It had all been so different just four years earlier. Fans had turned up from all corners of the country to Goodison’s citadel. Some perched in trees – the Park End was being rebuilt – and there was something of the carnivalesque in the air, but with an underlying fear that something really bad might just happen. It felt like the opening scene in “The Warriors”, with Dave Watson as our Cyrus, the man around whom we would unite for the common good. As in the film, things began to go wrong early, but Wimbledon were still enslaved by Dave “Harry” Bassett’s football philosophy – The Book of Harry Styles of Football had but a single page on which was written “Kick the ball in one direction – forward!” with not even a little mixing up of play allowed. Everton, with a sensational equaliser from Welsh midfielder Barry Horne – think a Lidl version of Gareth Bale and you’ve got him – survived in the greatest match I’ve ever seen.
In 1998, Everton kicked off the final game of the season in the bottom three. The Blues were led by chairman Peter Johnson – whose reputation as a Liverpool fan led some Evertonians to consider him a spy, a George Smiley figure, a view gleefully propagated on The Kop – and Howard Kendall, whose third spell as manager was taking a wrecking ball to his reputation. Even when Gareth Farrelly, the kind of player fans would rather have seen nude than in the famous old shirt, took advantage of a Coventry defensive slip to nip in with a fine shot to open the scoring, fans still knew we needed another result to go our way. Tension gripped Goodison.
The key match was at Stamford Bridge, where Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea were playing Bolton, who needed merely to match Everton’s result to end Goodison’s long proud history of hosting top flight football. In those days before smartphones – or even mobiles – the only way to keep abreast of scores was to listen on a transistor radio; and thousands of Evertonians did. In West London, Vialli himself got one and Jody Morris the other, as Chelsea ran out 2-0 winners rendering Dion Dublin’s late equaliser, in front of a by now jubilant Goodison, academic. Everton were staying up, the two point swing enough to lift Kendall’s men out of the bottom three.
But that doesn’t tell the whole tale. Just three days after that heartstopping drama had sent Evertonians gaga with nerves, Chelsea had a European Cup-Winners Cup Final to play in Stockholm. But, in a League match that didn’t matter to his club, Vialli had fielded a full-stength team whose commitment was such that they scored two goals in the last twenty minutes.
For that dedication to a fundamental principle of football – that every game is there to be won – Everton owe a debt of gratitude to Chelsea that this Blue, and many more, will not forget.