When you think back to your formative years as a fan, it’s very easy to recall the good memories of days when everything fell into place for your team. That new striker who looked like he actually could hit a cow’s arse with a banjo; that F.A. Cup run that brightened an otherwise miserable league season; that kid who was doing great things for the under-19s the previous season making the step up to the first team and looking like he wasn’t totally out of his depth. As a Manchester United fan, big Norman Whiteside springs to mind in the latter category!

However, can you remember an opposition team that were so good that they struck fear into you just by gazing at the fixture list for the season ahead? I can. It was the summer of 1984. Under the guidance of big Ron Atkinson, United were, unfortunately, mostly about to flatter to deceive all of us Red Devils once again. However, one team were getting to be frighteningly good.

Who? Liverpool? Nah…

Upon viewing that 1984 date, most people would reasonably assume that the side I am referring to was Liverpool. The Merseyside Reds were already a formidable force, a great side who hoovered up silverware like it was going out of fashion in those days. They had just won yet another First Division championship and added their fourth European Cup and a League Cup triumph to that domestic title for good measure.

However, they didn’t really strike fear into me. The truth was that United had a very decent record against Liverpool during those years; our players treating the games against Bob Paisley’s team as our cup finals, and we usually did well against them.

No, it was their nearest rivals Everton whom I feared that summer, and it turned out to be a fear that was very much both justified and, later, realised.

A Grand Old Team

Everton had emerged as a force in English football in the mid-80s almost from out of nowhere. The Toffees had been a great side in the mid to late 1960s and early 1970s, with the revered midfield triumvirate of Colin Harvey, Howard Kendall and Alan Ball propelling the club to a deserved league title victory in 1970. However, by the end of the 1970s that golden era had long since been consigned to the history books. When Kendall returned, initially as player-manager, at the end of the 1980-81 season, they were very much playing second fiddle to their neighbours across Stanley Park in every conceivable sense.

Everton had always been the traditional big club on Merseyside. They were, after all, the self-proclaimed ‘People’s Club’. By 1981, however, this was rapidly becoming the stuff of myth because Liverpool had overtaken the Toffees both in terms of on-field achievements and the size of the crowds packing into their respective grounds every week.

Howard’s Way

Kendall came into a club very much in the doldrums, though his first season (1981-82) saw a respectable league position of 8th achieved, with only a miserable autumnal run of four defeats in five games costing the side a chance of securing a UEFA Cup place. They eventually finished two points behind Lawrie McMenemy’s Southampton, who clinched the final European berth.

The following season was one of frustration, with the club ending the year on exactly the same number of points (64) from 42 games played as they had the previous season, albeit achieving 7th position this time. Once again European football eluded them by a single league place.

However, belying the outward appearance of standing still, Kendall had begun to piece together the makings of a fine young team that also had a bit of experience and steel about it. His top scorer was a young Scot called Graeme Sharp (15 goals in 39 First Division games that season), who worked hard as the first line of defence when Everton were not in possession. He also had a young Irishman called Kevin Sheedy emerging on the left wing (ironically signed from Liverpool for a mere £100,000) who could have opened a tin of beans with his left foot; a pocket dynamo in prolific attacking midfielder Adrian Heath; a midfield workhorse in Peter Reid; a promising young right-back called Gary Stevens and a couple of determined young Welshmen in keeper Neville Southall and centre-back Kevin Ratcliffe.

Their run to the FA Cup quarter-final stage that season (losing 1-0 at Old Trafford to eventual Cup winners Manchester United) was an early indicator that, on their day, this Everton side were a match for almost anyone.

Out With The Old…

The following season, 1983-84, began with relatively poor form from Everton. Kendall had snatched a promising young right-midfielder called Trevor Steven from Burnley in the summer for £300,000. However, the defence was still comprised of mostly older, experienced pros like John Bailey, Mark Higgins and keeper Jim Arnold, and the season looked like being an unsettled one as the team struggled for form and consistency during the autumn and winter months. Neville Southall quickly replaced Arnold in goal over that time period, and fellow Welshman Ratcliffe established himself, initially alongside Higgins, in the heart of a defence that often included utility man Alan Harper at right-back.

