Extract: Boys from the Blue Stuff

In this exclusive extract from Gavin Buckland's new book, he takes us back to a momentous night in Oxford in January 1984 and how this sent Everton on a winning path

James Corbett
By James Corbett
13 Aug 2021
Extract: Boys from the Blue Stuff

The Manor Ground, home of Oxford United until 2001, is now a hospital.  If the medical profession had reported on Everton’s condition in the middle of January 1984, they may have said that the patient was showing signs of recovery after multiple organ failure. 

            However, when the draw took the Toffees there to face Jim Smith’s side in the League Cup quarter-final there was every chance of a relapse. Kendall was not joking when he claimed beforehand ‘We are the First Division side who are underdogs’. Smith had fashioned a skilful and exciting team that stood second in the Third Division, but more relevantly had shocked Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester United after replays. Worryingly for Kendall, they had dominated Ron Atkinson’s high-flyers in a second replay on the ground after going behind.

            The main issue for the manager was Andy Gray being cup-tied, so the Everton manager recalled David Johnson. In front of a full-house of 14,000 – Everton sold all their allocation in fifteen minutes, including 200 stand tickets priced at an exorbitant £8 – the home team started on the front foot and Everton had Southall to thank for several fine saves, including one from a point-blank George Lawrence effort described as ‘amazing’ by John Motson on BBC’s Sportsnight. Teams had previously failed to outplay Oxford so Everton went long, but sitting too deep meant the visitors created little and midway through the second half, Oxford got their deserved breakthrough. Kevin Brock’s free-kick was headed back across the six-yard box and Bobby McDonald steered the ball home. Three years earlier the Scottish full-back’s two goals in a quarter-final replay had done for Gordon Lee, now he had quite possibly finished off Kendall’s career too. 

            The Everton manager took off Johnson after his final appearance in an Everton shirt and pushed Adrian Heath up-front. But there appeared to be no way back in the final fifteen minutes. Everton had rejected Kevin Brock as a teenager and the skilful midfielder had eyes on revenge when he picked up the ball midway in his own half, nine minutes from time. But pressed towards his own goal by Peter Reid, Brock’s scuffed back-pass with his wrong foot was seized upon by Heath, who had cleverly anticipated a mistake, and the Everton player rounded keeper Steve Hardwick before equalising. The usual camera view made it look straightforward, but from behind the goal the angle was frighteningly tight and the club record-signing had produced a brilliant finish under immense pressure on a bumpy and icy pitch. The visitors managed to hold out for the reminder of the game for a draw which they barely deserved, having created only two chances all evening. Speaking to the Independent eight years later the Everton hero described the goal: ‘I’d been pushed up front from midfield to try and save the game. Gary Briggs was marking me, but I nipped in and nicked it past the keeper. That end of the pitch was icy and hard, and I remember thinking “Keep your feet” before putting it in from an acute angle. People may think now that drawing at Oxford was no big deal, but they were a very strong side.’

            Afterwards Oxford boss Jim Smith – who had prowled the touchline in a camel coat and flat cap, looking like he had stepped off the set of Only Fools and Horses – bitterly complained that justice had not been served. ‘Everton had two shots and one went in. Their way of stopping us playing was to keep the ball in the air and they treated it like the cup tie it was.’ Meanwhile Kendall was a relieved man. ‘We are delighted we are still in the competition. That was the object of the exercise and now our players know what they are up against from this Oxford team,’ he revealed. The players certainly used their Oxford education effectively: at Goodison a week later the reinvigorated home side ran out easy 4-1 winners, in a match played in a blizzard at times. Encouragingly, the attendance of more than 31,000 was the best on the ground for eleven months.

There has been speculation since whether a defeat at Oxford would have resulted in Kendall’s sacking. Heath himself said that ‘the feeling in the club was that he’d have to go if that happened’ but alternatively the manager was safe as long as Everton remained in the FA Cup and maintained their improved league form. As Kendall told the Sunday Express’s James Mossop later in the season, the club could only have been in crisis if they were out of both cup competitions and in the bottom-half of the table.   

