Everton fans could not have wished for a better start. Three games into the 1993/94 Premier League season and the Toffees were sitting pretty at the summit of the standings with nine points from nine. This, the Goodison Park faithful were beginning to believe, could be the campaign Everton reasserted themselves as one of the best teams in England.
So much for early season optimism. By the time May came around, Everton were simply grateful to still be in the Premier League.
After a chaotic campaign featuring more troughs than peaks, their top-flight status was only secured with a dramatic, come-from-behind victory over Wimbledon on the final day. This was a white-knuckle ride of a relegation race that Everton only just survived with a final-day win against Wimbledon.
“It’s not a great day,” Neville Southall told The Drop, a new podcast dedicated to the most memorable relegation campaigns in Premier League history. “It’s an absolutely shameful day for the club because we shouldn’t have been there. No club like Everton should be in that position without something having gone drastically wrong.”
Indeed it had. Everton had been champions of England just seven years earlier and perhaps the roots of their near-demise in 1993/94 can be traced back to that glorious season the Blues finished nine points clear of Liverpool at the top of the First Division.
Winning the championship would ordinarily have brought qualification for the European Cup, but English sides were excluded from continental competition due to the Heysel Disaster. Frustrated by the ban, title-winning manager Howard Kendall sought a new challenge with Athletic Bilbao instead of trying to defend the crown at Goodison.
Everton finished fourth under Colin Harvey the following season, but they never again got close to challenging for the title.
Still, they remained in a position of strength by the time the 1990s came around. Along with Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham, Everton were a member of the Big Five that pushed for a top-flight breakaway from the Football League. That plan came to fruition in 1992/93, but Everton slumped to an underwhelming 13th place under the returning Kendall in the Premier League’s inaugural campaign.
Scrutiny of the manager grew after Everton’s lowest league finish in a decade, but Kendall was still adored by the Goodison faithful. Those three back-to-back wins at the start of 1993/94 left some fans dreaming of a restoration to former glories, but three straight defeats brought Everton crashing back down to earth.
They bounced back quickly, though, edging out Oldham and then winning the first Merseyside derby of the season as Bruce Grobbelaar and Steve McManaman had a very public bust-up in front of the exultant home fans.
Everton moved up to fourth after that victory, with just four points separating them from league leaders Manchester United. But that was as good as it got that season. A four-match winless run was ended with a 1-0 defeat of Southampton at the start of December, but the post-match joy was short-lived as Kendall promptly handed in his resignation.
Kenny Dalglish’s abrupt Anfield exit in 1991 stunned Liverpool fans and this was almost as much of a shock for their Evertonian counterparts. Kendall had given no hint of his intentions in either the dressing room or his post-game press conference, but chairman Dr David Marsh soon appeared before the media to announce the club’s only title-winning manager in the past two decades had walked away.
Once the dust had settled, it was perhaps the timing rather than the act itself that was the biggest surprise. Tony Cottee, who heard news of Kendall’s departure on the car radio while driving home, admitted he thought the manager might have quit after Everton had lost to Manchester United in October. Rumours that Kendall was unhappy had been circulating for weeks.
His principal grievance was the club’s failure to back him in the transfer market. The need for a striker was clear for all to see, with Kendall targeting Manchester United’s Dion Dublin. Alex Ferguson was willing to do business but the Everton board blocked the move. Perhaps they were influenced by the case of Mo Johnston, a £1.5m purchase in 1991 who was now sitting on the bench, but Kendall felt he had been critically undermined and concluded he had to leave.
A malaise had set in at Goodison, as evidenced by the 13,667 attendance for that victory over Southampton – Everton’s lowest for a league game in almost 10 years. Peter Reid, Steve Coppell and Joe Royle were the early favourites to take charge, but Everton instead opted for a man who, unlike the names above, had no connections to the club or the city.
Mike Walker had done a brilliant job at Norwich over the preceding 18 months. The Canaries took the Premier League by storm in 1992/93, spending much of the season in the title race before falling away to finish third. They played thrilling, attack-minded football and registered some eye-catching results – most notably a 4-2 win at Highbury on the opening weekend.
Norwich’s top-three finish qualified the club for the UEFA Cup, where they famously beat Bayern Munich over two legs. Walker had also led Norwich to a 5-1 thrashing of Everton away from home in September 1993, a result and performance that clearly made an impression on the powers that be at Goodison.
Despite Walker’s accomplishments at Carrow Road, there was considerable disquiet behind the scenes. The manager had long been frustrated with a bonus-laden contract and the board’s habit of selling key players without his approval. He quit the club in January and was almost immediately installed as Kendall’s permanent successor.
There was uproar at Norwich, who accused Everton of making an illegal approach for their manager. On Merseyside, opinion was divided.
Walker, a boyhood Evertonian from nearby north Wales, was clearly a bright young coach who had exceeded all expectations at Norwich. He had been touted as a potential successor to Graham Taylor as England manager and his front-foot approach was certainly easy on the eye.
There were some doubts, though. Walker’s managerial experience amounted to a couple of years at Colchester and Norwich. His former club’s defensive record had been terrible. The squad he inherited at Goodison did not look particularly well equipped to play his favoured style. And Everton were a much bigger club than anything he was used to, as Southall points out.
