It’s ‘what if?’ week at SBNation, with blogs across the network looking back at crucial crossroads in their team’s history, for good or ill. Here at RBM, we go back 15 years to THAT game and THAT refereeing decision against Villarreal...
Everton have endured a difficult relationship with referees over the years.
Mention Clive Thomas to a fan of a certain vintage and it will likely send them into a seething rage.
The same can be said of Mark Clattenburg, whose performance in a game against Liverpool in 2007 was so poor it is now known as the ‘Clattenburg derby’.
Then there is Pierluigi Collina.
The Italian was the most high-profile referee of his generation, but for Evertonians he represents another painful footnote in the club’s history.
It stems from a barmy summer evening in August 2005, as Everton took on Spanish side Villarreal in the second leg of a Champions League qualifier.
Trailing 2-1 from the first leg, the Toffees had fallen further behind thanks to Juan-Pablo Sorin’s deflected first-half strike. However, a fine free-kick from Mikel Arteta had hauled the visitors back into the game and given them momentum going into the closing stages.
Then came the tie’s defining moment.
From Arteta’s corner, Duncan Ferguson rose highest to plant an unstoppable header into the back of the net. But the Scot’s celebrations were cut short as Collina had blown for a foul.
A furious Ferguson remonstrated with the Italian, who mockingly held his hand to his ear, as if he couldn’t hear or understand what the striker was saying.
Collina later explained that he had blown for a shirt pull by Marcus Bent, but replays showed it was his shirt being pulled rather than a player in yellow.
Everton continued to push forward in search of another goal but were caught on the counter in the closing stages, with Diego Forlan’s strike sending the Yellow Submarine through to the group stages of the competition, where they would go on and reach the semi-finals.
Collina was only officiating because UEFA had bent the rules to allow him to defer retirement from the end of the previous season.
He officially retired just days later.
The painful exit was not helped by the fact UEFA had also altered the regulations to allow rivals Liverpool into the competition, albeit at the first qualifying round stage.
At that time the winners of the trophy did not automatically qualify for the following season, but their win in Istanbul brought about a quick rethink and left open the possibility of five English teams in the group stages.
The Reds made light work of TNS, FBK Kaunas and CSKA Sofia to make it through. A gut punch to Evertonians already on their knees.
The team were equally shellshocked, with the disappointment of the result lingering over them for months afterwards, with devastating effect.
Everton went on to lose their next six matches, including a humiliating 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Dinamo Bucharest in the UEFA Cup qualifying round first leg.
They would win the second leg, but the 1-0 result wasn’t enough to reverse the damage. Two further league defeats left the club bottom of the table by October.
On a gloriously sunny afternoon the previous May, Everton beat Newcastle 2-0 to all but secure fourth place and have Evertonians dreaming of the Champions League.
Just two months into the following season, the European dream was over two-fold and the club was staring a relegation fight in the face.
Those few months were arguably a microcosm of Everton’s history. Brief, fleeting moments of joy and glory, swiftly followed by crushing disappointment and a lingering feeling of burning injustice.
But what if Ferguson’s goal had been allowed?
It’s important to note that it was only the equaliser, rather than a winner. But the momentum was certainly with Everton at the time, with Villarreal beginning to panic.
Had Everton progressed to the group stages the feeling of euphoria would have been palpable, and would have certainly carried over into their league form.
It would have been a fine last hurrah for some of the older members of the squad, including Ferguson, goalkeeper Nigel Martyn and defender David Weir.
Then there is the huge sums of money involved in the Champions League.
Everton were struggling financially at the time, with only the sale of Wayne Rooney the previous year staving off the threat of administration. So the extra cash-injection from Europe’s premier competition would have been invaluable.
Their participation would have also made them a more attractive proposition for players.
After the Villarreal defeat Everton signed Andy van der Meyde, Nuno Valente and Matteo Ferrari on loan. None of whom made a lasting impact on the team.
Did a better standard of player slip through the net because of the lack of Champions League football? It seems likely. But, sadly, we will never know for sure.
Everton’s failings in the autumn of 2005 cannot solely be placed on Collina’s shoulders of course, nor the misfortune of drawing one of the toughest sides possible in the draw.
There is the uncomfortable truth that the team had performed well above their abilities for several months, but were now being exposed against genuine quality.
Infamous long-time target Juan Roman Riquelme was outstanding in the first leg for example, one of the finest individual performances seen in Goodison Park in many a year.
The Toffees were also second best for large parts of the return game at El Madrigal, before their late charge in the closing stages.
Maybe they just weren’t good enough.
Questions also have to be asked about Moyes’ transfer business earlier in the summer.
Alan Stubbs was released (though he would return six months later) and was replaced by Per Kroldrup for £5million from Udinese. He will likely be remembered as one of the club’s worst signings of all time.
The Denmark international didn’t make his debut until December, a 4-0 thrashing at Aston Villa, before being sold to Fiorentina in January.
Kroldrup later admitted that he failed to adapt to the pace of English football. That can happen. Though Leon Osman would reveal in his autobiography that Kroldrup struggled to head the ball (a fairly important part of being a defender), with Moyes taking him to one side in training for heading practice “like you would with a seven-year-old”.
Then there was £3.5million on Simon Davies, who managed just one goal in 53 appearances over 18 months before being sold to Fulham (where he would later score in a Europa League final).
Alessandro Pistone was released in June only to be re-signed two months later as the team was short of defenders. The Italian would make just three appearances before suffering a cruciate ligament injury that ended his season. John Ruddy was a youngster signed for the future, but went on to spend the majority of his senior career away from Goodison Park.
The only really successful signing was Phil Neville, who went on to captain the side and make more than 300 appearances in royal blue. But he was hardly the sort of player who could unlock the well-organised Villarreal defence.
Moyes had far more hits than misses in the transfer market during his time at Goodison Park. But 2005 was the worst time to have a bad run of signings, leaving the team ill-equipped and ill-prepared for such an important tie.
It may well be that a number of targets would have only signed had Everton qualified for the group stage. So Moyes gambled with what he had in the hope of greater rewards further down the line.
It was a gamble that backfired, but not before a rousing second half performance in El Madrigal that got them within touching distance of the promised land.
Sadly, one blow of a referee’s whistle set off a chain reaction that sent Everton spiralling on a wildly different course, leaving us all wondering what might have been.