However, the equalising goal undoubtedly prefaced a golden period for the club’s record signing. Heath had sporadically displayed his undoubted potential during two years at the club and like others had struggled before Christmas. ‘My form was pretty awful and the team were poor,’ he admitted, ‘People were wondering why he’d paid so much for me.’ Three days later, he scored twice in the victory over Spurs, followed up by a further goal in the replay victory over Oxford. On the first Saturday in February, Heath netted a hat-trick in the 4-1 home win over Notts County, taking his tally to nine goals in eight matches. By then Everton were continuing their pincer movement on Wembley Stadium.


League Cup semi-final (first leg), Aston Villa (h)

In 1971, Harry Catterick spoke about the challenges of taking over Everton ten years before. ‘The club were becoming a bit like Villa, trophies were antique,’ he said, ‘This is wrong. You want modern trophies and this club simply has not had them.’  Thirteen years later only one half of that statement remained valid. Whereas Everton were suffering a prolonged trophy drought, over the previous decade the Midlands club had garnered two League Cups, the league championship in 1981 and European Cup twelve months later.

            By the time the two clubs clashed in the semi-final, although Villa had retained a strong element of their title-winning team there were new additions like winger Mark Walters, plus Steve McMahon. With the opening leg at Goodison, Everton could take heart from their opponents’ poor away form that had resulted in only one league win all season. The Gillingham second replay had delayed the tie, so unusually for a two-legged semi-final the teams already knew their opponents at Wembley – holders Liverpool. For Everton, after fourteen years in the wilderness, the stakes could not have been higher. ‘Thankfully I can say that we could not be better prepared,’ Kendall confidently admitted, ‘we are at full strength and have enjoyed a good run of success to give ourselves confidence.’

            A frantic opening half at Goodison tested that buoyancy, when the only tactic appeared to be kicking the ball as far as possible whilst squandering possession in embarrassing fashion. After almost half-an-hour of shapeless action there had been one half-chance, when Heath fired over the bar. ‘The ball at times seemed an irrelevancy as bodies collided, tackles crackled and tempers frayed,’ said Stuart Jones in The Times. Then out of nowhere, the home team scored via a messy goal in keeping with the occasion. Sheedy broke clear on the left and his deflected cross veered towards the near post where Dennis Mortimer, Gary Williams and goalkeeper Nigel Spink appeared to have any danger covered but, with Heath prowling, all three left it to each other and the ball dribbled over the line. 

            Kevin Richardson had enjoyed a fine game in a defensive midfield role but bizarrely both arms of the 21-year-old became the game’s major talking point. The Geordie both fractured and dislocated his right wrist in the opening half, which needed a heavy strapping on the lower arm during the break. Thereafter chances and coherent football were in short supply before a second Villa defensive error with eight minutes left had disastrous consequences. Des Bremner’s weak header went straight to Richardson at the edge of the box and the midfielder – always a wonderfully crisp ball striker – fired home clinically to the right of Spink. The Everton player waved away any celebrating teammates for fear of causing further damage. Villa immediately launched a counter-offensive and ninety seconds from time, to most of the 40,006 spectators, earned a penalty. Withe’s header from Alan Curbishley’s corner crashed down from the bar and after Southall desperately scrambled to gather the ball, Richardson’s left arm appeared to turn away Gary Shaw’s flick from the line. Amazingly, referee Alan Saunders appeared to be only person in the ground who missed the handball.

With Kendall happy to take a single-goal lead to Villa Park, Richardson’s late involvement at both ends was a bonus. The midfielder was coy when asked about the handball. ‘I don’t remember too much about it at all, because things were a bit hectic then,’ he explained, ‘I’m sure I didn’t handle. I just moved across the goal and the ball went past me and on towards the corner flag.’ The Toffees may now have been strong favourites but the Guardian’s Charles Burgess was not impressed: ‘On the basis of the appalling football played by both teams at Goodison Park, the holders, already through to Wembley, would have little difficulty in beating both teams together.’                                  


League Cup semi-final (second leg), Aston Villa (a)

In front of more than 42,000 fans – including 12,000 who had travelled down the M6 – the second leg was a far more attractive affair, although still feisty – when the PA announced the attendance some wag asked if it was the number of fouls. Unbeaten in fourteen games, during the opening half Kendall’s team, probably for the first time, [JC1] [GB2]  showed that they had now turned undoubted promise into the enduring characteristics of a very good side.  Solid at the back, the midfield pressed and harried Villa while Heath and Sharp remained a constant menace. Both strikers came close to finishing off the home side, with Heath providing the individual highlight of the tie. Exhibiting marvellous acceleration to beat Bremner to a long pass, the striker lifted the ball over the Scot’s head but saw his fabulous shot come back from the underside of the bar. Sharp then saw a header strike the inside of a post. By the hour mark, the game was meandering but Andy King, playing in place of Richardson, fashioned a suicidal back-pass and Villa substitute Paul Rideout gratefully fired past Southall. For the long-suffering away supporters, the final thirty minutes were tortuous, but displaying the resilience that was to become their trademark, Everton stood firm.        

