When an early penalty was converted by Notts County’s Ian McParland in the first match of February, Everton fans were still looking down the table towards their opponents, occupying the third relegation spot. Half an hour later, such fears were allayed until the grim 90s, as Adrian Heath scored two thirds of a hat-trick and Kevin Sheedy added a penalty of our own.
The feelgood factor was carried through to the Priestfield Stadium where Gillingham were eventually put away with the same two players delivering three first half goals – Wembley, and a visit for the first time in seven years, was beginning to feel close in both cup competitons.
A young team relished the chance to play two games a week – nobody seemed to worry too much about squad rotation back then: unless it was turns to get the beers in! So, after a one-all draw at the Hawthorns in the league (when Derek Mountfield showed the eye for goal that would become so critical a year later), it was a big house at Goodison for a repeat of the 1977 League Cup Final this time with the Villa coming for the semi. Sheedy notched a fourth goal in four matches and the emerging Kevin Richardson added a second which was to prove the ticket to Wembley after the second leg’s one-nil reverse. The weekend brought a comfortable passage through to the FA Cup quarter-finals with a 3-0 win over Shrewsbury, before the month was rounded off at Watford, a team we were to meet again in May.
Blues fans walked the long way round to the away end on what looked like a dogtrack with a football field in the middle. Elton John and Graham Taylor had fashioned a swift rise to the top flight and had a couple of gems upfront in Mo Johnston (later a Blue) and John Barnes (later, of course, a Red), but, as was the way then, hadn’t spent much on what was clearly a Fourth Division ground. Having become accustomed to these surroundings, we turned round one-down but with some optimism. Little did we know.
Before the offside rule changed, the back-pass to the keeper was circumscribed and cards were thrown like confetti, goals were rarer commodities – but not that late winter afternoon (nor in the same fixture the next season). Graeme Sharp equalised to spark a clatter of six goals in 27 minutes. We were still on the end of a 4-3 defeat, until Adrian Heath popped up with his fifth goal of the month to salvage a point and send Everton into March with plenty of confidence.
That month was to bring three matches against Liverpool, the start of a seven year period of huge derbies against the old enemy in which trophies, or careers, seemed always to be on the line. Not that we could see that then – but we were daring to believe.