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The Great Escape 20 years on - a look back at Everton’s troubled 1997-98 season

Everton’s troubles this season has brought back some unpleasant memories for Toffees fans of a certain vintage

For fans who are old enough to remember, Everton’s troubles this season brought back some unpleasant memories, taking them back to a time relegation battles were the norm. None more so than in 1998, when the club only stayed in the Premier League on goal difference after one of the most tumultuous seasons in modern times. With the 20th anniversary of that nail-biting afternoon against Coventry coming up, Tom Mallows takes a look back at a campaign veered from one crisis to another, before coming painfully close to total disaster.....

“Intensive care still needed at this famous football club. But this crisis has been averted. The club that has spent more years than any other in the top division in England, is still there….just.”

Those were the words of Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler on a grey, rainy afternoon at Goodison Park in May 1998, with the only ray of light being Everton’s Premier League status, preserved by the skin of their teeth during an agonising 90 minutes against Coventry City.

Despite conceding a late equaliser, Everton held on to secure the point they needed to climb back out of the drop zone on goal difference, sparking scenes of jubilation the likes of which had not been seen at the Grand Old Lady for nearly a decade.

But, unlike those glory days of the mid 1980s, the joy amongst the fans quickly turned to anger, as the reality of what had just taken place set in.

Everton, nine times champions of England, came within one goal of the First Division, and in the supporters’ minds it was down to one man: chairman Peter Johnson.

The seething mass of bodies on the Goodison turf quickly migrated towards the direction of the director’s box, chanting for Johnson to step aside.

Johnson would eventually sell Everton to a consortium led by Bill Kenwright, but not for another 18 months. However, the seeds of his downfall were sown during a miserable campaign that very nearly ended in disaster.

There may be trouble ahead

The start of Everton’s rapid decline under Johnson’s tenure can actually be traced back even earlier.

After finishing 6th the previous May, Everton began the 1996-97 campaign as many people’s dark horse for the title under Joe Royle.

Everton Chairman Peter Johnson
Everton Chairman at the time Peter Johnson

However, after a bright start things began to fall apart. Despite ambitious signings such as Nick Barmby and Gary Speed, Royle had failed to address other key deficiencies in his squad.

They were as high as sixth just before Christmas after a late win at Derby, but the side wouldn’t win another league game until February, suffering a run of seven straight defeats including an FA Cup fourth round loss at home to Bradford.

That turned the heat up on Royle, who even banned the media from the club’s training due to what he perceived to be negative coverage.

Recruitment was also an issue. Royle seemed to be shopping in the bargain basement, with the likes of Terry Phelan and Claus Thomsen failing to sufficiently improve the team. Andrei Kanchelskis, the club’s best player over the previous 18 months, dramatically lost form and was sold to Fiorentina.

Things came to a head in March when Royle wanted to re-sign veteran midfielder Barry Horne from Birmingham and add Norwegian pair Tore Andre Flo and Claus Eftevaag. Johnson blocked the Horne deal as he thought it was a backward step while he refused to up his offer for Flo and Eftevaag, meaning those deals collapsed too.

Royle subsequently stepped down from his position; leaving captain Dave Watson to take caretaker charge and ensure the side avoided relegation.

Watson collected six points from seven games to keep the club up, but it was clear work was needed on the team over the summer.

Johnson’s botched manager hunt

Johnson was in bullish mood as he began his search for a new manager to take Everton forward, promising the fans a ‘top quality, world class manager’ to replace Royle. It was the latest in a long line of false promises by Johnson that would eventually lead to his downfall.

Former England boss Bobby Robson was an early target, before sights turned to former Toffees striker-turned-pundit Andy Gray.

Gray was keen on the top job at Goodison Park but a last minute change of heart (and improved offer from Sky) saw him stay in the commentary box and not the manager’s dugout.

With pre-season on the horizon things were getting desperate, Johnson had well and truly botched his managerial search and his final option was to ask the man he knew would never say no – Howard Kendall.

Howard Kendall

Everton’s most successful manager had just taken Sheffield United to within 90 minutes of the Premier League before defeat by Crystal Palace in the play-off final. That was used as evidence of a revival in Kendall’s managerial fortunes, which had suffered following his departure from Everton for a second time in 1994.

Despite question marks over the appointment, Evertonians were always going to get behind such a legendary figure; though it was quickly clear things were not right.