            The scenes after the game were memorable. Alan Irvine could not escape the playing area and Everton fans carried him shoulder-high. Ten minutes later the players returned to the pitch for an encore. ‘It was a night to remember, particularly for our supporters, who were quite unbelievable,’ Kendall said later, ‘It was the proudest moment of my managerial career and when it was over, I felt ecstatic…My only regret is that we have to play Liverpool on what is virtually their own ground.’ Kendall’s job was on the line at the start of January, seven weeks later his team was 12-1 for a domestic cup double.


Liverpool, League Cup final, Wembley

So the date was set for the historic occasion. The final Sunday in March would witness the first Merseyside derby at Wembley but thankfully for ticketless fans ITV televised the final live, for the first time ever. Intriguingly, there was a warm-up in the league at Goodison three weeks before when, after being a goal down at the break having not really competed, in the second period Everton were unrecognisable. Inspired by Reid they compressed the play in midfield and shook the Anfield side out of their aristocratic stride. ‘Everton swarmed forward in such numbers that Liverpool lost control of the midfield – and very nearly themselves,’ said Derek Wallis in the Daily Mirror. The home team had a chance to equalise from the spot after Alan Kennedy fouled Andy Gray in the box,[1] but Bruce Grobbelaar saved Sharp’s weak kick. Six minutes from time, Kendall’s side got their reward. A series of headers eventually led to the ball reaching an unmarked Alan Harper in the box and the substitute’s beautifully struck shot left the Liverpool keeper with no chance. The deserved draw was a huge psychological boost for the Toffees and for the first time in a while, Everton had fought back in a derby match to gain a share of the spoils.        

            Before the final, the focus was on how Everton had turned fortunes around in less than three months. There had been an obvious change in the style of play. The arrival of Gray had only accentuated the ineffective reliance on the long-ball, but there was a definite movement from January onwards into a more methodical, possession-based game. Many suspected that the arrival of Colin Harvey on the coaching staff was behind the change[JC3] [GB4] . In training, Harvey’s approach led to more competitive, intense sessions. ‘He led by example,’ Neville Southall recalled in the Binman Chronicles, ‘He trained and trained and trained. Players looked at him and were inspired by what he did.’   

Kendall was seeing the benefits of a settled goalkeeper and defence. Southall, after a rocky spell at the end of December when the Everton manager seriously considered recalling Jim Arnold, was developing into a keeper of the highest class. At full-back, a more mature Gary Stevens had regained his place from Alan Harper. In the centre Derek Mountfield had replaced the stricken Mark Higgins. Signed from Tranmere Rovers in the summer of 1982, the centre-half had featured in only a handful of games before Higgins’ injury but afterwards showed that he was probably the most improved player at the club. Strong in the air and deceptively quick, the 21-year-old gave Kendall the right-foot/left-foot central defensive partnership he craved. Having skippered the team in place of Higgins, Kevin Ratcliffe was also developing as a lightning-quick centre-half who read the game superbly. The Welsh international also possessed the mean streak and slyness required of all the best defenders – a favourite trick early on would be to push the ball a yard further than required to draw in the opposition centre-forward, who would then be clattered with little chance of receiving a yellow card.     

Elsewhere, apart from Adrian Heath’s goals, the two biggest influences were, famously, Peter Reid and Andy Gray. On the pitch, Reid washad the greater impact in the opening months of 1984. After a career riddled with injuries the midfielder had adapted his style, now relying on cunning and experience to nick the ball off opponents, rather than engage in constant physical combat. Reid set the tempo for the team, rarely lost possession and would often drive forward from a central position towards the box. Kendall later paid tribute to the midfielder: ‘He came into the side and said “I will do it. Give it to me.” That was the important factor when the confidence was low. I had too many players at the time leaving it to each other.’  In a memorable piece in The Times after the game against Shrewsbury, David Powell wrote that ‘Watching Peter Reid on Saturday was like trying to follow an ex-convict on his first few hours out of jail. Determined to make up for lost opportunity, Reid could not stay still for a minute…several years of hard labour have left his fingers itching for silverware.’

