10 May, 1998
Saturday May 7th 1994 was a day that every Evertonian hoped they would never have to witness again in their lifetime. On that near-fatal afternoon Mike Walker's side somehow hauled themselves up from the brink of oblivion, coming back from 2-0 down to beat Wimbledon 3-2 and avoid relegation to the First Division. "Never again" was the overriding sentiment and the promise offered by the new Peter Johnson regime filled the supporters with optimism that a return to the heady days of the 1980s was just around the corner.
However, by October that year the club were rooted to the bottom of the Premiership and the following month Walker was sacked, to be replaced by the fans' choice, Joe Royle. Royle's impact was immediate. The Blues won their first three matches under his tutelage and although Premiership safety was only secured at the end of April, Everton savoured FA Cup glory at Wembley in the same season with a narrow 1-0 triumph over Manchester United at Wembley.
In many ways, the FA Cup win turned out to be the worst thing that could have befallen the club. Complacency set in as success appeared much closer than it actually was. Few players were brought in as Johnson and Royle stuck with the existing squad which was short on flair and finesse but long on tenacity and fight. Andrei Kanchelskis was the one notably exciting signing but when an injury crisis struck the club in the first half of the 1996-97 season and Everton's fortunes dipped, the Russian international became restless. By the end of January he had departed for Fiorentina in Italy for £8 million.
Gareth Farrelly fires home the goal that saved Everton
Kendall had just a month and a half of preparation before the 1997-98 season kicked off and although genuine attempts were made to lure Ravanelli from Middlesbrough for £7.5m and Sforza from the Belgian league for £3.5m, the only additions to the squad were three highly promising but relatively unknown players in the form of Gareth Farrelly, Danny Williamson and John Oster, followed by Mitch Ward and Carl Tiler in November.
However, the season began with a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of newly promoted Crystal Palace and it didn't get much better with the club plummeting to the bottom of the Premiership table by the end of November. A potentially explosive AGM the following month was cunningly defused by Johnson when he called a halt to proceedings half an hour early and then publicly announced that Kendall would have to sell before he could buy new players.
It was then that the club's fortunes suddenly lifted with the first away victory in almost exactly a year coming at Leicester City followed by three wins on the trot between December 28th and January 18th. Everton rose to the giddy heights of 13th in the table but injuries and suspensions struck once more, decimating the squad, and the downward spiral resumed.
Confusing signals eminated from the club with Johnson now seemingly prepared to offer cash for new players but rumours abounding that Kendall didn't want to spend it. Transfer deadline day passed without the expected signing of Chilean midfielder Jose Luis Sierra and only veteran Peter Beagrie arriving on loan. It was to be the acquisition of Beagrie that finally convinced the fans that Kendall may have lost the plot.
Despite the club's worsening plight, Kendall was confident that with five of Everton's remaining games scheduled at home, relegation would not be an issue. However, when the Blues failed to register much-needed wins at home against Leicester and Sheffield Wednesday, Kendall's team found themselves needing to take four points at least from an away trip to champions-elect Arsenal and a potentially difficult home clash with Coventry City at Goodison on the last day of the season.
By the time 10th May 1998 rolled around, Crystal Palace and Barnsley had already been consigned to a return to the Nationwide League. Due to the Blues' 4-0 hammering at Highbury the week before, the third and final relegation place would be filled by Everton or Bolton Wanderers. Thanks to a point's advantage, if Bolton could win at Chelsea they would survive irrespective of the result at Goodison Park. The Trotters could even afford to match Everton's result and still survive. The situation was even more desperate than in 1994, not only because Everton's fate was no longer in their own hands but also because many fans believed the personnel didn't have the fighting spirit of the team that saved themselves against Wimbledon four years previously. Added to this was the concern that Chelsea would not be expending great energy because of their European Cup Winners' Cup final match three days later.
However, when the team took to the pitch at five to four to the tones of Z-Cars, Goodison erupted in a cacophony of noise that did not let up until the final whistle. Mindful of how the crowd had such an influence four years previously, the supporters gave their all from start to finish. The surprise inclusion of Gareth Farrelly in the starting line-up was barely questioned as the fans put the entire weight of their support behind Kendall's side.
It had been the perfect start and it helped to settle the side at an early stage. Coventry, for their part, had shown little signs of ruining the day either. A few minutes later, a roar went up in the Park End suggesting that Chelsea had scored at Stamford Bridge. But, alas, it was proved to be a false alarm. It was still goalless at Chelsea, as it was to be at half-time when Everton went in a goal up and on course for survival. The fans' delight was tempered slightly by news that Bolton had been all over Chelsea in the first half - but had failed to score.
Gordon Strachan's Coventry came out with a good deal more purpose in
the second half and the longer time went on, the more edgy the Everton
players and supporters became. However, with 15 minutes to go, another
sudden roar, unconnected with events on the pitch, erupted around the
ground. This time Chelsea had scored, through their player manager Gianluca
Vialli. Bolton were losing, Everton were winning and that meant that the
Blues were staying up by two points. Vialli's name echoed around Goodison
from the mouths of ecstatic Evertonians.
Four minutes later, the stadium was stunned into silence when Dion Dublin headed goalwards and Thomas Myhre let the ball slip between his hands and into the net. 1-1 with a minute to go and Bolton on the attack at Chelsea. An equaliser for Bolton would send Everton down. The fans bayed for the final whistle, fearing a further strike by the Sky Blue visitors which would have sent the Toffees down for certain.
Then, amidst that desperate whistles and cries towards the referee, news filters through that Jody Morris has scored a second for Chelsea to make it 2-0. If Everton can hold out, they will save themselves from the dreaded drop. Innjury-time ticks agonisingly by before, finally, the referee signals towards his linesman and runs at full speed towards the tunnel. Everton were safe having executed a second great escape and a preserved a proud unbroken stretch of 44 years in England's top flight.
Although Howard Kendall's appointment to the Goodison hotseat for the third time was largely greeted with approval, neither the club nor its supporters ever seemed able to cast off the feeling that it had taken a step sideways rather than forwards. Come the summer of 1998, few fans were looking forward to the new season with much optimism and Kendall's departure just two days short of a year since he returned to the club, was undoubtedly, in hindsight, the best thing for all concerned.
There were genuine signs in the winter that he was slowly turning things around - had it not been for that mid-season revival the club would definitely have been relegated - but ultimately his side failed to secure their safety until the last game of the season, and only then by the most slender of margins.
It was to his and his team's credit that they did salvage their Premiership status, paving the way for the Walter Smith era.
Score: Everton 1-1 Coventry City
Goals: Everton - Farrelly 7 ; Coventry - Dublin 89
Everton: Myhre, O'Kane, Watson, Short, Tiler, Ball, Hutchison, Farrelly, Barmby, Madar, Ferguson.
Referee: P Alcock
Press cuttings from the game.
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