By Neil Scott
SERIOUSLY, thirty five years is a long time to hold a grudge.
It’s longer than it takes to resolve most wars, to overthrow most corrupt political systems and to win a quintet of shiny European Cups. Clearly, we’re not just talking about some minor irritation here. No, to maintain a festering indignation for three and a half decades requires both an unshakeable sense of injustice and an almost superhuman degree of grumpiness. It suggests a blow to the heart so cataclysmic that revenge becomes not just a priority but an all-consuming, irrational necessity.
In short, you’d have to be pretty pissed off to sustain a hatred for that length of time.
Yet whisper the name ‘Clive Thomas’ in the presence of your average Evertonian and you’ll see the years fall away like teardrops in rainfall. The eyes bulge, the veins in the neck throb, traces of foam begin to trickle from the sides of the mouth and a long dormant fury once more bursts into life, spraying all unlucky enough to be caught in the crossfire with an indiscriminate mix of invective, bile and warm spit.
Many of those reacting with such outrage were still to be born when Thomas perpetrated his heinous felony, yet tales of his treachery have passed down the generations, firmly establishing him as the Bogeyman of the Blues, the Welsh Freddy Krueger, invading their dreams with a whistle, a stopwatch and a pathological desire to stomp all over their keenest ambitions.
It really is a heartbreaking story. At least it would be if it wasn’t so bloody funny.
So, as we approach another all-Merseyside FA Cup semi-final, let’s remind ourselves of the last time the teams met at this stage of the ‘World’s Premier Knockout Competition’ (copyright held by whichever channel currently owns the broadcasting rights). When the fabled Evertonian bitterness first found its way into the public domain. And when Clive Thomas became the most controversial Welshman since Tom Jones discovered the erotic potency of the aggravated pelvic thrust.
April 1977. Red Rum had just secured an unprecedented third victory in the Grand National. The Clash’s debut album was fresh on the streets, giving hope and purpose to the nation’s alienated, disenfranchised youth. Liverpool FC were heading for their first European Cup Final after a comprehensive semi-final demolition of FC Zurich.
Three days later, at a rain-soaked Maine Road, local rivalries took priority. Gordon Lee’s inconsistent Everton team provided the latest obstacle toLiverpool’s apparently inexorable march towards an historic treble. Six years previously a Brian Hall goal had given the Reds victory in a tightly contested FA Cup semi-final. Now, at the same stage, Everton were determined to derailLiverpool’s trophy charge and reach their first major final since 1968.
Under the leadership of the dour Lee, a man seemingly created in the dank recesses of a crazed scientist’s Gothic castle and clearly familiar with the ways of the undead, Everton fancied their chances. Within their ranks, they could boast the midfield artistry of Bruce Rioch and Martin Dobson; the unpredictable wingplay of Ronnie Goodlass; the heart-on-sleeve commitment of skipper, Mick Lyons; and the pauper’s Rodney Marsh, cult hero Duncan McKenzie, an aspiring fancy-dan of a player as noted for his ability to jump over a golf ball and throw a Mini the length of a football pitch (I think I’ve got that right) as he was for his on-field endeavour.
The game itself, though wreathed in incident and typical cup-tie fervour, was a curious one. With ominous puddles scattered amusingly across the sodden pitch,Liverpool’s high tempo passing game was badly hampered. Everton successfully employed a strategy based on pressing and harrying, forcing the ageing Tommy Smith / Emlyn Hughes partnership in theLiverpooldefence into a series of uncharacteristic errors. Despite this, the Reds twice took the lead, the first an exquisite McDermott chip which sailed gracefully over the head of nominal Everton keeper, David Lawson, as he unwisely patrolled the edge of his penalty area in search of enemy submarines.
Twice however, Everton responded. As the final whistle and the prospect of a well-earned replay loomed they launched a final assault onLiverpool’s vulnerable back line. Goodlass crossed from the left flank, McKenzie helped it on and substitute Bryan Hamilton, arriving late and undetected, diverted the ball past Ray Clemence to give Everton a sensational and thoroughly deserved winner. Or so it seemed.
Because at this precise moment Clive Thomas, a referee with a long-established fondness for both the back-page headline and the ostentatious gesture, made the decision that continues to resonate in the hearts of Evertonians to this day, haunting them as they sleep, gnawing away at their blackened souls, leaving them to eke out their days as shrivelled, joyless husks.
He blew his whistle. He signalled for an offside. Or a handball. To tell the truth, no-one knows exactly what he signalled for. But the goal was disallowed. We were spared a humiliating defeat against a team palpably inferior in quality but more than a match for us in terms of attitude and will-to-win. Predictably, Everton were enraged. Their wrath was exacerbated when Thomas subsequently refused to explain the decision. Thirty five years on, he still hasn’t.
There were to be no second chances for Everton. In the replay four days later, normal service was resumed. Goals from Neal, Case and Kennedy gave Liverpool a comprehensive victory and set up an ultimately frustrating Cup Final appointment with Manchester United. To add insult to injury, the crucial opener was the result of a dubious penalty award by Thomas, obstinately oblivious to any notion that he might look to even things up in the contentious decision stakes.
I was 10 years old when Clive Thomas lit the flames of Evertonian ire. I watched it on Match of the Day, closely studied the endless replays and convinced myself that it was the correct call. For thirty five years that’s been my position. Thomas was the footballing equivalent of a free speech martyr, bravely standing up for truth and righteousness in the face of mindless abuse and ugly intimidation. Only now can I admit that I was wrong.
It was a ridiculous decision. There was no infringement. Everton were robbed.
I’m glad to get that off my chest. But don’t misunderstand me. It doesn’t make me feel apologetic. It doesn’t make me want to embrace my Evertonian mates, tell them they were right all along and offer to bring them the head of Clive Thomas on a tear-stained pillow as a symbol of Liverpudlian contrition.
It just makes it funnier. That’s just the way these things work.
And so, on Saturday, Everton have the chance to finally get their revenge, to exorcise the officious, whistle-happy ghost of Clive Thomas. They go into the game on the back of an impressive run of form, whereasLiverpoolhave struggled in recent weeks for consistency, goals and results. It’s a chilling thought, but it’s not beyond the realms of impossibility to envisage an Everton victory at Wembley. I don’t expect it, and would be almightily miffed should it occur, but common sense dictates that it could happen. Frankly, as far as football goes, them’s the vagaries.
But it’s unlikely we’ll see anything that will stir such long-standing resentment as Clive Thomas’s arbitrary decision to disallow Bryan Hamilton’s late goal atMaine Roadall those years ago. Because referees and their merry band of puckish helpers are highly trained, consummate professionals these days and are largely immune to the kind of mistake that cost Everton so dearly back in 1977. And at Wembley on Saturday we’ll have one of the very best officials in charge. A man respected for his strength and fair-mindedness. A man whose name is a by-word for balance and objectivity. A man who shuns controversy and holds no sway with the cult of personality fostered by some of his refereeing contemporaries.
What’s that? It’s Howard Webb?
I think we all know where this is heading. See you in thirty five years.