Kendall had been desperate to find someone who would strike up a successful partnership with Sharp up front, and in November 1983 he struck gold in the form of seasoned Scottish hitman Andy Gray, whom he snapped up from newly-promoted Wolves for £250,000; it would turn out to be a bargain.

By then the season was in danger of really imploding, the Toffees having lost seven of their opening 15 league fixtures, including a heavy 3-0 defeat at Anfield. Though the turn-around in form was gradual, it came.

Gray Sparks A Change In Fortunes

Gray wasn’t a prolific striker, but he was a willing worker, not afraid to put his head in where it hurt. After the turn of the year and into 1984, Everton only failed to score twice in the following 21 league matches – a 1-0 defeat away to Nottingham Forest and a goalless draw with Arsenal at Goodison Park.

Though that amazing run of scoring form came too late to carry the team any higher than another 7th place finish in the First Division (which left them trailing their top-placed city rivals by 18 points), it was the sort of form which came in very handy indeed for knock-out cup competitions.

Up For The Cups!

In the League Cup, Kendall steered Everton all the way to a Wembley showdown with – yes, you’ve guessed it – Liverpool. The first game on 25 March ended in a 0-0 stalemate; the replay was staged at Manchester City’s old ground, Maine Road, three days later in front of a sell-out crowd of 52,000. This time a goal from Liverpool midfield general Graeme Souness after 20 minutes proved the difference between the sides.

Undeterred by that defeat, the Toffees bounced back in style a couple of weeks later to beat Southampton 1-0 in the FA Cup semi-final at Arsenal’s Highbury ground, Adrian Heath grabbing the winner late in extra-time. That result would book them a date at Wembley with Graham Taylor’s high-flying young Watford team on 19 May. Ironically their next First Division fixture, only three days later, was a visit to face Southampton again at The Dell, a game which the Saints won 3-1.

A strong finish to their league campaign saw Kendall’s men arrive at Wembley with very high confidence. By now, Gray was established into the side alongside Sharp, with the diminutive Heath a constant mini-menace just behind the front pair. Indeed, over the course of the previous six months, the manager had gradually phased out the old heads, such that the only true veteran in the side which played Watford was left-back John Bailey. Higgins had been displaced at centre-back by Derek Mountfield and would retire at the end of the season.

The Everton side on that Cup-Final May day was:

Neville Southall;

Gary Stevens, Kevin Ratcliffe (c), Derek Mountfield, John Bailey;

Trevor Steven, Peter Reid, Adrian Heath, Kevin Richardson;

Graeme Sharp, Andy Gray.

Only a single substitute was permitted in 1984, and that was an unused Alan Harper.

After a cagey opening period in which Watford missed a couple of very decent opportunities, Everton struck first blood when Sharp steered home after 38 minutes. The game was put beyond Taylor’s side shortly after the restart when Andy Gray controversially headed the ball out of Hornets’ keeper Steve Sherwood’s hands and into the net, referee John Hunting allowed the goal to stand. It was Everton’s first FA Cup victory in 18 years, and as well as relieving the pressure on Howard Kendall to deliver a trophy, the Everton fans felt that this team was still very much on the rise. They had no idea just how right they were.

Cheap At Half The Price

During the summer months Kendall paid Sunderland £425,000 for midfielder Paul Bracewell, and followed that up in September by giving Birmingham City £100,000 for left-back Pat van den Hauwe. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe anyone could pay so little for two lads who went on to become Everton legends.

A Slow Start

The 1984-85 season began in promising fashion for the Merseyside Blues, edging their Stanley Park rivals 1-0 in the Charity Shield opener at Wembley through a Bruce Grobbelaar own-goal. However, things took an alarming dip as they were soundly thrashed 4-1 at home by Tottenham Hotspur in the opening league fixture, and when they finished the following game with a 2-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion, they had only two converted Adrian Heath penalties to show for their attacking endeavour, and zero points. Suddenly Kendall was feeling the pressure.

That eased a little with a narrow 1-0 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Richardson finding the net. Then, with absolutely no warning, Everton turned into one of the most dynamic, fearsome attacking teams England had seen in years. It was almost as if Howard had had a secret switch in the dugout, and once he flicked it to on his men were virtually unstoppable.