Kendall was not given a substantial budget to play with by Johnson, who had previously told the fans they would be “pleasantly surprised” by the signings the club would make in the summer.

That limited budget forced him to wheel and deal in the transfer market. In doing so he sold a lot of experienced players such as David Unsworth and Graham Stuart, to raise cash.

Sadly the players coming into the club to replace them simply weren’t good enough. The likes of Mitch Ward, Carl Tiler, Tony Thomas, Gareth Farrelly (more of him later) and Danny Williamson struggled to make an impact, with results inevitably suffering.

Gareth Farrelly
Gareth Farrelly

Meanwhile, £4.5m signing Slaven Bilic, who agreed to join the club before Royle’s departure the previous spring, played like a man who knew he had made a terrible mistake. The only consistent aspect of his performances was his ability to get sent off, leaving a gaping hole in Everton’s already fragile backline.

Things got off to predictably rocky start, with the Toffees losing two of their opening three games, before a goalless draw at Bolton that was memorable for a number of reasons.

Nathan Blake

Firstly, it was Bolton’s opening game at their new Reebok Stadium. Meanwhile the nation was still in mourning following the death of Princess Diana 48 hours previously.

On the pitch, Bolton’s Nathan Blake had a goal controversially disallowed despite replays showing his scrambled header beyond Neville Southall had crossed the line. The significance of that moment would only be felt eight months later.

The kids are alright

Things were quickly beginning to unravel. As Kendall gamely tried to remodel his squad a number of young players were promoted to the side, almost in desperation.

Teenagers Michael Ball and Danny Cadamarteri suddenly became first team regulars, charged with lifting the side away from danger. But for every promising result, including a 2-2 draw with eventual champions Arsenal, there was a dismal collapse.

After one such collapse, a miserable 4-1 thrashing by Coventry in the League Cup, a furious Kendall attempted to keep his players on the pitch after the game, remonstrating with them before insisting they complete a warm down. Kendall eventually relented and left the pitch, but it was an embarrassing spectacle and an early sign that things were not right within the squad.

In true Everton style they went from the depths of despair to joyous highs within four days, bouncing back from that Coventry defeat with a 2-0 win over Merseyside rivals Liverpool, Cadamarteri scoring a memorable goal to seal the points.

But any hopes the Derby win would spark a surge up the table were sadly dashed.

Rock bottom

A goalless draw at Coventry a week after the derby victory was followed by five successive defeats, including a game against Southampton live on Sky. The presence of the Sky cameras – and therefore commentator Andy Gray – lead to howls of anger towards the former Toffees striker, with the fans not forgetting what they perceived as an act of betrayal for turning down the chance to manage the club. Those howls were quickly silenced however as Southampton came away with a 2-0 win, including a goal of the season contender from a young Kevin Davies.

The last of those five defeats, against fellow strugglers Tottenham Hotspur, saw the club sink to the bottom of the table.

Following the final whistle a group of angry Everton fans (including yours truly) stayed behind in the Gwladys Street to protest against the board (Kendall, understandably, avoided much of the criticism). The fans could see where this was headed; by tightening the purse strings Johnson was strangling the club.

Johnson played down the protests, claiming it was just the actions of a minority. That simply antagonised things further and failed to quell speculation regarding a takeover.

Things were equally shambolic off the field. The new home kit (which wasn’t even royal blue) was printed incorrectly and only adjusted in mid-September. Meanwhile the away strip was subject to an investigation by BBC consumer programme Watchdog after it had emerged the club had simply placed a sticker of new sponsor One2One over their previous sponsor Danka. It was symptomatic of a club lacking in leadership and trying to do things on the cheap.

So long, farewell

Kendall knew he needed to take decisive action to lift Everton away from trouble, but few expected it would involve dropping Neville Southall.

Southall, arguably Everton’s greatest ever goalkeeper, was starting to show his age. But eyebrows were still raised when he was dropped following the Tottenham game and replaced by young Norwegian Thomas Myhre.

Myhre kept a clean sheet on his debut in a goalless draw against Leeds the following week before subsequent shutouts against Wimbledon and Leicester City. Southall saw what was coming and, unwilling to sit on the bench for the rest of the season, promptly left for Southend United on a short-term loan. He would later sign for Stoke City on loan until the end of the campaign and never played for the Toffees again.

Neville Southall of Everton in action
Neville Southall in one of his resplendent jerseys

It was a sad end to a stellar Goodison career, but his muddled and messy departure was once again evidence of a club not knowing what it was doing.

