In football, as in life even a seemingly inconsequential fork in the road can have far-reaching and transformative ramifications down the line; part of the interwoven tapestry of best laid plans and serendipity that helps make this bewitching game what it is.

It could never have been predicted at the time but it'’s highly like that the decision by a 21-year-old lad from the northeast of England  to sign for Everton in 1967 paved the way for three League titles and the richest period in the club’s history two decades later. How might the landscape of Everton history have looked had Howard Kendall made a different decision prior to the transfer deadline that year and been swayed by the sweeteners on offer at Stoke City or, worse, sated Bill Shankly’s desire to sign him and joined Liverpool instead? It almost doesn’t bear thinking about.

As part of the lauded Holy Trinity alongside Colin Harvey and Alan Ball and the wonderful team of 1969-70, Kendall helped the Toffees to the League Championship that season. 14 years later he would end the club's subsequent drought of silverware by leading Everton to an FA Cup triumph and spark three golden years of unprecedented success on the domestic front and in Europe that many believe could have become a dynasty were it not for the crushing blow of the Heysel ban. In the years since he brought the curtain down on his first managerial spell and left for Athletic Bilbao in 1987, Everton have won just one trophy. In other words: take Kendall’'s stunning achievements as a player and manager out of the equation and this great club has just one FA Cup triumph in the last 49 years. It’s an encapsulation of the debt we Evertonians owe a man for whom the over-used term “legend" is entirely fitting.

There is no way to predict, of course, what might have happened had an alternative reality unfolded, one where Howard didn't sign for Everton and go on to become, first, one of its most influential players, then club captain and, later, not only the most successful manager in the Toffees’ history but also the most successful English manager to date. What would have been the chances, though, of the club happening across another team leader in the late 1960s to match him or a similarly effective boss in the early 1980s? Sometimes the stars just align and there’s little to do but just be thankful that they did.

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That celestial happenstance began in March 1967. Having left home as a raw 15-year-old six years earlier, Kendall  broke into Preston North End’s first team in 1963 and quickly established himself as an important part of a side that would reach Wembley the following year where, at just 17, he would become the youngest player to play in an FA Cup Final, breaking a record that had stood since 1879. Preston lost the final to West Ham but Howard was named as many journalist’s pick as the Lancashire side’s best player on the day.

It would be a theme of his time with Preston and while the Lilywhites' fortunes would dip after that brush with cup glory, Kendall’'s star continued to rise and, with it, came seemingly endless speculation that he would follow the well-trodden path from Deepdale to Anfield taken by the likes of Peter Thompson, Dave Wilson, Gordon Milne and Shankly himself. It was Everton who would win the race to sigh him, though — that despite the best efforts of Alan Ball Sr. to tempt him to the Potteries while his son was starring for the Toffees — with a coup that prompted an infuriated Shankly to submit his resignation at Liverpool (an offer they ignored, unfortunately). 

The rest is, as they say, history. Kendall would go on to form the finest midfield triumvirate of its generation that would be instrumental in Everton reaching the FA Cup Final in 1968 — a match they were favourites to win but didn't — winning the 1970 First Division title in style, and which should have been the foundation for a period of sustained success in the early ‘70s. It never materialised, however, as manager Harry Catterick’s career began to wane in tandem with the form of Alan Ball. Indeed, Bally would be gone within 18 months of the Blues’ seventh league championship and The Cat's  12-year reign at Goodison would end two years later.

Howard would cite the controversial and devastating loss over two legs to Panathinaikos and defeat in an FA Cup semi-final to Liverpool  in March 1971 as being closely-situated milestones in the decline of that magnificent title-winning team. 72 hours after being dumped out of the European Cup, the 2-1 defeat to the enemy from across the park marked what was, in Howard’s words, “a catastrophic day for Everton Football Cub. That was the day we handed the baton of Merseyside football supremacy to Liverpool."

It was the beginning of a dark decade for Everton, much of which Kendall would watch from outside of Goodison following his departure to Stoke Birmingham in 1974 and then to Stoke and Blackburn after that, the club he would then manage until he was chosen as Gordon Lee’s successor in 1981. He had brought Rovers to the brink of promotion to the old First Division but he admitted in his autobiography that the deal to bring him back to Everton — “my club” — was already in the pipeline long before the end of that season. It was, as his wife remarked, “like a fairytale come true. He loved the bones of the place."

Remarkably, particularly when you consider how rare it is for teams in the modern Premier League to hire managers under the age of 40, Kendall was just 34 when he assumed the reins at Goodison (Everton paid for his playing registration as well when he signed and he made four appearances as player-manager) and he was under no illusions about the size of the task ahead of him. He told the press upon his hiring that his intention was “to match Liverpool” who had dominated all before them at home and abroad over the preceding decade and he set about doing just that with impressive effectiveness.

As many have remarked since his passing last week, few have given Howard the credit for breaking the reds’ stranglehold on the English game back then but break it he would, a feat he began with the Milk Cup Final in 1984. Everton lost the final following a replay at Maine Road but had, by all accounts, out-played Liverpool and should have won it at Wembley when Alan Hansen clearly handled a goal-bound shot from Adrian Heath but referee Alan Robinson somehow elected not to award the penalty that surely would have won the Blues the match.

