With the launch of the film ‘I Believe In Miracles’ which chronicles the emergence of Nottingham Forest from mid-table Second Division also rans to European Champions in just three seasons, the focus of late has been on a different age. For a modern equivalent, look at today’s Forest side and imagine them winning promotion , next year’s Premier League and then beating only the champions of other countries in a knock out competition to secure their third European Cup. That’s how unlikely Brian Clough’s and Forest’s story was. It is not, however, unique.
Earlier today we learned of the death of former Everton manager Howard Kendall. He too knew something about reversing fortunes and achieving impossible goals as he led a sleeping giant to trophy after trophy. Maybe their rise in the mid-eighties wasn’t quite as marked or spectacular as Forest’s but it bore a similar hallmark. A club going nowhere fast, an apathetic home crowd and a club policy that seemingly advocated stability over ambition.
Kendall took over from Gordon Lee in 1981 and offered little in the way of immediate reward. Slowly but surely though, he began to amass a squad of young players such as Bolton’s Peter Reid alongside some more established players like Andy Gray. There was no hint of what was to come as the club lurched from one mediocre performance to another. Come December 1983 the crowd had had enough. Draw at home and lose away became the pattern and the shouts from the stand, even against their old hero, rained down.
Arguably the most important man in Everton’s recent history is Kevin Brock. Kevin Brock from lowly Oxford United. On 18th January 1984 the Toffees travelled to the Manor Ground in a fairly dull League Cup on a dogfield of a pitch. Confidence wasn’t high and United predictably took the lead with 25 minutes left to play. As the game petered out to an almost inevitable cup upset Brock decided to play the ball through his back four to his keeper – failing to see Everton’s Adrian Heath’s run. Heath equalised and Everton hammered Oxford in the replay.
That mistake transformed Everton. They won the replay 4-1 and slowly that great Everton side began to coalesce. It still took them three games to defeat Gillingham in the FA Cup but by the end of the season they’d reached the final of the League Cup and won their first FA Cup since 1968.
How did Kendall do it? Well, the midfield was outstanding. Trevor Steven, Peter Reid, Paul Bracewell and Kevin Sheedy provided perfect balance across the pitch and worked hard to create chances for a resurgent Gray and Graeme Sharp. Their 1984 FA Cup victory against Watford wasn’t pretty but, importantly, it was silverware – something that they’d not experienced since 1970. Kendall ensured that this was to be no one-off cup run as they began to announce themselves across the country and to their big rivals on the other side of the park.
The 1984-5 season was Kendall’s finest but they didn’t begin well with a 4-1 defeat home to Spurs on the opening day. They failed to light up their first European excursion in six season’s by squeaking past University College Dublin in a 1-0 aggregate home win. However, Kendall’s men grew in confidence, helped by a rare win at Anfield in October. By the turn of the year they were unstoppable.
Crowds grew too. Sell outs at Goodison became the norm as the club pushed on in the cups both home and abroad. Leeds, Doncaster, Telford United and Ipswich succumbed and a semi-final victory over Luton Town meant a second consecutive cup final. The days of bobbly pitches in Oxford seemed a lifetime ago.
The Cup Winners’ Cup campaign picked up momentum too although the double leg format did little to cure aching limbs in a tortuous campaign. Inter Bratislava and Fortuna Sittard were dismissed and, in probably the most memorable night in Goodison’s history, Bayern Munich, including Mark Hughes, were defeated 3-1. The league was sewn up, the FA Cup Final against Manchester United, who they’d already defeated 5-0 earlier in the season, was coming up and the chance of a first European trophy would follow it in Rotterdam against Rapid Vienna. The journey from Kevin Brock to Rotterdam was just sixteen months in the making. That’s a hell of a turnaround.
Of course, they lost the FA Cup Final, but the Cup Winners’ Cup more than made up for it. More importantly, three trophies and two other defeated finals meant that they were taking their place in the pantheon of successful sides. Everton were a force to be reckoned with. The next season they narrowly missed out on the double, losing both to Liverpool at Wembley, but they did regain the league in 1987.
It was to be Kendall’s final season – for a while at least. Frustrated at the lack of opportunity to take his teams to the better European sides thanks to the Heysel ban, Kendall decided to call it a day and went to manage Athletic Bilbao. It was not to be a happy time as the Basque club’s policy to sign only local players meant that he could not build a side capable of challenging Real Madrid and Barcelona. He left in December 1989 to take over at Manchester City.
His true love were struggling. Colin Harvey had failed to consolidate their position in the league as Everton fell down the table. Kendall returned in the autumn of 1990 and brought back Harvey to be his assistant.
Never go back.
Everton had fallen too far and this time there was to be no resurrection. He brought in Peter Beardsley – an absolute steal from Liverpool – for a million pounds but the club were no longer willing to invest in new signings. Finances blighted Kendall’s second spell. Crowds were falling rapidly and there was little on the pitch to entice them back. Not even a good start in the opening months of 1993-94 was good enough and the slide continued. Kendall resigned for a second time in December 1993, allegedly because the board refused to sanction a £1.5m bid for Dion Dublin.
Kendall then spent a little time in the wilderness at Greek side Xanthii before returning home to spells at Notts County and Sheffield Utd, but in June 1997, following Joe Royle’s departure, the club announced that Kendall would return again.
Never go back again.
This time there was no honeymoon period as the Toffees sank to the bottom of the table and needed a last day win by Chelsea over Bolton Wanderers to remain in the Premiership. Chairman Peter Johnson finally got around to sacking Kendall a month later. There was to be no return. He went back to Greece but that too ended disastrously. It was his final managerial position.
It’s difficult to view past achievements through the haze of history but what Howard Kendall did for Everton will never be repeated. From the sack to carrying League championships, domestic and European trophies is far beyond anyone’s dreams. Moreover, he did it while playing good football with a strong defence, a creative midfield and sharp strikers. The highest compliment I can pay him, as a Liverpool fan, is that I never looked forward to playing against his mid-80’s sides. Praise indeed when you think of the quality of the teams my own side put out in those days.
Howard Kendall is the last Englishman to win a European trophy with an English side. That seemed very unlikely at one stage, but it’s how he should be remembered. Football is right to mourn his passing.