This Week – 34 Years Ago

Everton travelled to Highfield Road hoping to build on Tony Cottee’s debut hat-trick.

David Hardman 05/09/2022 13comments  |  Jump to last


I've had to deviate from my usual round numbers, as the first weekend in September is usually the International Break. Ironically, I'm going back to the season when International breaks were first introduced in English football - 1988/89. But there wasn't one in early September that year - it would have been a bit silly if there was, given that the season only started a week earlier!  

Yes, back in 1988, the season still started true to tradition, on last weekend of August.

And Everton started the season in spectacular style, 4-0 at home to Newcastle, in a game most memorable for Tony Cottee scoring a hat-trick on his debut. Cottee had cost a British record £2million, and was joined by other new signings Neil McDonald, Stuart McCall and Pat Nevin. These players were brought in to augment the team that had won the league only a year earlier – in fact, after Derek Mountfield (who was injured for much of 86/87, Dave Watson proving an able replacement), the only notable departure from that Championship side at this point was Gary Stevens, who joined Rangers that summer.

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The match-up against Coventry was a repeat of the previous summer’s Charity Shield, which Everton won. Sadly for new manager Colin Harvey, it would be their only silverware that season. 4th in the league but 20 points behind the winners, that season was most memorable for the sheer volume of cup matches, with very little to show for it – all those replays against Sheffield Wednesday in addition to reaching the semi-final of the league cup, where an emerging Arsenal side took care of Everton quite emphatically.

It was hoped that, with the summer signings, this new look Everton side would once again be lifting the big honours. The first game couldn’t have gone better.

The Game

And they kept up their winning ways at Highfield Road with a 1-0 victory. Cottee was once again the scorer, but the victory was largely down to the performance of Neville Southall at the other end. By the time Cottee had put Everton in front, Nev had already saved a well struck penalty from Kilcline before somehow keeping out a diverted point-blank header from Bannister from 6 yards out (a save not dissimilar to his famous one against Mark Falco at White Hane in 1985). In the 2nd half he also kept out an indirect free kick that seemed to be heading into the top corner at lightning speed. When he was finally beaten with a looping header, the crossbar came to Everton’s rescue.

For the second week in a row, I’m commenting on a smash and grab victory against West Midlands opponents. The cliché about not playing well but still winning being the hallmark of champions once again comes to mind. In fact, the nature of this game had shades of the hard fought 1-0 win at Hillsbrough in May 1985.

With away form being particularly disappointing during the previous season’s title defence, it was encouraging to get a victory on the road at the first attempt.

4 goals in 2 games for Cottee and just for good measure, his goal that day was set up by a cross from one of the other new signings, Neil McDonald.

Yes, the signs were good.


Everton didn’t win the league that season! In fact, they would pick up just 39 points from their next 33 league games, scarcely better than relegation form. Just like the season before, it’s best remembered for their cup exploits, reaching the finals of both the Full Members and FA Cup, and taking both finals to extra-time before eventually succumbing to defeat.

Cottee scored 2 in the Full Members Cup final against Nottingham Forest, but it was another of the summer signings, McCall, who made his mark with a brace in the FA Cup final, scrambling home a last minute equaliser before hitting a screamer in extra time.

Despite the goals mentioned, Cottee’s form would be very stop-start all season. In fact, it would remain that way for most of his time at the club – it’s possibly only during his final campaign (93-94) that he would find the net consistently over the course of the season, but by then Everton were battling relegation so hopes of his goals leading the team to the title were long gone.

He got in double figures and was the team’s top scorer for 5 of the 6 seasons he was at the club, so it would be harsh to call him a flop. More expensive strikers have fared far worse after their big moves. Had Cottee been brought in as a playmaker or a number 10 or a wide striker, his goals return would have been pretty decent. It’s just that, having come in for a record transfer and with the sole intention of being a goal poacher, even more goals were expected.

Pat Nevin also had his moments, but the problem lay beyond individual performances. It looked as though the new players just didn’t seem to gel with the established players on the pitch. And from the autobiography of a certain former player and current club employee, it would appear that they didn’t gel off the pitch either.  

It’s interesting to note that, had Everton gone on to win the FA Cup, the rest of Stuart McCall’s disappointing time at the club would probably be overlooked and he’d be considered a great signing and be a club hero for his contribution in that game. Such are the margins.

In any case, he, Pat Nevin and Neil McDonald were all playing elsewhere within 3 years, Howard Kendall seemingly feeling they wouldn’t be in his plans when he returned in 1990.

By the end of the 1989 season, the Championship team would disintegrate further, with Adrian Heath and then Peter Reid leaving during the season, and Trevor Steven joining his namesake Gary at Rangers in the summer of 1989. After an injury ravaged time, Paul Bracewell would also leave the club in 1989.

There’s not really been chance to mention the Football League Centenary tournaments that Everton were involved in that year. Again, Everton didn’t win any of them, but at least in the bigger tournaments, their cup progress was in improvement on the previous year.