“I thought they’d go for somebody of a little bit higher calibre,” the long-serving goalkeeper said. “There was Mike the man, who’s OK. And there’s Mike the manager, who was out of his depth.
“[It was] wrong time, wrong place, I think. I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. I think he walked into a place he didn’t understand. Because, and no disrespect to Norwich, at Norwich you don’t have to be great every week. At Everton if you’re not great every week, the fans go berserk, there’s lots of pressure on you and I don’t think he was quite ready for that.”
Walker didn’t see it like that at the time. He was confident the methods that brought Norwich so much success could be replicated at Everton.
“With a little bit of work and attention I’m sure we can return to our rightful place,” he said at his unveiling. “Everton have always been synonymous with what I call the right way of playing and hopefully it will be a good marriage.
“I’m ambitious and there was only one decision to make. If I get things right here the sky’s the limit. With due respect to Norwich they are a small club and could not give me the possibility of reaching so high.”
As it turned out, Norwich were still upwardly mobile enough to finish higher than Everton that season. Walker got off to a bright start in the Premier League with a Cottee-inspired 6-2 thrashing of Swindon Town, before the Toffees were narrowly beaten by Manchester United at Old Trafford.
By that time Walker had already begun to put his own stamp on the team. “When we sign someone it will be a quality player,” he told the Liverpool Echo. “I prefer players who can pass and move.”
In came Brett Angell, a lumbering, 6ft 4in targetman from Southend, who would go on to score just one goal in 21 appearances for the Blues. He is still regarded as one of the worst players to ever pull on an Everton shirt.
Walker lost only one of his first six league games at the helm and Everton sat 14th – seven points clear of the drop zone – in the middle of March. However, after a dismal run that saw them collect just one point from the next 21, they slipped into a much precarious position as the season’s end neared. Walker’s passing game was only aiding Everton’s opponents.
A 1-0 victory over West Ham eased the pressure, but that was followed by a draw and two defeats. Going into the final weekend of the season, Walker’s side were in the relegation zone. After weeks of pundits and supporters insisting that Everton, with just two prior demotions in their 116-year history, were too big to go down, the Toffees were one bad result away from doing exactly that.
Wimbledon weren’t ideal opponents for a must-win match on the final day of the season. The Dons were sixth and it was difficult to envisage a team captained by Vinnie Jones ever taking things easy. If that wasn’t enough, Wimbledon chairman Sam Hammam was so desperate to beat the club that had apparently snubbed him in the past that he promised his players a Las Vegas holiday if they sent Everton down to the second tier.
Southall insists he remained positive going into the game, but it would not be a surprise if some of his team-mates felt differently.
“When you look at the squad we had, it was decent,” he told The Drop. “It was better than the other bottom five. So I never thought we’d go down because you can never contemplate that, but I’m also a realist.”
Perhaps even Southall’s faith wavered when Everton got off to the worst possible start. Dean Holdsworth, a player the Blues had tried to sign earlier that season – “We haven’t turned Dean into one of the finest strikers in the country just to get the likes of Everton out of trouble,” Hammam huffed – silenced Goodison with a fourth-minute penalty. When Gary Ablett put through his own net midway through the first half, Everton were on the brink of disaster.
It was vital the hosts won a penalty of their own within four minutes; had they not halved the deficit so quickly, it might have been curtains. Graham Stuart converted the spot-kick, but only after Southall had dramatically offered his services from 12 yards.
That wasn’t enough to halt the nail-biting, though. Everton continued knocking on the Dons’ door but to no avail. They were still trailing after an hour, while relegation rivals Southampton, Sheffield United and Oldham were beating West Ham, Chelsea and Norwich respectively.
Then came the breakthrough. A loose ball in midfield was gobbled up by Barry Horne, who brought it under his control before unleashing a spectacular strike into the top corner from 30 yards. News soon followed that Norwich had equalised against Oldham, but Everton would remain in the bottom three unless they scored another.
With nine minutes left to play, they did exactly that. Stuart attempted a one-two with Cottee and, when the ball bobbled back to him, side-footed a shot home from the edge of the box. For the first time all afternoon, Everton were out of the drop zone.
A Wimbledon equaliser would have sent them back into it, but Chelsea’s late winner against Sheffield United secured the Toffees’ top-tier status. Everton also held on for a 3-2 win, sending floods of fans onto the Goodison Park turf in jubilation.
“There was a pitch invasion at the end,” Cottee recalls. “I think it was just one of relief for all the Evertonians. It had been a tough year for the players, but the fans are what the football club is all about and everyone was just so relieved.”
Neither he nor Southall were in the mood to celebrate, though. The Welshman had won two league titles, two FA Cups and the Cup Winners’ Cup with Everton. Scraping a 17th-place finish was not enough to leave Big Nev reaching for the champagne.
“There is relief once you know you’re safe but that soon turns to frustration and anger,” Southall says. “Because here we are celebrating something that should never have happened. This has got to be a marker in the sand to say this will never, ever happen to this club again.”
Listen to the first episode of The Drop wherever you listen to your podcasts.