By that stage there were fervent reports about squad disharmony and rumours Kendall’s much-publicised battle with alcoholism was affecting his ability to do his job.

Club captain Gary Speed was among a number of players linked with a move away, with the midfielder refusing to commit to the club after scoring the winner against Leicester just before Christmas, Everton’s first away win for a year.

Captain Marvel

Although Kendall made a number of mistakes during the season, the one thing he got right was handing Duncan Ferguson the captain’s armband before a game against Bolton. The hulking Ferguson promptly responded with a hat-trick of headers in a 3-2 win.

Ferguson’s newfound leadership had a galvanising affect on the team, who lost just once in six league matches, including an impressive win against Chelsea at Goodison. The upturn in form was recognised by Kendall being named Manager of the Month for January. Maybe this story would have a happy ending after all?

All change please

Prior to a game at West Ham United, Speed refused to travel to London with the rest of the team. The Wales midfielder insisted on leaving the club and was eventually sold to Newcastle for £6m. When the Magpies played at Goodison in February, Speed was roundly booed and jeered. I’m sure he will have wanted to offer his side of the story to a clearly unsettled fanbase, but a confidentiality agreement signed before leaving meant he could never reveal the true motives behind his departure.

Andy Hinchliffe was also sold to Sheffield Wednesday as the final parts of Everton’s 1995 FA Cup winning side were slowly chipped away. One new signing though was the gloriously mad Frenchman Mickael Madar. The shaggy haired striker arrived on a free transfer from Deportivo La Coruna. He was the epitome of Gallic flair, with the temperament to match. However, he also had the knack of scoring crucial goals, including on his debut in a 3-1 win at Crystal Palace.

Don Hutchison was also a shrewd recruit. Hutchison previously played for Liverpool but left Anfield in acrimonious circumstances after some X-rated pictures were published in the press (if you want to know more, Google Hutchison and Budweiser). Hutchison had rebuilt his career at West Ham and then Sheffield United, where he had played under Kendall the previous season. He added some much needed guile to the Toffees midfield following the departure of Speed.

Crisis point

After that brief New Year revival things began to slide after a home to defeat to Derby, which saw Ferguson sent off for elbowing Rams striker Paolo Wanchope in the throat. Ferguson would go on to miss four crucial matches, but not before crashing home a splendid opener in a 1-1 draw at Anfield. Despite having one of the worst teams in living memory the Toffees extended their unbeaten run against their great rivals to eight matches.

The draw at Anfield was on February 23; Everton would only win two more matches before the end of the season. As performances nosedived and the team slid down the table, Kendall became increasingly desperate. John Spencer was an uninspiring addition to the forward line while former winger Peter Beagrie re-joined the club on loan from Bradford.

Despite the dim situation a win against Leeds United on Easter Saturday put Everton on the brink of safety. However they failed to win any of their next three games, including a spirit-crushing 3-1 defeat at home to Sheffield Wednesday that included a header by 5ft 5in Mark Pembridge.

On the penultimate weekend of the season wins for Spurs, Newcastle, and Bolton Wanderers plunged Everton into the relegation zone ahead of a trip to champions-elect Arsenal.

What little chance Everton had at Highbury evaporated after six minutes when Bilic headed into his own net. The Gunners were rampant, with the sight of lightning feet Marc Overmars fizzing past the ageing Dave Watson for the second goal an embarrassing mismatch.

In the closing stages Arsene Wenger’s side would produce one of the Premier League’s most memorable moments, as the lumbering giant Tony Adams surged forward from the back to lash home Arsenal’s fourth (would you believe iiiiitttt!) and seal the title in style.

While Wenger’s team celebrated with the championship trophy, Everton trounced back to the dressing room, knowing their Premier League fate was out of their own hands.

Last chance saloon

Everton went into the final weekend of the season in 18th place, one point behind Bolton, who had won their last two games to climb out of the bottom three and put their fate in their own control.

The Trotters had a tough final day trip to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea. However, nervous Evertonians feared throughout the week that Blues player-boss Gianluca Vialli would name a weakened side given the club had a Cup Winners’ Cup final three days later. Those fears thankfully weren’t realised, as the Italian striker only made four changes to his starting XI.

Everton meanwhile faced perennial last-day escape artists Coventry, who were enjoying a rare season free of relegation concerns and went into the game knowing a win could see them finish as high as seventh.

