After Gordon Lee’s sacking in May 1981, Howard Kendall had
arrived at Goodison charged with reviving the fortunes of the struggling club.
It was hoped that the new boss could arrest Everton’s
relative decline and restore some pride.
Kendall had been a player/manager at Blackburn Rovers since
1979 and pulled the Lancashire club out of the Third Division and into the
Second. Having narrowly missed out on promotion to the top flight during the
following campaign, he had caught the eye of the Goodison board.
But, despite the sense of expectation that always hangs over
any Everton manager, there was no urgent pressure for instant success.
‘I don’t think anyone expected us to challenge for the title
right away,’ says lifelong Blue, John Black, ‘and if they did then the quality
of the players brought into the club would have left no doubt that it was going
to be a rebuilding exercise. Personally, I thought we could maybe win the FA or
League Cup and if we managed to get into the UEFA then that would be a bonus.
But most of all you want to see progress on the pitch, tangible signs of a
decent side being built.’
This lack of immediate expectation was probably just as well,
because Kendall struggled to get his project off the ground. Despite some
positive signs, periods of good form and the acquisition of a few decent
players, the fans were underwhelmed. Kendall was only impressing sporadically,
and the despondency that had settled over Goodison persisted.
‘There had been hints that Kendall was on to something in his
first few seasons, but we’d then started the 83/84 campaign really poorly,’
says Phil Redmond, the co-creator of When Skies Are Grey. ‘I’m not one
to get into all that “sack the manager” stuff, but even I joined in with calls
for him to go during an away game against Leicester in October when we’d just
been shite. He’d had a few seasons and we were getting the sense as fans that
he just didn’t have what it would take to get Everton up to where we wanted
them to be.’
By the New Year that season, patience seemed to be running
out. At a particularly grim home match against Coventry City, just 13,000 had
turned up to watch the side struggle their way through a 0–0 draw. Despite the
meagre turnout, the shouts of ‘Kendall Out’, which had grown in prevalence
during the course of the season, were deafening.
Unlike his two predecessors, Bingham and Lee, Kendall’s
arrival had not precipitated a dramatic turnaround and the sense of a club on
the rise. Instead, he appeared to have replaced that part with mediocrity and
then followed their template by heading towards disaster after a couple of
Matters looked bleak for the manager. And yet, with
hindsight, it was evident that all the ingredients needed to create the
greatness of what was to come were already there. Kendall just hadn’t put them
together yet. Or had he?
‘A week earlier,’ remembers former Everton captain Kevin
Ratcliffe, ‘before we had played Oxford in the League Cup, we’d played Stoke in
the FA Cup in a game that I think first began to suggest we were getting our
Everton went mob-handed to Stoke’s old Victoria Ground.
‘There were about 7,000 Blues at that match,’ says the Blue Union’s, Dave
Kelly. ‘Considering how bad Everton had been playing, that’s an amazing figure.
Also, when you think about the problems affecting Liverpool back then, the
unemployment and the poverty, it’s a testament to the commitment of those fans
that they still got behind the club on the road.’
Before kick-off, so the story goes, Howard Kendall
enterprisingly turned the travelling army to his advantage. He opened the
dressing room windows to allow the fans’ singing to come through and said:
‘That’s your team talk today. Don’t let those fans down.’ Everton won the day
‘We played really well,’ thinks former Everton midfielder
Kevin Sheedy. ‘It was a side that contained the likes of Reid, Gray, Southall
and Sharp and which boasted the recently appointed Colin Harvey as assistant
manager. And it was a side that clicked. It was like everything that Howard had
been building was coming right.’
But fragility remained. This was still a side mired near the
bottom of the table, a side low on confidence, a side packed with inexperienced
‘As good as Stoke had been,’ remembers Dave Kelly, ‘and as
important as it was in hindsight, this remained an Everton team that didn’t
inspire confidence. If there were signs of promise, it could all still easily
fall away. On the way down to the Manor Ground, I doubt anyone was filled with
Although a Third Division outfit, Oxford United were no
pushovers. ‘They had already put out Manchester United, Leeds and Newcastle in
the League Cup, and the Manor Ground, with its sloping, winter-worn, bobbly
pitch was a tricky place to visit,’ says former left-back, John Bailey.
