This week – 28 years ago

Slim pickings this week as it’s usually International Break. In fact, the last time there wasn’t a break in early October was back in 1994, so let’s go there.

David Hardman 07/10/2022 3comments  |  Jump to last

Slim pickings this week as it’s usually International Break. In fact, the last time there wasn’t a break in early October was back in 1994, so let’s go there.

Bit of background - Mike Walker had taken over at Norwich City in the summer of 1992, after they’d finished just 2 places and 3 points above the drop zone. They then sold their top scorer Robert Fleck to Chelsea. Incredibly, they found themselves top of the “newly formed” Premier League for much of the 1992-93 season, and remained in the title race until Easter, before finishing 3rd and qualifying for Europe. This European campaign saw them become the first English side to win away at Bayern Munich, and were only eliminated by eventual winners Inter, narrowly losing 0-1 in both legs. As 1993 drew to a close and Walker began to be tempted by Everton’s overtures, Norwich, although well behind runaway leaders Manchester United and emerging challengers Blackburn, were handily placed to be the best of the rest again and make a swift return to Europe. What’s more, there was no keep-it-tight-and-nick-one here – they were playing attractive, attacking, passing football, winning many admirers along the way.

After Walker left, they only won 2 more league matches (no prizes for guessing which team they finally broke their winless run against!) and finished in the bottom half, before getting relegated the following year.

And things had gone just as badly for Walker himself. Despite winning his first 2 home league games in charge, he was unable to prevent Everton from sliding into a relegation battle which culminated in the famous Wimbledon game. And the team only got worse in the new campaign. They went into October still without a win in any competition, bottom of the Premier League.

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On this weekend 28 years ago, they travelled to The Dell to face Southampton. They’d already suffered disappointment on the south coast just 3 days earlier, when a 0-0 draw at Portsmouth saw them eliminated from the League Cup at the first hurdle, having lost the home leg 2-3.

And it got no better here, as goals from Ronnie Ekelund and Matt Le Tissier saw the Saints run out 2-0 winners. A week later, worse was to follow as 17th place Coventry City came to Goodison Park and also won 2-0. The game is notorious for Barry Horne being played at right-back, and Dion Dublin (who’s vetoed transfer was the final straw for Walker’s predecessor) coming back to haunt Everton by getting on the scoresheet.

I don’t think any reasonable person would have been surprised if Mike Walker had been given his marching orders then. Instead, the axe only fell a month later, by which time results had picked up.

I’m not going to focus on that now as I may revisit this season at a later date, and rather than analyse what went wrong for Walker at Everton, I’m going to look at why it went so right for him earlier at Norwich.

1992-93 wasn’t the first time Norwich had been the surprise package. In 1988-89, they finished 4th, having topped the table until December, and also reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup. Several members of that squad were still around when Walker took the helm.

And their final league position in 1991-92 doesn’t tell the full story. They won just one of their last 12 matches (again, no prizes for guessing who against!) and picked up just one point from the final 8 games. Can only imagine they were in a comfortable, maybe even top half position, until they hit the skids in the final weeks. More significantly, they again reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, and also the quarter finals of the league cup, in the days when both competitions were a lot more competitive – clubs would do wacky things like send their best 11 out and try to win the games back then.

All this points to the fact that the team Walker inherited were a lot better than their lowly 1991-92 league position would suggest.

Although he was their top scorer, Fleck only scored 11 league goals, 2 of which were penalties, so it’s not like the team was built around his scoring, and also suggests that the goals were well spread throughout the team.

Mark Robins was purchased from Manchester United, and proved to be an inspirational signing, even if he did turn out to be a one season wonder. And in Walker’s second season, they didn’t need his goals because centre half Chris Sutton turned out to be a top class makeshift striker. Ruel Fox also came to prominence. While not world beaters, players like Dave Phillips and Jeremy Goss were well suited to the slick passing style that Walker preferred.

It’s also worth noting that Norwich somehow managed to finished 3rd with a negative goal difference, which suggests that they won a lot of games narrowly and also got thrashed a few times. In other words, when they were bad, they were very very bad – the 1-7 reversal at Blackburn springs to mind – defensive frailty when the passing game fell apart, something that would be a lot more apparent at Everton.

In short, he inherited an underrated group of players, augmented by Robins’ goals and then by Sutton and Fox flourishing, and Walkers' style of play suited the personnel and got the best out of them – it didn’t always work but it worked enough times for them to gatecrash and upset some of the top teams.

As for Norwich’s collapse – Ruel Fox was sold to Newcastle around the time Walker left. Sutton was sold that summer. Other players left during the following season. My understanding is that this money was invested into improving and expanding the stadium – good for the long term prosperity of the club, not so good for the short-term future of the team.

Perhaps Walker knew this was coming. Perhaps he saw the iceberg and that’s why he was so keen when Everton came knocking.

I was accused of vitriol in my last article, so I'll just point out that this is in no way a slight against Mike Walker, or any kind of belittlement of his achievements at Norwich. What he managed there still took some doing. In fact, there seems to be a consensus that he fluked a win in Munich and that was the sole basis for his reputation at the time, so I hope I've dispelled that myth and shown that Munich was no one-off.

I'm merely trying to find an explanation as to why a manager who seemed to perform minor miracles in his first 18 months in the job could then have such a dismal time at Everton and beyond. 

Because the story doesn’t end there. In 1996, Mike Walker returned to Norwich, who had just finished in the bottom half of the second tier. The hope was that, back in familiar territory, he’d be able to work the same magic again. But lightening didn’t strike twice. Although they didn’t get any worse, this time he failed to make an impact, and he left in 1998 with the team still in the same position they’d been when he arrived 2 years earlier. A far cry from his first spell in charge, when they lit up the Premier League’s inaugural season and provided a European adventure that a provincial team could dream of now.

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Reader Comments (3)

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Phil (Kelsall) Roberts
1 Posted 08/10/2022 at 20:18:23
Coventry at home. First game my son went to. Thank you to the Steward who let a little 8-year-old walk on the hallowed turf about 10 minutes after the match.

Thanks also to the guy who gave me a hankie. That game was the worst memory I have of Everton.

Told my son I had something in my eye and that is why daddy looks like he is crying.

Dennis Stevens
2 Posted 09/10/2022 at 02:01:52
I remember attending that draw versus Pompey. As I recall, it was a score draw rather than a nil-nil. I'm sure we'd scored quite early in the match and their equaliser came quite late, to the great disappointment of all those travelling supporters.

I really felt quite sorry for them after coming all that way for nothing. Well, apart from seeing Big Dunc make his debut. He didn't score his first goal for Everton that evening, but I think he may have been shown his first card!

Brian Murray
3 Posted 09/10/2022 at 16:10:29
Just a litany of bad calls of managers and decisions we are now finally getting away from. One common denominator in all this but hey that’s Everton. Wouldn’t change it for the world. Well actually for my kids sake I would.

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