The win at Chelsea was followed by a 1-1 draw with Ipswich Town – in 1984 any result against the East Anglians was notable since under the leadership of the late, great Sir Bobby Robson they were a formidable force.

Championship Form

Thereafter Everton embarked on one of the most remarkable runs of form ever witnessed in English football. In the next 36 Division One matches, the Toffees lost only four times, one of which was part of a run of three defeats in their final four league fixtures during May 1985. By then the club’s attention had very much switched to competing in the finals of both the FA Cup and European Cup-Winners’ Cup since by late April Howard Kendall was the manager of the new Champions of England.

Aren’t You A United Fan?!

By now in this tale you may be wondering why a Manchester United fan like myself is eulogising about an Everton side of yesteryear- allow me to elaborate. My own personal interest in Kendall’s Toffees side occurred during the early stages of this remarkable run.

On 19 October 1984, I accompanied my father and a couple of his mates on the Belfast-Liverpool ferry, as we journeyed across to see our beloved United side take on Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford the following day.

You’ll Never Sail Alone…

It also happened to be the Merseyside Derby at Anfield that same Saturday, and so the boat that Friday evening was literally full-to-bursting point with very bullish Liverpool fans, all in full voice, belting out “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and various other assorted Anfield favourites that your 13-year-old United-supporting author wouldn’t have known.

We were hugely out-numbered, though not as much as the lone Everton fan – or at least the only Evertonian onboard brave enough to wear his colours – must have felt! He sat slightly apart from those wearing various shades of Merseyside red, clearly uncomfortable, and no doubt caught a few pointed jokes and some banter that evening.

I won’t relate the trials and tribulations of our journey to, and admission into, Old Trafford the following afternoon in this piece – that can wait for another day. However, we eventually did witness a 1-0 win for United courtesy of a Mark Hughes volley into the Scoreboard Paddock goal.

Liverpool Suffer A Sharp Cut…

Meanwhile 26 miles to the west, our lone Evertonian got his revenge for the smirks, jokes and laughter directed towards him the previous evening – Everton won the derby 1-0, thanks to a Goal of the Season contender from Sharp, a full volley past Grobbelaar from fully 25 yards out into the goal behind which the Evertonians were congregated. Everton had arrived.

A Quiet Place…!!

The following morning we boarded the ferry for the journey back to Belfast, and I can tell you it was a very different atmosphere onboard. The overwhelming majority – Liverpool fans – were despondent; no songs, no jokes, stony faces. One older guy, who had been sat beside us and been the ringleader in starting a lot of the singing on Friday evening, had had a really bad day – whilst standing on The Kop, he’d had a rare, valuable vintage Liverpool scarf stolen from around his neck during a crowd surge. It’s fair to say his opinion of some of his fellow Reds would have turned the air blue.

By contrast, our lone Evertonian was full of smiles. I knew that United were due to visit Goodison Park the following Saturday, and I recall asking him what he thought the score would be.

A Fortune Teller?

His reply? “I think we’re a much more complete side than United now, and we’ll win comfortably next week, maybe 5-0…” I remember thinking he was deluded or was maybe still drunk from the night before.

The following Saturday, 27 October, Howard Kendall’s fluent young Everton side beat Manchester United… 5-0. I was relieved not to have been a friend of that Evertonian I’d spoken to on the boat. On the day the Toffees simply tore United apart with pacey intricate passing football, using both flanks, Sheedy a magician from set-pieces. It was very much a sign of things to come.

The Toffees Stick It To ‘Em!

Despite two high-scoring defeats to Norwich City (2-4) and Chelsea (3-4) before Christmas, Everton played 18 First Division games between a 2-1 win over Sunderland on Boxing Day 1984 and a 3-0 drubbing of West Ham United on 8 May 1985- they dropped only four points during that period of almost five months, remaining undefeated. It was almost football from another planet, utterly at odds with the much more counter-attacking, tactical, safety-first style associated with their successful near-neighbours. More than that, the defence, marshalled superbly by Ratcliffe, never conceded more than a single goal to anyone for over five months.

During that time period they also successfully battled through to the finals of both the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup, including a superb 3-1 aggregate victory over a strong Bayern Munich side in the semi-final of the latter competition. The goal Bayern scored in the decisive second leg game at Goodison Park was the first goal Everton had conceded in the whole competition that season.