Stylistically, the first half of the quarter-final revealed
the gulf that existed between these two sides. Everton attempted, where
possible, to pass the ball around. By contrast, Oxford were more dependent upon
long balls and set pieces.
Both approaches yielded chances, with Everton going close
through Irvine and Sheedy and Oxford causing the visitors all kinds of problems
from corners, specifically via the presence of their statuesque centre-half
Gary Briggs. But neither side could land a telling blow, and they went in at
After the break, Oxford continued from where they had left
off, while Everton appeared to shrink into themselves slightly. The pressure
from the home side mounted, and the sense that they would score seemed to
And, midway through the second half, Oxford did just that. A
free kick near the corner flag was pumped in from the left by Brock. At the far
post, Briggs connected and headed the ball down into the six-yard box. There it
was met by Bobby McDonald, who toe-poked the ball into the back of the net.
‘They were so full of themselves after that goal, and the
crowd so loud, that I thought we might have had it,’ admits Kevin Ratcliffe.
And, for a time, it looked as though Ratcliffe might be
right. With not long to go, Oxford appeared to be in control and cruising
towards another big scalp in their glorious cup run.
But it wasn’t to be.
With nine minutes left on the clock, Kevin Brock found himself caught in possession outside his own box, chased tenaciously by a terrier-like Peter Reid. As more Everton players swarmed in, Brock looked up and, believing he’d found salvation in his keeper, played a simple pass back. But he’d failed to see Adrian Heath hiding behind one of his own centre-halves. ‘Inchy’ latched on to the ball, took it around the keeper and clipped it into the back of the net.
‘I knew that I was going to get the ball,’ Heath later
explained to Simon Hart in Here We Go. ‘But the hardest part was keeping
my feet because if you look at it I am falling over virtually as I hit it. It
was an important goal for the club but people forget it was a really good
finish … it was one of the best finishes I’ve ever done. I don’t think a lot of
people appreciated that the bottom end of the field, kicking down the slope,
was complete ice because the sun hadn’t got across there in the day.’
It was only Everton’s second chance of the half. But Heath took it with clinical efficiency. All the Blues had to do now was hang on.
As the match came to a close, Everton offered nothing of note
except grim resilience, exemplified by the tireless duo of Reid and Richardson,
both of whom tried valiantly to harry Oxford to their last breath. The home
side, perhaps conscious of an opportunity being squandered, piled forward and
came close to earning a deserved victory when Biggins got on the end of a
looping cross from Lawrence. But the effort went narrowly wide.
When the final whistle went, every Evertonian there could
breathe a sigh of relief. Against a better side, the Blues had earned an
undeserved draw and escaped from the jaws of death.
‘There’s nothing like a late goal to win a game or level it
in a cup tie,’ says Dave Kelly. ‘You just can’t explain the sense of euphoria.
I was one happy man leaving that ground.’
Oxford were dispatched 4–1 in the replay the following week,
setting Everton on the path to the League Cup Final. But, perhaps more
importantly, that match seemed to act as a catalyst.
‘Even though form had been picking up slightly,’ argues Simon
Hart, author of Here We Go, ‘particularly as illustrated in the Stoke
game, before that momentous visit to the Manor Ground, Everton were languishing
near the bottom of the league and finding wins and goals hard to come by (I
recall at that point that we were the lowest-scoring team in the entire league
pyramid). Our league season was pretty much over and so the cups offered
salvation. If we had gone out against Oxford at their place, who knows how that
would have affected confidence.’
After Oxford, the side went on a strong run of form, climbed
up the table and also made it to the FA Cup Final.
‘Without Kevin Brock’s mistake,’ laughs Dave Kelly, ‘it’s
possible that what came later, the league titles, the European success, the
years of glory, might also not have occurred. There’s a reason why so many
Evertonians know the name of an Oxford United midfielder. There’s a case for
him being our player of the season that year!’
match report is taken from Everton’s Greatest Games: The Toffee’s Fifty Finest