For the Toffees, however, the equation was simple: they had to better Bolton’s result otherwise their 44-year stay in the top flight would come to an end.

It was frankly a tortuous afternoon to be a blue. I had listened to the Wimbledon game four years earlier on the radio, but for this game I was one of the 40,000 trembling souls inside Goodison Park.

The crowd certainly played their part by giving the team a rapturous ovation, the final roar of a support that had nothing left to lose. And to be fair to Kendall’s troops they responded with a flying start.

Gareth Farrelly had failed to score a league goal all season, despite having a number of shots with varying degrees of inaccuracy.

However, on this particular occasion, Everton’s luck was in.

The Ireland midfielder collected Ferguson’s knockdown and looked to fire a half-volley towards goal. The ball leapt up off the turf, which meant Farrelly caught it wildly with his shin, slicing the ball towards goal. The slice worked in Farrelly’s favour as it was always moving away from goalkeeper Magnus Hedman, who dived at full stretch but couldn’t get a touch as the ball smacked off the post and into the net.

Cue: bedlam. Goodison roared like she had rarely done in years. The great escape was on.

The Toffees, buoyed by the opener, continued to press and arguably should have been further ahead but for a splendid save by Hedman from Watson’s close-range deflected effort. But the longer the game went on without a second, the more nerves began to creep back amongst the crowd. As the players went in for half time there was definitely a feeling of an opportunity missed.

Coventry improved after the break as a jumpy Everton began to retreat into their shell. Then, out of nowhere, a cheer erupted from one section of the crowd. Was there a goal at Stamford Bridge? In the days before mobile phones (yes, I’m that old) we were relying on fans carrying portable radios. But sadly on this occasion they brought bad news, it proved to be a false alarm. Bolton were still drawing with Chelsea, but if the scores stayed as they were, Everton were safe.

But that precious lead was looking perilous. Everton’s attacking intent had wilted, with Coventry looking increasingly dangerous.

Then, once again, a cheer emanated from somewhere within the crowd, only this time it began to spread across the stadium. Supporters urgently searched for someone with headphones in their ear. This time it was good news, Chelsea had scored and Everton were edging their way to safety.

Gianluca Vialli
Gianluca Vialli at Chelsea

What happened in the final 15 minutes could have been the most Everton thing in a long history of Everton things. Thankfully it wasn’t – just.

Firstly, the Toffees were awarded a fortunate penalty with five minutes left when Cadamarteri was fouled by Paul Williams. Nick Barmby had the chance to seal the game but his spot-kick was poor and the impressive Hedman palmed away. Then in the final minute, Dublin rose to meet David Burrows’ cross and sent in a header that Myhre could only watch squirm into the net. Goodison was stunned, grown men and women around me were crying, we were staring into the abyss.

Down at Stamford Bridge, news of Dublin’s goal had reached the crowd. The Chelsea fans began to cheer on Bolton, aware that an equaliser would send the Toffees down. But as they poured forward the Trotters left gaps at the back, allowing Chelsea to break. The home fans were booing their own team as they strode forward, with muted celebrations greeting Jody Morris’ goal. Game over.

Back at Goodison and the second roar greeted Chelsea’s goal was quickly replaced with the grim realisation that another Coventry goal would render that result meaningless. What didn’t help the situation was Everton’s complete inability to keep hold of the ball, allowing Coventry to pin them inside their own half. It was probably the most frightful spell of sport I have ever witnessed, like dangling over a cliff with only the grip of an unsteady drunkard preventing you from tumbling over the edge.

Back then, the amount of stoppage time wasn’t announced by the fourth official, so the fans simply had to endure however long referee Paul Alcock decided to add on, which only made things worse.

As Alcock began to edge towards to touchline, aware of what was about to happen, I knew that was it. He blew his whistle to spark scenes of absolute hysteria.

I quickly joined thousands of Evertonians on the pitch, even taking a piece of the Goodison turf as a souvenir. But the overall feeling was one of sheer relief rather than unbridled joy.

Everton had got away with it, after one of the most miserable campaigns of the modern era they had survived. But as Martin Tyler said, intensive care was still needed on a club struggling to get off its knees.

Thankfully days – and seasons – like 1997/98 have been few and far between since, even if this campaign has done it’s best to replicate it at times.

It does, however, serve as a timely reminder as to what can happen if a club, no matter how grand or historic, is so critically mis-managed from the top.