Player Power

Individually, as well as in the team unit, many of the players were at the peak of their ability levels. Southall was a burly, stocky keeper with surprisingly good agility who would go on to become one of the all-time great Welsh internationals. Down the right side, English full-back Gary Stevens and compatriot Trevor Steven were an early version of what Gary Neville and David Beckham would later become at Old Trafford; they had an almost telepathic understanding of each other’s game. Steven, and his left-sided partner Kevin Sheedy contributed hugely to the goals for column, often joining Gray and Sharp to meet the other’s crosses into the penalty area.

Ratcliffe and Mountfield were a solid partnership in the centre of defence (Mountfield also represented a significant aerial threat to opponents from corners and free-kicks), shielded by the hard-working Bracewell and Reid.

What also helped Kendall was a lack of major injury problems, which allowed him to name a settled side for most of the season. The only big casualty turned out to be the unfortunate Adrian Heath, who sustained a serious knee injury against Sheffield Wednesday in early December and would miss the rest of a historic season for the Toffees.

European Glory Beckons

Coming into May, Everton were so far in front of the chasing pack that they were effectively crowned League Champions before competing in the two cup finals. They lost 0-1 at Nottingham Forest, their first league defeat in almost five months, just four days before heading off to Rotterdam to face Austrian side Rapid Vienna in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final. On the evening they utterly dominated proceedings, running out worthy 3-1 winners thanks to goals from Gray, Steven and Sheedy. The team that evening lined up as follows:

Neville Southall;

Gary Stevens, Kevin Ratcliffe (c), Derek Mountfield, Pat van den Hauwe;

Trevor Steven, Peter Reid, Paul Bracewell, Kevin Sheedy;

Graeme Sharp, Andy Gray.

In all reality, with the possible exception of the 1970 title-winning team, it was the strongest side in the club’s entire history; no weak links, no mercy shown to the opposition.

A Game Too Far

Three days later Kendall led his team out at Wembley alongside Manchester United boss Ron Atkinson, as the Toffees came into the domestic Cup final as most pundits’ favourites to achieve an unprecedented ‘treble’ of Division One league title, F.A. Cup and European Cup-Winners’ Cup trophies. Many still believe that but for the gruelling schedule they’d had to face over the previous week, Everton would simply have had too much ability for Atkinson’s Red Devils.

However, what United lacked in ability they more than made up for in fight. When Irish centre-half Kevin Moran became the first man ever to be dismissed in a Cup final in the dying minutes of the hitherto goal-less contest for a poor challenge on Peter Reid, rather than weaken United, the perceived injustice of the decision simply strengthened their collective resolve not to be beaten. Deep into the half hour of extra-time United broke on a counter-attack, and when Mark Hughes found big Norman Whiteside loitering on the right-side of the pitch, the young Northern Irishman sent a stupendous curling left-foot strike around Neville Southall and in off the far post for the only score of the game.

It was a demoralising end to an otherwise simply fantastic season for the Toffees. They recovered in time to both parade their shiny new trophies and complete a league double over city rivals Liverpool courtesy of a goal by new boy Paul Wilkinson at Goodison Park on 23 May. However, they were a spent force for the final two league games of the season at Coventry City and Luton Town and lost both convincingly.

The All-Time Great Toffees?

The final league table made for compelling evidence of a team that had thoroughly dominated its peers for almost nine months. Everton had 90 points, along with a +45 goal difference. Back in the distant dust, Liverpool were runners-up with 77 points and +33 goal difference. They had brought a European trophy back to Goodison Park for the first (and still only) time in the club’s history and had played an attractive style of passing, attacking football that had been a joy to behold – as long as it wasn’t your team on the receiving end.

I’d been right to fear them the previous summer, though I doubt even the most ardent Evertonian could have foreseen just how right I’d been.

Howard Kendall died on 17 October 2015, almost certainly without an enemy in this world. He was not only a fantastic player and a great man but a marvellous manager, who gave many Everton fans a realisation of dreams they probably thought would never be fulfilled. Even as a supporter of one of Everton’s traditional rivals, I couldn’t help but like the man. His team from 1984-1987 were one of the best I’ve ever seen.