WE should really have hated Howard Kendall.
We should have resented the way he took over a disjointed, demoralised Everton and led them to the pinnacle of the game, at home and abroad.
We should have begrudged how he galvanised a fan base that had been crying out for something to believe in for more than a decade.
We should have regarded him as Public Enemy No.1 for interrupting our annual title procession, shaking our perch a good eight years before Alex Ferguson made perch demolition his life’s work.
But that’s not how it worked. Not when we could see the effect a successful Everton had on the city. For a generation, our Blue mates had no option but to put up with the jibes and the laughter as Liverpool became firmly entrenched as football’s dominant force. The only crumbs of consolation came via the odd derby victory, celebrated like cup final triumphs, sparks in the darkness.
The prospect of an Everton team that could go toe-to-toe with Liverpool, with the best team in Europe, over the course of a season and come out on top, seemed remote. No. It was less likely than that. It seemed impossible.
Howard Kendall changed things. And we might not have admitted it at the time. We might have longed for the days of Billy Bingham and Gordon Lee, when Evertonian under-achievement became the norm. But it made watching football on Merseyside more exciting than it had been for years. Deep down, I don’t think anyone, Red or Blue, would have had it any other way.
I remember the first time I felt Kendall’s Everton might actually be a threat. It was the Goodison derby, March 1984. In truth, they had been something of a shambles for the first half of that season, with attendances plummeting and a campaign to oust Kendall growing in volume. Obviously, we loved it. One misplaced backpass later, with the protagonist, Oxford’s Kevin Brock, carving his own special place in Everton’s history, and the revival was underway. Kendall’s team finally began to take shape.
The derby was their chance to show the world how far they’d come. Despite the inevitable Ian Rush opener, Liverpool spent much of the game camped in their own area, unable to halt the wave of attacks, uncertain in possession, increasingly rattled by the ferocity of Everton’s onslaught. A late equaliser was the least they deserved. I came away from Goodison that day exhausted and relieved. A new experience.
This Everton, Kendall’s Everton, had served notice that they would no longer be a soft touch. Things were going to change, and quickly.
Within two months, they had taken Liverpool to the limit across two matches in the League Cup Final, and won the FA Cup, the first trophy to find its way back to Goodison since 1970. The question was, could they sustain it? Could they use cup success as a launchpad for a title challenge?
In 1984-85, they took it up a level. As all Evertonians will tell you, this was the year they overtook us, the year everything came together, the year they dreamed out loud.
Everton won the league by 13 points. They won the Cup Winners’ Cup, memorably crushing Bayern Munich in the process. They lost the FA Cup Final in extra time.
It was remarkable. It was horrifying. It was a little bit fascinating, to be honest.
And it was Howard Kendall who made it happen.
What Kendall did was construct a team that amounted to a lot more than the sum of its parts. There were no real stars, no-one widely regarded as a unique talent. Aside from Neville Southall, who could legitimately claim to be the world’s best goalkeeper during Everton’s pre-eminence.
It was all about balance and leadership and bottle. A collection of very good footballers who believed in each other, who believed in the manager, and who would grind opponents down as much by force of will as individual brilliance. The pace and anticipation of Kevin Ratcliffe. The composure of Gary Stevens. The commitment and inspiration of Peter Reid. The poise of Kevin Sheedy. The simplicity of Paul Bracewell. The combative, perpetually irritating Graeme Sharp.
And a manager who had worked out how to get the very best out of all of them, consistently, relentlessly.
By contrast, in the post-Graeme Souness landscape Liverpool struggled. Everton triumphed in three successive derbies, at Wembley (via a fortuitous Bruce Grobbelaar own-goal), Anfield (via a Sharp wonder-volley that has passed into Evertonian folklore, despite it being undoubtedly the most wind-assisted goal in history) and Goodison (an end-of-season irrelevance). Not that we found this power-shift difficult to accept at all.
The following season, with Kenny Dalglish installed as Liverpool player-manager and Gary Lineker reinforcing the Everton attack, the pendulum swung once more. 1985-86 had all the drama, all the twists, all the gravitas of the greatest sporting tussles. It was Ali-Frazier, Borg-McEnroe, Coe-Ovett.
And this time around, the Reds came out on top. Liverpool won an historic double; Everton, runners-up in league and Cup, were left shattered. Whether in exultation or desolation, one thing was clear. Merseyside, again, was the centre of the football world. The natural order had been restored and we all loved it. The city was being hammered from all angles, by the government, by the media, but collectively we’d got our swagger back. It felt right.
Kendall’s swansong, his final season at Everton before leaving to test himself in Spain with Athletic Bilbao, was a triumphant one. Though his team lacked the explosion and the breathlessness of the preceding years, and contained players who, on paper, didn’t belong in a title-chasing outfit, it refused to yield. Ultimately, it was Liverpool whose frailties were exposed.
With nine games to go, Dalglish’s side sat nine points clear of their biggest rivals. As Everton pressed on remorselessly, Liverpool faltered. The Blues were unstoppable and finished the campaign as Champions for the second time in three seasons, a nine-point cushion emphasising the scale of the turnaround.
In the aftermath, the paths of the two clubs diverged. Some would say they have rarely met since. As Liverpool rebuilt in thrilling fashion, with John Barnes and Peter Beardsley ushering in a new period of domination, Kendall’s departure heralded a decline in Everton’s fortunes that has never been consistently reversed.
He went on to have two further spells in charge at Goodison. That he was unable to recreate the magic that brought Everton supporters the best time of their lives doesn’t much matter now. His achievements in those four seasons will always stand, a worthy testament to a proper football man. Two league titles. One FA Cup. One Cup Winners’ Cup. Runners up in the league, the FA Cup (twice) and the League Cup. All in four seasons. It’s not bad that, is it?
Howard Kendall. A great manager. And more than that. A good man. In a game beset by bluster and hypocrisy, corruption and greed, things like that matter. The loss of a good man, a man whose passion and enthusiasm shone through, affects all of us, makes us all that bit poorer. Because what unites us, what motivates us all to keep the love for this ridiculous, frustrating, addictive game going, has to stand for more than that which divides us. At least some of the time, at any rate.
Nice one, Howard. You were alright with us.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda-Photo/PA Images