5million we received for him was probably the highest we were ever going to get.

Alan Stubbs arrived from Celtic on a free transfer while Tomasz Radzinksi completed a protracted £4.5million move from Anderlecht to bolster a thinning squad. And two wins and a draw from our opening three games briefly put the Blues top of the league; things might not be so bad after all.

But once again injuries began to bite as the autumn progressed and five defeats in a row over Christmas saw theBlues drop deep into the bottom half of the table. Smith was rumoured to have one game to save his job – something denied by Bill Kenwright – but a win over Sunderland and a victory in the FA Cup at Stoke eased the pressure.

The FA Cup run actually masked a series of turgid league games as the blues failed to string decent performances together and move up the table. A bizarre splurge in late February on the likes of Lee Carsley, Tobias Linderoth and, wait for it, a 35-year-old David Ginola, was an attempt by Smith and Kenwright to inject some new life into the squad.

Sadly for Smith, it didn’t happen. A inept league performance away at West Ham saw Everton on the cusp of the relegation places and a dreadful display against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup quarter-final, which saw the Blues 3-0 down within the first 45 minutes, revealed the stark reality of the situation to supporters and management – a defeat like that had been coming, and the club was sleeping walking into a relegation battle until that nightmare at the Riverside jolted the boardroom into life. Smith pledged to fight on but the manner of that defeat made his position untenable and 48 hours later he was sacked.

Everton needed a man who could lift the squad for their final nine games of the season and lift them away from danger. Smith himself recommended a young Scot who was making a big a impression at Preston North End.

And so, 48 hours after Smith’s dismissal on a chilly March Thursday evening, David Moyes was appointed manager of Everton football club.

The rest, they say, is history.