But their league form was so dire for all but the first 2 and the last 3 matches of that season, it's possible that, had they not reached those 2 cup finals (the FA Cup in particular), Colin Harvey’s position would have been called in to question a lot sooner.

So Everton didn’t win the league that season. Who did? I mentioned the emerging Arsenal side eliminating Everton from the previous year’s League Cup near the beginning of this piece. I’ll end with 5 unforgettable words

it’s up for grabs now

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Reader Comments (13)

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Martin Reppion
1 Posted 07/09/2022 at 10:52:11
I was there for Tony Cottee's hat-trick. High hopes leading to great disappointment.

Nevin's book discusses in length how the side fell apart and it is an enlightening if alarming indictment of some of the heroes of the '80s Everton teams.

Cottee is not generally fondly remembered. He played in a side lacking fight. Incredible after how we'd been just a few years earlier. I can't provide stats to prove this but my memory of him is that he scored a lot of late equalisers, which was when, in desperation, we put the ball into the box after passing it around an increasingly inept midfield until we fell behind.

I believed then that a more direct approach from us would have benefitted his style of play. His equaliser in the 4-4 cup replay being an example of this.

Lee Courtliff
2 Posted 07/09/2022 at 11:53:01
In his autobiography, Cottee said the opposite. He was used to the ball being played through the middle, in the 'West Ham Way'. But, at Everton, "they favoured a more direct approach".

He also mentioned how Sheedy would almost always ignore his runs to the near post and, instead, look for Sharpy at the far post. When questioned, Kevin said it was just habit having played with Sharp for so long and it certainly wasn't anything personal against Tony.

Imo, Cottee is harshly judged by many. Granted, he wasn't up the standard that the mid-80s team had set but he ended his career with a League record of 1 goal every 2.5 games!! That's some going by almost anyone's standard.

As the op mentioned, he was a 'streaky' striker who could easily score 4 in the 3 games then blank for 4/5 games before scoring 3 in the next 2. Personally, I think the Old Guard were living on past glories, especially Sharp, who contributed very little in his last 2 seasons with us.

And, I've always loved Cottee's goal away at Coventry in '88. A lovely stooping header at the far post. Nothing special, just something about it I've always liked.

Brian Murray
3 Posted 07/09/2022 at 12:18:41
Better striker than most we have had in the barren years but I'll never understand or forgive his explanation that, in the '89 Cup Final after 20 mins he felt drained and had nothing to give.

Them shower had at least three frontmen who stood up, especially going all the way to extra time.

Danny O’Neill
4 Posted 07/09/2022 at 12:39:42
I was at the Newcastle match to watch Cottee's debut hat-trick. The teenager in me was full of optimism with the signings that summer. We were going to challenge for the title again.

But in hindsight, Colin Harvey, the biggest Evertonian there is, was a superb coach but not a manager.

Cottee, who chose us over Arsenal, was no Graeme Sharp replacement.

McDonald was no Gary Stevens replacement.

McCall was not as good as Bracewell or Reid, even though I thought he was a decent, honest midfielder. Tough player, but lacked the on-the-ball quality Reid had.

And as delightful at times as he was to watch, Pat Nevin was never going to be a successor to Trevor Steven.

Blind optimism of the time but looking back, the start of the decline we are still suffering from. I guess those who witnessed the break up of the 69-70 team and failure to invest with equal or better can relate.

But we've reached another corner. Optimism tells me we go the right way this time.

Robert Tressell
5 Posted 07/09/2022 at 12:42:50
I've been a supporter since about 1988-89 and think of myself as Cottee-era.

Sadly, my memory only allows me to see the likes of Reid, Bracewell, Sharpe, Southall, Sheedy etc as crocks and has-beens. Sacrilege probably to older supporters. Cottee was a bright spark amongst that lot. Maybe McCall, too.

Whether that was an immature assessment I don't know but we were certainly on the slide by that stage.

There have only been a few moments of genuine optimism since then. The signing of Kanchelskis. The Martinez season etc.

Funnily enough I feel we could be on the brink of a breakthrough now if we stick with Lampard and handle the next few windows (alongside our academy) well.

Craig Walker
6 Posted 07/09/2022 at 14:55:09
I was 13 and still at school. The 1989 Cup Final was gutting but I'd had two FA Cup heartbreaks by then.

If you'd have told me back then that, by the time I'm 48, we would win just one trophy after that last championship-winning season, I wouldn't have believed it.

If you then added that Liverpool would also struggle to win the league and win it just twice since (one of them during a worldwide pandemic) and Man City would be the best team in the land...

To think now that if Lampard got us a 4th-placed finish and an FA Cup final he'd be lauded.

In retrospect, Colin Harvey's managerial spell was the start of the decline. He signed some decent players but they weren't as good as the players they replaced.

I remember watching Arsenal destroy us that season at Goodison and a bloke I happened to be standing next to said "They're like we used to be".

