Another season goes by and it´s another where we battled valiantly for the 7th Place Trophy, much to the chagrin of monumentally bored Evertonians – yet for me, the dull mid-to-upper table slog is always preferable to the nightmare we almost suffered in 1994.
It was so long ago now that many of those Toffees who flock to Goodison each week were either in their nappies or just a twinkle in their dads eye when the now defunct Wimbledon came up to Merseyside for an encounter which shaped the destiny of our club forever.
It was the early days of the Premier League, a fledgling top league for English football that would soon develop to be the financial behemoth it is today. Everton, the giants of English football in the mid-1980s had fallen dramatically, with stars such as Gray and Lineker rapidly becoming a distant memory, with Evertonians encumbered with triers like Graham “Diamond” Stuart instead.
So the fans, used to championship glory less than a decade earlier, suddenly found themselves cheering on a side in blue who were battling relegation. Never before in the previous forty years had the Toffees been so close to dropping out of the top tier, and if it occurred now it was difficult to imagine a way back as the big TV money started to hit the top league.
As the “Crazy Gang” came to Goodison, Everton had one advantage over the other four teams threatened by the drop – we were at home. Alas, it wasn´t a four sided cauldron that awaited the visiting team, with the Park End under renovation, but it was still home, and Everton knew that a win should be enough to secure top flight status. But even that wasn´t certain.
The blues in Goodison that day barely breathed for 90 minutes. Those listening to the radio at home were to a man, woman and child still as stone listening to the fate of their heroes. Toffees around the world settled in to endure 90 minutes of hell.
You see, Wimbledon were a decent team. They were comfortably top half, and had a side set up for very effective direct football. And the Everton defence had proven to be a sieve all season.
And so the first half began. And it took only 180 seconds for the nightmare to start. Wimbledon get an early corner, it´s floated harmlessly high towards the edge of the box and – even to this day it haunts me – Anders Limpar inexplicably jumps and basically catches the ball one handed in the area, giving the visitors a blatant penalty.
The look of horror on the Swedes face told it´s own story as the Gwladys Street winced in unison. Dean Holdsworth put it just beyond the outstretched fingers of legendary ´keeper Neville Southall and Wimbledon were one up, and Everton yet another step closer to the drop.
Panic ensued. Everton looked absolutely shell shocked, losing possession again and again. Fans bit their nails to the bone as Wimbledon launched attack after attack, and after twenty minutes it looked like our fate was sealed.
Watson and Unsworth clatter into eachother trying to deal with a high ball, and it drops kindly for Andy Clarke who taps it towards goal, Abblett goes for it, tries to clear, catches it horribly and it spins in for 2-0.
If there´s one moment I wish I could bottle and share with younger Evertonians, it´s when that trickled over the line, because the pain was so intense that every bit of joy I´ve experienced as a Blue since has felt all the sweeter.
It doesn´t matter how many times I think back on this game or watch the replays, I still think we´re down. Every single time. People were crying in the Gwladys Street, men trying to console children but unable to find any words to say. Without doubt, the minutes following that goal were the worst I´ve ever had as an Evertonian. It was like my very soul had been ripped from my body.
But thankfully, the villain Limpar suddenly turned into a hero and gave us light at the end of the tunnel. With the most blatant of dives, he lunged over a leg on the left edge of the Wimbledon penalty area and got the decision from the referee.
Graham Stuart slotted it into the lower left of the goal for 2-1 at the Park End side of the ground – and if I´m honest, it´s lucky it was there, because I don´t know if Graham could have put it away with thousands of petrified Evertonian eyes looking on at the Glwadys end.
Half time arrived, and barely anyone in the stands left their seats – I believe they didn´t trust their legs at that point.
The second half starts, and Everton come out of the stalls quick, roared on by the Evertonians. Another advantage had emerged – we were attacking the Gwladys Street.
And with about twenty minutes to go, the famous old end of the ground witnessed probably the finest strike it´s ever seen – and certainly the most important. Everton attack after defending desperately, the ball breaks for Welsh midfielder Barry Horne and he unleashes an absolute thunderbolt (see picture above) which spins high and away, in off the upper part of the far right post beyond Hans Segers to equalise.
Goodison erupted. Three sides of the ground went into pure delirium. Twenty minutes left to do the impossible and turn around a two goal deficit.
Everton poured on the pressure as Wimbledon began to wilt. Those with handsets in the crowd knew the draw wasn´t enough. A third goal was required. Fans at home sat at the edge of their seat with hands clawed in a vice like grip on the handrests.
With ten minutes to go, so came arguably the most important goal in our illustrious history. Tony Cottee received a ball to feet with his back to goal, and laid it off for the oncoming Graham Stuart who desperately prodded a low effort at goal…
An audible intake of breath from the Gwladys Street, and to this day I believe we sucked that goal in – I swear it gathered pace after it left his foot. Hans Segers dived despairingly but the ball bobbled under his hand and nestled in the lower left corner of the net.
And so, thanks to a dodgy penalty and a Welsh thunderbolt (as well as possibly a dodgy ´keeper, who knows), Everton retained top flight status and, apart from a comparable scare in 1998, we haven´t looked back since.
Early Premier League clubs such as Swindon never recovered from relegation, and who knows how Everton would have fared had the “L4 Miracle” not occurred.
But one thing is for sure – whilst we bemoan boredom in the modern era under the stewardship of Kenwright and Moyes, let´s never forget the dark old days of the early 90s. Never again, never again…