Gray’s impact was less quantifiable. The Scot was a naturally ebullient and confident personality, as much a contributor in the dressing room and at Bellefield as on the pitch. ‘He has had a marvellous influence on everyone,’ Kendall said, ‘Every time he has joined a new club, that club has won something in his first season, so that has to be a good omen.’ Peter Reid also spoke about Gray’s influence to the Liverpool Echo. ‘It’s a different team since earlier in the season,’ he confided, ‘Confidence is half the battle and Andy Gray’s arrival has made a big difference to us. Things like this help put things together – you can’t put a finger on it, but it all combines to make us into a decent side.’ Asked if he was similar to Gray, the midfielder replied ‘We both like to get stuck in. I like winning.’ 

            On a damp Sabbath the midfielder had a chance to do both. Upwards of 70,000 fans left the city and the authorities wisely allowed pubs around the stadium to remain open,[2] but at £1 a pint the price was significantly greater than at home. The scenes in and around Wembley are almost clichés now: the cars and coaches filled with blue and red scarves plus the lack of segregation. Kendall’s only selection problem was Kevin Sheedy, who had missed the preceding three games with an ankle injury. But the Ireland international was fit and Everton’s line-up (4-4-2) for the historic occasion was: Southall; Stevens, Ratcliffe, Mountfield, Bailey; Irvine, Reid, Richardson, Sheedy; Heath, Sharp. Sub: Harper.  The bookmakers made Liverpool heavy favourites: 5/6 on, with Everton 11/4.      

            ‘We didn’t think they’d give us much trouble again that season,’ Kenny Dalglish later wrote about Liverpool’s 3-0 derby win five months before but that is what Everton did at Wembley. The atmosphere at the start was electrically-charged, as indeed was the underdogs’ performance in the opening period as their midfield, plus Heath, disturbed the favourites’ smooth rhythm. Ironically, the moment in the game that still resonates with Evertonians occurred early on. Heath and Grobbelaar both went for Sharp’s flick-on, the striker wrestled the ball away from the goalkeeper and hooked it towards goal. The galloping Alan Hansen was covering and the centre-half lifted both arm and leg to stop the ball, which quite clearly struck the former. Amazingly, referee Alan Robinson and his assistant failed to see the contact and allowed play to continue. Brian Clough was bemused on television. Asked by legendary commentator Brian Moore whether it was handball, he replied ‘From where I’m sitting, definitely.’

While making Liverpool look lethargic and unnerved, the team in blue showed they had more in the locker than just hard work. ‘What was surprising was the imaginative quality of their play once they had gained possession,’ David Lacey noted in the Guardian, ‘Some excellent interchanges of position, assured first-time passing and intuitive running…at times found Liverpool’s defenders falling over one another in their anxiety to clear the danger.’ There were further chances, Richardson’s fierce left-footed shot went inches wide while Sheedy, who was clean through, surprisingly shot early at Grobbelaar rather than take extra steps. That said, Phil Neal had just clattered the Irishman from behind, a tackle that lead to the Irishman’s early departure. After the game, opposition manager Joe Fagan said the holders could have been three down at half-time. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool came on strong in the second half, as Everton legs tired due to the heavy pitch. Ian Rush – kept quiet by the opposition defence, with Ratcliffe outstanding – missed the best chance of the game, hopelessly miscuing from three yards out and firing over. After a sparkling, but goalless, ninety minutes the final went into extra time for the fourth successive year. Four minutes into the additional period came the save of the match, Southall producing a blinding stop from Rush’s crunching volley. Fittingly though Everton had the last word, when confusion in the Liverpool defence nearly resulted in Neal putting through his own net. 

After two hours of breathless and dramatic action, there was nothing between the teams, who both walked up to the Royal Box to meet the Queen Mother. On returning to pitch level the players walked round the ground to the strains of ‘Merseyside, Merseyside’ from the 100,000 spectators, who had witnessed the right result in the circumstances. Kendall’s side had done the Everton contingent proud – ‘How many people could come here and handle that,’ he said. Brian Clough agreed, ‘I think they will regard it as a moral victory.’ The two clubs now had to resume hostilities at Maine Road three days later.