Success would come shortly afterwards when Everton lifted the FA Cup for first time in 18 years following a 2-0 win over Watford under the old Twin Towers and the growing belief that the Blues were becoming the best team in the country was confirmed the following season when they swept aside all before them and win the Championship by a staggering 13 points.

Of all the managers I played for — and they include Bob Paisley, Kevin Keegan and Jack Charlton — without doubt Howard was the best. The way he battled through that 1983 so-called ‘winter of discontent’ to lead us to the [glory that followed] was the product of masterful leadership.
Kevin Sheedy

Triumph in Rotterdam in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, made possible by a stunning 3-1 win over Bayern Munich in the semi-final at Goodison Park, was followed by disappointment at Wembley, where Norman Whiteside would deny Everton a unique treble in the 1985 FA Cup Final, and heartbreak in 1985-86 when two matches effectively made the difference between the Toffees winning the League and Cup double and both trophies ending up across Stanley Park with Liverpool. Kendall would mastermind Everton to one more League Championship the following year, however, the final act of his legendary first spell as manager of the club before he left for Bilbao in the summer of 1987.

The stinging injustice of the Heysel ban might have burned a little more had Howard made the move to Spain when first planned in 1986 which might have denied Everton that ninth league title. He had been approached by Barcelona to take up the hotseat at the Nou Camp as Terry Venables’ successor, but a last-minute change of heart by the future England boss saw that proposed move collapse and Kendall stayed with Everton. Just one more twist of fate that benefited the Blues, albeit for only one more season.

Howard yearned to be involved in European football, however, and he admits that the prospect of joining Barca had only intensified it. Denied the opportunity to compete in Continental football with Everton by a five-year ban on English clubs indiscriminately imposed by Uefa and backed by a complicit Conservative government all too ready to tar Evertonians with the same brush of hooliganism that had blighted the game for years, he sought to sate that desire.

No one could deny that he deserved it. The Everton team over which he presided when the ban was imposed was widely regarded as the best club side in Europe — and, by extension, the world — and would have been strong favourites to win the European Cup the following season and, perhaps, not for last time given the momentum Kendall was establishing at Goodison. The consequences of Heysel were devastating for Everton and they’re still being felt to this day. Meanwhile, Goodison's loss was Bilbao's gain and an unprecedented chapter in Toffees' history was closed.

What Kendall achieved was underpinned by an impressive blend in qualities; some that made him the warm,  approachable, principled, virtuous and upstanding figure that Evertonians would come to know later in his life. Ones imbued in him, no doubt, by  the stability of his upbringing, the support of his parents — in particular his father who taught him the game — and the influence of the likes of Tom Finney whom he encountered at Preston as a green apprentice and described as ”a great man, decent and humble."

Others, whether innate or the accumulation of “tricks picked up along the way,” as he put it, from the likes of Catterick, served him well as a manager, as a coach and as a leader and were seen clearly enough by then-chairman Philip Carter to stand by him and ignore calls for his head from supporters at the nadir of the 1983-84 season. 

He possessed a clarity of insight into just what was required in his team to retain balance and how to get the best out of his players. He famously eschewed the hard-running, boot-camp style of pre-season training favoured by Catterick; instead, like Roberto Martinez today, he preferred to introduce the football from the outset, keeping the work fun and varied so that his charges never got bored. And he fostered a camaraderie and togetherness in his team with his legendary Chinese meals where the drink flowed freely and people could let their proverbial hair down.

Being an Everton player was becoming more and more fun, and training was more and more enjoyable. All this was down to Howard and the jigsaw he had created...I think his real quality was the strength of his convictions. He made his decisions and he stuck with them.
Neville Southall

"I’ve always believed in the element of bonding," he would remark, and Neville Southall credits that approach in his own autobiography for the gathering momentum in that all-important 1983-84 season: "Being an Everton player was becoming more and more fun, and training was more and more enjoyable. All this was down to Howard and the jigsaw he had created… I think his real quality was the strength of his convictions. He made his decisions and he stuck with them."

Two qualities above all, perhaps, lay behind his success. The first was an uncanny eye, whether it be the nacent talent in a younger man or the attributes of veteran that could round out his side. Like Catterick, he excelled in bringing in the right players, thanks to his judgement and that of his longtime right-hand-man, Harvey. That led him to sign some of the greatest or most effective players ever to grace the Grand Old Lady — from Southall, Trevor Steven, Gary Stevens, Derek Mountfield and Dave Watson to Peter Reid, Andy Gray, Alan Harper and some of the unsung heroes of the ’87 title-winning side like Paul Power. 

Secondly, he had an unsentimental appreciation for when a player had to be moved on for the good of the club, a holdover from his own experience as a player, not least when he was sold by Everton in 1974. That ruthlessness and steadfast adherence to his principles was not lost on his players. 

Southall noted in his book that, "Howard was a great manager  and ... one of the things that made him great was his ruthlessness. He was quick to judge a player and if he didn't fit his plans was swift to move them on. There was never any sentiment with Howard —  once you were done you were done."

