As the seemingly endless lockdown goes on, I’m continuing my look back at five famous and crucial Everton matches in recent years.
This time I’m focusing on a game which many think turned the tide for Everton, brought an end to years of frustration and ushered in the club’s greatest era of success.
It’s a match which I’ve already mentioned before and it is regarded as one of, if not the most, important games in the club’s recent history.
January 1984 was not a happy new year for Blues supporters. After years of struggle and failure while eternal rivals Liverpool claimed trophy after trophy, the Toffees had started the 1983-84 season with a fair amount of optimism.
The previous campaign had ended with Everton finishing a respectable seventh in the First Division and there had been real signs of improvement in the young team.
Manager Howard Kendall had been bringing in some talented and promising young players such as Neville Southall and Trevor Steven, and had several more from previous manager Gordon Lee’s reign, who were starting to show their pedigree as well.
But early hopes quickly dissipated and results turned sour with the Blues soon stuck in the bottom half and once again looking at the possibility of relegation as they entered the New Year. There was much discontent amongst Evertonians and paper speculation that manager Howard Kendall was close to the sack.
Could the cup competitions provide any relief? Everton hoped so and when they were drawn away to Third Division Oxford United in the Milk Cup fifth round, it looked as though a decent cup run might be possible to save the season.
United were a Division Three side, but they were making waves and were embarking on the sort of run that also saw fellow minnows Watford and then Wimbledon rise from the lower reaches to the First Division during the eighties.
In fact Oxford would themselves be a top flight team two years later, and then go on to win this competition that same year, beating QPR in the final.
But back to this cold January evening. The home side were not fazed while Everton couldn’t get going. They were being outplayed, with the Third Division team making the better chances. In the second half, their enterprise was finally rewarded as they scored following a free kick.
Still the Toffees couldn’t find their form and their play became desperate as they pressed for an equaliser, but they weren’t creating much and looked to be heading out of the League Cup.
Oxford had a chance to make it 2-0 but this time couldn’t find the net. It’s one of those great unknowns but surely had United taken that chance, Everton would have been out and manager Kendall might have been gone in the following days.
So much of sporting success is about confidence, self-belief and that intangible thing known as luck, and this was a Blues team that was badly lacking all of that at this time.
Then in one of those moments in sporting history that can prove so pivotal, Oxford defender Kevin Brock miss-hit a back-pass to his goalkeeper and Everton’s Adrian Heath nipped in to intercept score a priceless goal.
Even after this gift, Oxford weren’t disheartened and had one more opportunity to win it, but failed to score and so the game finished 1-1, meaning a replay at Goodison Park.
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The Toffees won that replay 4-1, and embarked on a cup run all the way to the final where they would take on all-conquering Liverpool at Wembley.
Finally the Blues seemed to believe in themselves and results quickly began to improve as the latent ability within the team at last started to blossom.
What would have happened to Everton had Brock not made that mistake and Heath hadn’t been able to take advantage? It’s terrifying to consider that had the Toffees lost this game, then the talented but still inconsistent young team Kendall had built, might well have been broken up.
But fortunately that didn’t happen and as we know, the Blues went on to win the FA Cup, European Cup-Winners-Cup and two league titles over the next four seasons. in one of modern football’s most remarkable turnarounds.