Category Archives: Nostalgia

Everton, Manchester United, Duncan Ferguson and iconography 3 December 2013

It did happen!

It did happen!

Remember Mike Walker? I know – it makes you shudder doesn’t it?

Back in the Autumn of 1994, Mike Walker was Everton manager and Everton were rock bottom of the Premier League. I turned up at Selhurst Park to see the Blues take on fellow strugglers Crystal Palace (it’s nice to know that some things never change) and watched Everton back up the previous week’s 2-0 home reverse to Coventry City with a 1-0 defeat to the workmanlike, but hardly stellar, Londoners. Things looked grim – really grim – but a couple of players caught my eye.

The two Glasgow Rangers men on loan played without the burden of gloom that envelopes a team still searching for its first win of the season deep into October. Iain Durrant looked like the skillful midfielder he would prove to be in a career marred by injury. But, standing head and shoulders over the rest in every sense was Duncan Ferguson – a player more known for his fearsome reputation than his play, at least this side of the border.

Early on, just in front of the Everton faithful (very faithful) in a crowd of fewer than 15,000, the big man took a difficult ball, killed it, turned, got his head up and played a cross into the box that was, most likely, miskicked for a throw-in by Daniel Amokachi. I turned to my brother and said, “We’ve got our very own Marco Van Basten!” That, of course, was a bit of an exaggeration but, pre-Ibrahimovic, pre-Drogba, pre-Peter Crouch FFS, the Big Man With A Good Touch was a rare sight in football. I was impressed.

One month later in Joe Royle’s first game as manager, Ferguson was to lift us off the bottom of the table with a Derby Day win over Liverpool cementing his place in the pantheon of Everton centre-forwards. But for many Evertonians, the image that sticks in their minds, is the goal that defeated Manchester United, a goal that secured three vital points, as Royle’s men clambered to mid-table. 

It was this goal that created Duncan Ferguson as Goodison icon. There’s the long corner, the towering header and the manic celebration, shirt off and round the head, as first the Gwladys Street and then the Main Stand are saluted, team-mates left in his trail. He scored far fewer headed goals than he should have – but the myth is too powerful to be broken by mere facts. 

A few weeks later, at Loftus Road, Andy Hinchcliffe’s last minute free kick delivered a thriller of a 3-2 win as the late season charge to Everton’s last silverware gathered pace. But before the match, in the huge and scary General Smuts’ pub, a cavernous, smoky room was packed with Evertonians singing their songs. And, when it came to Duncan Ferguson, to the tune of “Go West”, off came the shirts and round the heads they went. He wasn’t even playing that day.  

Everton and Villa Park… and Hillsborough and me 23 October 2013

ENI will go to Villa Park again on Saturday for the first time since 15 April 1989 – the day football (and thousands of lives) changed forever.

It was just another semi-final for me. I’d been there for the defeat in the replay at Elland Road in 1980 (Frank Lampard’s dad and the corner flag), but also for the three wins in 1984 (Inchy Heath at Highbury), 1985 (Sheedy and Mountfield at the Villa) and 1986 (Harper and Sharp, again at the Villa). I wasn’t quite complacent, but I expected a win. I also expected to be going to semi-finals and standing in a swaying, seething sea of humanity into the 90s and beyond.

The scoreboard opposite the Holte End flashed up Liverpool vs Nottingham Forest – Match Suspended. Less than three years after the Heysel Disaster and with its causes not fully established, there were plenty of curses around me for our cross-park brethren whom everyone assumed were “at it again”. Then we forgot about it and concentrated on the game, celebrating Pat Nevin’s scrambled winner in a largely colourless match.

We still knew nothing – nobody had a mobile phone, nobody brought a radio to a semi-final and nobody really cared what was happening elsewhere – leaving the ground. Until we saw heads craned into car windows and men looking ashen-faced at what they heard, heads now bowed. Where was the singing, where was the urgent planning for Wembley, where was the joy? We soon found out why.

Car had doors open now and people gathering around shushing those who walked past. I heard Peter Jones of Radio Two say that nine (I think) were confirmed dead after the Leppings Lane gates were rushed by Liverpool fans – for that was the story at the time. I heard a man in the eerie stillness in which crackly car radios were the only sounds, shout “It’s Dalglish” and people craned necks better to hear the Glaswegian voice that spoke for half a city begin to outline the horror.

Soon hushed voices could be overheard, saying things like, “My cousins are there”, “My girlfriend is there” and “My lads are there”. There was no panic, but there was a sense that this was bad, really bad, and random – people wanted to get home and know that others would be home too. 96, of course, wouldn’t make it.

I sat in a pub near New Street with my father and my two brothers, as the television pictures showed the now familiar scenes of fans carrying the dead and injured on makeshift stretchers and the one, pathetic, ambulance with people dying in front of it. After a train journey back to London, my brother and I went into a pub opposite Euston and watched again as the death count rose. We didn’t say much.

Nearly a quarter century on, I’m back at Villa Park. Nearly a quarter century on, the 96 await justice.

The Demise of the Unsung Hero – Alan Harper, Everton and Spurs 13 October 2013

Sky Super Sunday, football supplements, online forums and wikipedia pages oozing words all  over your screen have seen off one of true football fans’ compensations, one of the markers that set us apart from the casual fan, a way to identify a true believer. Because the Unsung Hero is no more. These days, if he’s not coming off the bench for a ten minute cameo that’s analysed the morning after in a 2000 word article in The Guardian by Michael Cox, he’s filling in for an otherwise engaged Andros Townsend on Soccer AM or picking up Jermaine Defoe’s leftovers in a London hotspot. Even those who definitely should be Unsung Heroes have been transformed into Cult Heroes that even casual fans can joke about – and I’m looking at you, non-scoring Tony Hibbert. It wasn’t always this way.

Everton’s great sides of the mid-80s were rounded off by the archetypal Unsung Hero – step forward (but don’t come too close with a face like that) Alan Harper. Chances are you don’t know him – plenty of Blues under the age of 40 probably won’t either, – but, for those of us glugging the statins every day and wondering if a cruise might be a better option this summer, he’s a God amongst men.

With the Gary Neville full-back's 'tache

With the Gary Neville full-back’s ‘tache

His record is unexceptionable – the Unsung Hero must have an unexceptionable record – 148 appearances in two spells with four goals. He also conformed to another of the Unsung Hero’s person specification criteria by picking up a couple of medals as an unused substitute in finals.

But one match above all others defined Alan Harper’s status as a Hero first and Unsung second. Everton were facing off again against Tottenham just a year after a tumultuous White Hart Lane night, remembered best for a Neville Southall wondersave and the sense that the title really was ours again. This time it was the FA Cup – and this is when the FA Cup really mattered – and Tottenham were in no mood to be dispatched again. Harper started this one at full back, but, with less than ten minutes gone, Mark Falco or Graham Roberts (I’m not sure which) – both as “robust” as Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle were delicate – had sent Kevin Ratcliffe from the fray on a stretcher and Everton were left without captain and centre-half, with Adrian “Inchy” hardly a like-for-like substitute.

Alan Harper moved inside and had Falco in his pocket all night. The ball seemed to be magnetised to him – if he wasn’t clearing corners, he was cutting out passes; if he wasn’t making tackles, he was tracking runners. He was, inasmuch as a man of 5’9” can be, immense, the rock on which a 1-2 win (Heath, Lineker) was built, the single most important reason for that first Merseyside FA Cup Final .

He was never as good again – how could he be – but he’s an Unsung Hero for life.