It’s an observation echoed recently by Mountfield whom Kendall unceremoniously dropped from the team as soon as Watson had returned from injury in the ’86-’87 campaign despite him having performed very well alongside Kevin Ratcliffe: "He could be ruthless. That was the sign of a top manager. You’ve got to have your good side, your fatherly side and also be ruthless at times and he could be very, very ruthless.” 

That lack of emotion lay behind decisions like the one to sell Gray to Aston Villa with Gary Lineker on the way from Leicester, move on another fan-favourite  in the form of Peter Beardsley, release long-serving Graeme Sharp to Oldham and end the careers of Sheedy and Ratcliffe.

As Howard himself explained in his book, "I was always  quick to move players on if I could see they didn't have a role to play. I was never one for having players toiling endlessly in the reserves. It didn't do them, their market value or the squad any good at all. Far better to move them and bring somebody else in."

If Kendall was, in Southall’s words, "a football manager  in the true sense of the word”, perspective with the benefit of hindsight suggests that he was a product of his era,  a manager wonderfully suited to his time, and that his methodology and approach became more anachronistic as the gradual and irrevocable change to the game following the inception of the Premier League took hold in the 1990s.

Certainly conditions had changed significantly at Goodison in the three-plus years prior to his return as manager in November 1990. As had been the case nine years previously, he faced a sizeable task when he assumed the helm at Everton and had to make some of the afore-mentioned tough decisions over the makeup of his squad. 

Though his second term would last a little over two years and end without coming close to the success of his first, Kendall was able steady the ship, move the club away from relegation danger back to mid-table safety, and lay the foundations in terms of playing personnel that Joe Royle would inherit 11 months later and lead to FA Cup glory in May 1995. 

He would be frustrated in his attempts to replicate this team-building success the decade before. He admitted he was after a tough, galvanising striker like Gray and he tried to talk to Duncan Ferguson but was told emphatically that the up-and-coming Scot was going to Rangers. "Everton was becoming such a hard sell I wasn’t even getting in the door with the top players,” he later said.

Having pin-pointed Dion Dublin as another Gray-type — able to come back from injury problems and do a job up front — Howard found his recommendation would be shot down by David Marsh which brought home how much things had changed from the simplicity of when he and former club secretary Jim Greenwood had run the show almost single-handedly and routinely received the “go-ahead” from a trusting Carter. The money was there  and available in 1993 but Kendall's recommendation was no longer enough.

By the time he answered Peter Johnson’s call to come back for a third managerial spell in 1997, the environment had changed still further.  He would find things that much harder as old methods like picking up scouted bargains on the cheap and instilling discipline with fines was becoming much more difficult. Clubs were holding onto players a lot longer and players were earning much more money.

He was spared, however, of the ignominy and heart-break of being the first manager to oversee an Everton side’s relegation since 1951 that season. His team did enough — just enough (although there was one last precious drop of Kendall intuition at play: a flash of inspiration in the dead of night to start Gareth Farrelly in the decisive game against Coventry City) to avoid the drop and Howard was able to preserve his proud legacy in its entirety with a dignified departure for the last time in the summer of 1998.

"What’s it like to be the best?” Alan Ball would ask Kendall as the pair left the pitch having secured the 1970 League title. “It’s brilliant, isn’t it?” he replied. "Absolutely brilliant.” 

Author's tribute

To my regret, I never met Howard Kendall but, like every Evertonian, my gratitude for his stewardship of our great club, his achievements and the glory he brought us, particularly as a manager, is hard to put into words.

It is highly likely that were it not for the team he created and the profile he generated for Everton in the mid-80s, I would never have become an Evertonian in the first place. 

He was responsible not only for some of my greatest memories as an Everton fan but also of my life as a whole – even if as a teenager, oblivious to the barren years that were soon to follow, I wasn't able to fully appreciate them at the time.

Gone too soon, he will be badly missed. Rest in peace, Gaffer, and thanks for everything.

Thanks to Howard Kendall, the player and the manager, the Everton supporters he thrilled and who adored him were able to share that feeling with him. Not once but three times as League champions but also as cup kings in England and in Europe. Were it not for the cruel hand of fate on an awful night in Brussels, who knows how many more such moments of invincibility he might have delivered?

He was, as he pointed out, "the playing link between Harry Catterick’s Championship winning side and the ones I managed to success myself” and, by all accounts, the kind of man you would want associated as closely and significantly with Everton as he was. He never achieved the acclaim they he deserves outside of Liverpool for his achievements at Everton — indeed, Howard’s lack of recognition at international level means he joins a long list of Toffees both before and after him that were either under-appreciated by England or never got the opportunity to forge a reputation on the world stage. 

He has been credited for constructing a team that amounted to a lot more than the sum of its parts as there were no real stars in the team. That may have been true at the outset but he made stars, internationals and Everton heroes out of the players he assembled and delivered treasured memories for a generation of Blues.

Howard's achievements in the mid-1980s are the gold standard by which everything since has been measured, the benchmark for everything to which Evertonians continue to aspire. Goodison's adopted son, he was the greatest manager our grand old team has known and though he has passed on, his legacy will endure.



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