Not all football fandom is as tribal as it is in England with many German fans having a “second club” with whom the bonds of friendship are sufficiently strong to withstand the pull of competition. Fans of most English clubs can readily identify one arch-enemy and perhaps half a dozen more (everyone counts Manchester United and MK Dons don’t they?) and there’s no sign of a single club’s fans adopting another club as an alternative object of desire. But two incidents might suggest just a fleeting, coy, come-hither look that occasionally passes between the fans of Everton and Newcastle United.
Things were different in 18 years ago this weekend. Everton lined up on the first day of October with an XI so strong that Joe Royle could afford to leave out the sublime skills of Anders Limpar, a player who could beat a man by running very fast and then stopping very fast. But it was also an XI so weak that its midfield linchpins were Tony Grant and John Ebbrell. The dogs of war had delivered an unforgettable FA Cup win five months earlier but, after yet another sluggish start to the season, Everton were 14th and a long winter loomed.
Thirteen places above Everton, Newcastle had a foreign winger too, though if Everton’s erratic Swede was stop-dead gorgeous, Kevin Keegan’s Frenchman was more drop-dead gorgeous. With Les Ferdinand leading the line and waiting all of 20 minutes before scoring his customary Goodison goal, Everton were torn apart by attacking play that matched anything seen from opponents in a generation. When David Ginola was substituted after an hour, he was applauded from all sides of the ground – applause that was to be matched at the final whistle, the Blues being flattered by a 3-1 reverse. Outside the ground, Evertonians were shaking hands with members of the Toon Army and telling them to go on and win it.
Of course, history (and Kevin Keegan) was to have the final say that season with this iconic speech the turning point. “When you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds, and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce – I’ve kept really quiet, but I’ll tell you something, he went down in my estimation when he said that – we have not resorted to that. But I’ll tell ya – you can tell him now if you’re watching it – we’re still fighting for this title, and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something, and… and I tell you honestly, I will love it if we beat them, love it!”
Fast-forward six years to another 3-1 win for Newcastle at Goodison and Paul Gascoigne, a late Everton substitute, trots across to take a corner and is met with a standing ovation from the Toon Army. He sheepishly acknowledged it and, once the ball was cleared, the Everton crowd acknowledged it too.
Respeck, as I think the young people say.