Liverpool, League Cup final replay, Maine Road

The fall-out from Wembley focussed on the penalty incident. ‘I could have understood it if the linesman had been on the other side, but he had a clear view,’ said a frustrated Kendall, ‘It was disappointing because we had started well and it’s important to take the lead if you have a good spell.’ Hansen for his part admitted to handling the ball, but claimed it was unintentional, although his response looked a quite deliberate attempt to get both leg and arm in the way of the shot. Although, for balance, supporters forget Liverpool had two goals disallowed for, at best, marginal calls. 

            With Sheedy’s bad ankle ruling him out for the rest of the campaign, Kendall drafted Harper into the team with Andy King, the sole Everton survivor from the 1977 semi-final, named as substitute. The consensus was Everton would struggle to contain Liverpool again with a repeat of seven years earlier a possibility, when the Toffees similarly felt hard-done by after the first game. Underdogs seldom made the most of a second opportunity.

However, Everton immediately disproved that theory, settling into the same Wembley groove in a frantic encounter before 52,089 spectators, who created an even better atmosphere. ‘It took Liverpool an hour to adjust to the difference last Sunday,’ commented Stuart Jones in The Times, ‘Now they were ready. They had to be.’ If Sunday was about the occasion then Wednesday was about winning. Consequently, the replay was contested in a far more raucous spirit in keeping with a local derby – ‘the pace of the game is white hot’ said an admiring Clough – although Kendall’s side again had much the better of the opening twenty minutes. Then against the run of play, Liverpool ended the stalemate. Graeme Souness received the ball twenty yards from goal and, whether by accident or design, it rolled over the Scot’s right foot. Swivelling round instantly the midfielder’s left-footed strike rocketed into the corner past a startled Southall. There were a few observers – Clough and Andy Gray included – who thought the Welshman was partially at fault in not being at the edge of his six-yard box, although Gray did qualify his statement by saying he was judging Southall by the keeper’s own high standards. The Welshman was also unsighted in fairness.

Everton remained in contention, Grobbelaar stopped Heath at the near post and Neal cleared off the line from Richardson. Whereas the two Everton forwards remained a constant threat, Ian Rush was having a quiet game again, superbly marshalled by his Welsh international colleague. Brian Clough remarked that the striker ‘Doesn’t look happy at all. If I was to give him any advice, I’d tell him to get away from his mate because his mate has got him in his pocket.’ In the second half Everton continued to have plenty of possession but wasted their one great opportunity to equalise. Sharp directed a header towards the unmarked Heath and Reid at the far post but they blocked each other and the midfielder’s shot went wastefully wide. Kendall played his last card by bringing on Andy King for the ineffective Alan Irvine, but the Toffees ran out of steam and Grobbelaar collected a constant stream of crosses with unusual assurance. In the end Liverpool had enough quality and experience to win the trophy for the fourth successive season, but as Souness charitably admitted afterwards, ‘Evertonians will go home crying but they shouldn’t – they should be very proud of their team. They never stopped trying and they are such a difficult team to beat.’ The match-winner also defended the Welsh international: ‘When I hit the ball it dipped and that probably deceived Neville Southall, who is playing better than any ‘keeper in the country at the moment.’ Kendall’s reaction in the immediate aftermath mixed anger, defiance and optimism in equal measure. The Everton manager was not happy with referee Robinson, accusing him of not penalising centre-backs in the area when being happy to award fouls for the same offences elsewhere. ‘I don’t think we were kindly treated by the officials,’ he complained. Yet this works both ways, Everton were the beneficiaries of a crucial refereeing blunder against Villa in the semi-final. Nevertheless, the Everton manager left Maine Road with a call to arms: ‘Most people regard Liverpool as the best. We have played them for 300 minutes in recent weeks and that Graeme Souness goal is the only thing separating the sides. That shows our progress and how much nearer we are to achieving something…we’ve still got the chance to reach another final.’  There was a good omen too. The two previous beaten finalists – Tottenham and Manchester United – had gone on to lift the FA Cup.     



[1] Curiously the second time it had happened that season, at Molineux on the opening day Wolves were awarded a penalty when Kennedy fouled Gray there as well.

[2] Amongst the other requests that the authorities refused was a trip round the ground by the Toffee Lady and a sponsored streak.