As we have discussed previously on this blog, the autumn of 1994 was a particularly grim time to be an Evertonian.
Mike Walker’s attempts to remould the team into a slick passing side had failed miserably. Instead the team was toothless upfront, absent in midfield and chronically soft at the back.
The result was a depressing haul of just four points from their opening 12 games - the joint-worst start to a Premier League season ever along with QPR in 2012, who would finish that season bottom.
Maybe it’s my mind playing tricks but I don’t remember any concerted effort from the supporters to demand Walker’s sacking. I suspect the absence of social media prevented the fans’ grumbles from being whipped up into hysteria.
Having only taken charge the previous January in the midst of a bitter takeover battle, Walker was given leeway by Evertonians who felt the source of the club’s problems lay in the boardroom rather than the dugout.
But by late October it was clear things needed to change - though Walker, I imagine to this day, will argue he was on the brink of turning things around.
A credible draw at home to Arsenal was followed up by a scrappy - and at times desperate - 1-0 win against West Ham, who missed a hatful of chances, including hitting the crossbar in stoppage time. Next up was a goalless draw at Walker’s former club Norwich, just their second clean sheet of the season, but a dour 90 minutes against a side who would ultimately be relegated at the end of the campaign.
So despite collecting more points in three games than they had managed in previous 11, Walker was sacked. In hindsight it’s clear performances weren’t improving even if results had taken a fortuitous turn, while the subsequent murmurings of some ex-players present at the time suggests his relationship with the squad had broken beyond repair.
Two days after Walker’s departure, on November 10 1994, former Toffees striker Joe Royle quit Oldham to return the club where he had served with such distinction in the 1960s and 70s.
The international break afforded Royle 11 days in order to assess his squad and prepare them for his first game in charge against Liverpool at Goodison Park.
Roy Evans’ side went into the game fourth in the table, just four points behind leaders Manchester United and with just three defeats to their name all season. Everton meanwhile were rock bottom. The bookies, pundits and lets face it some of the fans, were predicting a hammering.
Royle made three changes to the side that drew at Norwich in Walker’s last game, with Daniel Amokachi, John Ebbrell and Andy Hinchcliffe recalled.
As revealed by the Liverpool Echo’s Dave Prentice - Everton reporter at the time - Royle had watched Ebbrell and Hinchliffe playing in the reserves the week before the derby. He couldn’t understand why they were not in the first team and wasted no time in bringing them back into the fold.
Ebbrrell, along with Barry Horne and Joe Parkinson formed Everton’s ‘Dogs of War’, a phrase coined by Royle later in the season. He has since revealed that he regretted that comment as it portrayed the team as a gang of thugs when in fact they could also play when they wanted. But at the time it was a welcome sight to see an Everton side with a bit of backbone.
Hinchcliffe also returned and was deployed further forward on the left wing in order to take advantage of his excellent delivery, from open play and set pieces. Amokachi took his place upfront alongside Duncan Ferguson.
It was a classic Goodison night under the lights. The chilly November air mixing with the white-hot wall of noise from the terraces.
From memory, Liverpool had most of the possession in the first half, with the home crowd particularly on edge whenever Steve McManaman got hold of the ball. But what had changed was the intensity. Everton were swarming all over Liverpool whenever they got the ball. If it moved they tackled it. It was such a welcome change from the timid performances we had endured throughout that season. As a result, going into the break at nil-nil was an achievement.
Royle made a change at the break, bringing on Paul Rideout for the injured Matt Jackson, with Barry Horne dropping to right-back and Amokachi right wing/in the hole.
Liverpool sensed a weakness and put McManaman on the left up against Horne and it very nearly paid dividends when the England winger got into the area and fired in a snap shot that was superbly saved by Neville Southall.
It was the best chance of the game so far, but it was Everton who would threaten more regularly after that. Amokachi - far more dangerous just behind the strikers - forced in a shot that took a deflection before being well tipped round by David James.
It was only a temporary reprieve however, as Hinchcliffe’s exocet delivery found the head of Ferguson, who bulleted the ball beyond James.
It was Ferguson’s first Everton goal and had come less than 24 hours after being arrested in Liverpool city centre for drink-driving. It would prove to be the turning point in Ferguson’s career and the start of a love affair that continues to this day.
Rideout had a wonderful chance to double Everton’s lead when he was played in by Ebbrell but his effort smacked the post and away with James beaten. That missed opportunity only frayed the home fans nerves still further as the game entered its closing stages.
On this day in 1994 Everton beat Liverpool 2-0 at home (Duncan Ferguson and Paul Rideout). pic.twitter.com/CVpGV2xPJW— Everton Records (@EvertonRecords) November 21, 2013
Rob Jones - who never scored a senior goal in his career - had a wonderful chance to equalise when he was played in by Jamie Redknapp but his effort flashed just wide of Southall’s right-hand post.
Minutes later, Everton sealed the game.
Hinchcliffe hurled a rather hopeful punt into the penalty area - in an attempt to waste time if anything else. Ferguson attempted to get on the end of it and the presence of the Scot seemingly put off James, whose flimsy one-handed punch merely pushed the ball into the back of the Everton man. The rebound span into the path of Rideout, who slid the ball into the open net.
Goodison went wild - my memory may be skewed by the mists of time but I don’t think the atmosphere has been matched on many occasions since. After enduring so much disappointment and being written off before a ball was even kicked, it was a sweet moment of redemption.
The win lifted Everton off the bottom of the table and sparked one of the most remarkable relegation battles in Premier League history. Royle won three and drew two of his first five games in charge without conceding a goal. They would lose just six of their remaning 28 league matches to stay up with a game to spare - a feat made even more remarkable given four teams went down that season as the division was reduced from 22 to 20 teams.
Then there was the little matter of an FA Cup victory - which remains Everton’s last piece of silverware.
It was a remarkable turnaround given the side looked to be staring into the abyss - making this date a hugely significant one in Everton’s recent history.