Bill Kenwright might insist we've had some good times since but, from where we were in 1987, it is hard to accept our decline. Unfortunately, money plays such a role now that for us to be the best team in the land again seems as far off as it has ever done.

John Raftery
7 Posted 07/09/2022 at 22:53:45
I believe the problems really went back to the summer of 1987. We lost Howard Kendall and failed to strengthen the squad. Meanwhile, the RS signed two England internationals, Barnes and Beardsley, plus Aldridge. Colin Harvey's first signing was a journeyman midfielder, Ian Wilson, in the autumn.

The club was complacent on and off the pitch. The lack of ambition in team building was matched by the strategic failure to develop the ground. We have yet to recover.

Don Alexander
8 Posted 08/09/2022 at 00:24:59
In truth, the problems in our club go all the way back to 1971 after several truly great seasons. Those in charge then seemed to slit our wrists with the sales and signings they imposed on us.

I was 16 in 1971, I was married with children and a mortgage when we at last won something after a (mere) 13-year gap, and a lot of mundane football in between times.

The implosion that engulfed us after the Heysel atrocity exemplified, again, the inability of those in charge of us to manage the real world they were in, just like in 1971 and beyond. Compared to the current crew, though, they look glitteringly successful.

Has any one spectacularly inept person been at the very heart of our club since the moment the Premier League was created 30 fucking mediocre (at best) years ago, I wonder?

Answers on a postcard please.

Danny O’Neill
9 Posted 08/09/2022 at 12:17:56
John & Don's posts @7 & @8 add perspective if I reflect.

I've stated many times that we failed to invest and capitalise in 1987 despite the obvious European restrictions. It certainly didn't hamper Manchester United's strategic thinking or planning for the future.

For me that is when the real decline set in.

But in reality, I grew up throughout the '70s and we were on the back foot for most of that decade. The nearly men. So there is reality in what Don says that it began earlier.

It's just that we grasped that chance in the '80s, only 14 years since our previously last title win, but then failed to build on the opportunity we had.

And here we are, 27 years later and counting.


Pete Clarke
10 Posted 08/09/2022 at 13:11:42
I may have mentioned this not too long ago to somebody regarding this Coventry match.

A few of us were badly hung over from a night out in town and the coach journey didn't really help shake it off so the match was a bit blurry.

The one thing that sticks in my mind was big Nev clawing out a screamer from Greg Downs. Downs had actually turned to celebrate his goal only to then realize the big man had stopped his effort.

6 points in the bag, new striker looking top notch so what could go wrong? Well in reality, apart from Joe Royle's amazing effort, very little had gone right so, just like our present board, we can only lay the blame at the board of that time for their lack of planning and professionalism.

We haven't been blessed in that area at all and it's amazing that we have stayed in the top flight.

Touch my head !

Finn Taylor
11 Posted 13/09/2022 at 16:01:40
I remember this game like it was yesterday. Cottee got his first pretty quickly, if I recall?

I was excited by our new signings this season, I can see them all on the cover of the match program. I knew little of McDonald at the time, but was excited by McCall and loved Nevin. I was in the Upper Gwladys Street stand that day and the atmosphere was electric.

I am pretty sure results went to shit very quickly after the Coventry game. I seem to recall a shocker at home to Luton, which I think we lost 0-2 and Nevin got injured, out for 3 months?

I do remember thinking at the time there was no togetherness about the team... which was clearly the case, knowing what has emerged from ex-players' books.

Our form was weird that season – I recall us smashing Southampton 4-1 at Goodison and we were superb... then I recall another game with Wimbledon, at Goodison, which was a draw but was more memorable because Vinny Jones butted Ratcliffe I think. It was an awful game, that… one of the worst I've ever seen.

Arsenal smashed us 1-3 at Goodison in the January and they were stunning to watch. Overall, I seem to recall us being relatively good at home that season, but dire away – a pattern that has continued to this day.

Lee Whitehead
12 Posted 13/09/2022 at 16:51:05
I remember talking to God (Howard Kendall) a couple of years before he died and his view was that the downward spiral started in 1971.

Beaten in the European Cup & RS semi-final in the same week. He told me we never really recovered except – the in mid-eighties... 💙💙💙💙

Brian Wilkinson
13 Posted 17/09/2022 at 19:21:07
I am guessing most (like me) thought our emergence in the eighties started with Colin Harvey coming in as first-team coach, once Howard decided to leave.

For me, Harvey was the natural choice to take over; however, it turned into a Brian Clough - Peter Taylor scenario: worked great together, not so when Taylor was not by his side.

The same can be said about Kendall, before Harvey joined him, and likewise when Kendall left, leaving just Harvey at the helm.

When Kendall left, that and making too many signings too quick, was the start of the downward slide. We brought in players and, for me, all bar Tony Cottee were nowhere near as good as the players they replaced.

I just think we tried to change things too quickly and never recovered.

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