WORDS: MARK GODFREY
When your football team start to match your personal aspirations, it’s an addictive, dizzying concept, as Everton supporters discovered in between 1984 and 1987, but enduring the barren years that followed became a duty that is slowly being rewarded by the the restorative work of Moyes and Martinez…
February 17, 1981. That’s when it began.
We putt-putted along Scotland Road in a 1967 navy blue Volkswagen Beetle; my uncle driving and my dad the passenger. As with all rides in Mally’s classic German motor, I waived the usual back seat spot expected of a four-and-a-half year old and took up my favoured position in the compartment between the back seat and the window, pursing my lips together mimicking the noise of the rear-mounted engine.
It had been built up as a special occasion all through that day, not least because it was my sister’s second birthday. But I wasn’t fussed about that; I wasn’t getting any presents after all. In fact, I was getting something better than a Han Solo figure or a Matchbox Hot Wheels; something that would endure (often a very apt description) the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – I was being introduced to my first love. Everton.
That evening was an FA Cup fourth round replay at Goodison Park against Southampton. We won 1-0. I don’t remember the goal or any particular details of the game at all.
My only recollections are of standing on the seats in the Bullens Road stand and being overwhelmed by the sights, the sounds, the smells and the sheer size of the stadium. By the time we were trundling back through the post-match traffic I was desperate for more; pestering my old man to take me again.
That was it. Smitten.
In those first few years Everton were crap. OK, maybe I’m being harsh. They were average but, quite frankly, I didn’t really care. I was just a football nut in general. I even liked Liverpool – ah, the naivety of youth…
Then everything changed.
Being successful is something we all strive for from an early age; we are programmed by nature and nurture to succeed, so when your football team start to match your personal aspirations, it’s an addictive, dizzying concept.
Image: Bob Lilliman (1983), courtesy of Groundtastic
The years 1984 to 1987 were incredible. Even as a young lad I understood what was going on and was able to appreciate the juggernaut that ever-so-gradually began to steamroller its way through English football. The headiness of league titles, cup finals, European nights went hand-in-hand with entertainment and goals.
Heroes, nay legends, were born in that period – I can probably rattle off the names of the 1985 championship winning side faster than my most immediate eleven family members, such was the awe they inspired. My connection to Everton had transcended mere love. It was infatuation. Yet, at the height of those halcyon days that I wrongly assumed were going to be the norm, I couldn’t have fathomed that this would be as good as it got.
My family moved to the north-east soon after our 1987 league title win and I had to get used to the sudden, heartbreaking separation from the Toffees. Following your club from afar in the days when Match of the Day barely made it onto our TV screens – let alone the 24-hour all-encompassing coverage of the Sky Sports/internet age – was a hard slog. The majority of Saturday afternoons were spent listening to Radio 2 for updates, refreshing teletext or putting a sneaky call into Clubcall at 28 pence per minute just to keep abreast of Everton’s progress – or lack of it.
No sooner had I turned my back than the club I loved was on a steady decline – it got harder and harder to show my face at school; the satisfaction of superiority over the Newcastle fans degraded by the plethora of gloating Liverpool glory-seekers. But despite the increasing frustration with the Blues and their inability to hit the heights of the mid-eighties, I became more ready to spring to their defence when anyone had the temerity to challenge my faith in Everton.
The nineties – the FA cup win in 1995 notwithstanding – were sh*t. OK, we weren’t relegated and didn’t go into administration, but it’s all relative. Everton hung around the Premier League like the proverbial bad smell and believe me, we hated every minute of it just as much as the neutrals or opponents who were unlucky enough to watch us.
The last day escapology acts of 1994 and 1998 are, incredibly, highlights of that desperate decade.
I’ve never felt so sick to my very core as that game at home to Wimbledon in the final fixture of the 1993/94 campaign, in particular after 20 minutes when the late Gary Ablett’s calamitous own goal put us 2-0 down and effectively out of the top flight for the first time since 1954. I listened to the game in our front room with the dog cowering in fear behind the sofa at every raised voice and expletive, and then at every roar of relief as we staged our now-mythical comeback to ensure survival.
It couldn’t be that bad again, could it? It could.
To say we were abject in subsequent years would be kind; I once travelled the seven-hour round trip to witness six consecutive 0-0 draws at Goodison Park over a period of about six months – now that’s dedication – and I consider myself lucky to have seen us score nil, such were the depths to which we had plunged.
Bizarrely though, the passion – stoked by anger and frustration by this time – was probably at its peak during some of the worst times in the club’s long and distinguished history. The motto on our badge says ‘Nil Satis Nisi Optimum’ – Latin for ‘Nothing but the best is good enough’. An optimistic ethos at the best of times. In the nineties, it was a joke.
Thankfully, the days of pouring over the fixture list as soon as it’s released to predict where we were capable of scraping a sufficient amount of sneaky draws and spawny wins to keep our heads above water are, seemingly, a distant memory.
Actually, after the restorative works of David Moyes and now the Roberto Martinez evolution, we’re beginning to live up to that rather lofty Latin mission statement and another of our one-time alter egos – ‘The School of Science’ – and to be honest I’m not sure how to cope with people offering words of admiration about my football club rather than their condolences.
We have an entertaining team managed by one of the most progressive young coaches in the game, a divisive but undoubtedly emotionally involved chairman and finally, the tangible possibility of the brand new stadium we have been crying out for since the mid-nineties. The potential at Everton has yet to be tapped and when it is, much like at Manchester City, the sky could very well be the limit.
Exactly how I’ll cope with that kind of unbridled optimism, I’m not entirely sure. After all, supporting Everton, for all but a few glorious years, has been a tortuous, pessimistic relationship – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.