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Thursday, 10 November 2011

What If? #5 Everton in the 80s

The fifth installment of our What If? series sees Spongers' own Adam Bushby look at the impact the five-year European ban had on the great Everton side.

After convening for an emergency session in Switzerland on June 2 1985, Uefa chiefs issued a statement that would have immediate and lasting consequences: English clubs were banned from Europe, indefinitely. At Goodison Park in particular, home as it was of reigning First Division champions Everton, the news was greeted with anger and dismay. Following the tragic events a few days earlier at the crumbling Heysel Stadium in Brussels, the sentiment was pretty much universal; enough was enough. Thirty nine Juventus fans went to a football match that day and never came back. The European showpiece between Liverpool and the Bianconeri will forever be remembered for events that happened in the stands, rather than on the pitch, and set in motion much-needed introspection as an English disease threatened to become a Europe-engulfing epidemic.

Heysel was the nadir of course, but English football had already been shamed that year by the Kenilworth Road riot on March 13, when Millwall supporters tore the ground to bits. A month later, a 14-year-old boy was crushed to death at a game between Leeds and Birmingham, an event described by Justice Popplewell during the Popplewell Committee investigation into hooliganism as “more like the Battle of Agincourt than a football match”. To emphasise the scale of the problem, that bastion of common sense and thoroughly nice guy Ken Bates advocated the use of electric fences in football grounds. The Valley Parade fire on May 11 would claim the lives of 56 people, with a further 265 injured.

During the second reading in the House of Commons of the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Bill on July 3 1985, Hansard documents home secretary Leon Brittan as lamenting: ‘The series of appalling and shameful events in the second half of last season—at Luton, at Birmingham and of course in Brussels, and elsewhere — has shaken the whole nation.’

It came to pass that English clubs would be banned from all European competitions for five years; Liverpool for six. And so back to Goodison. On May 15, Everton got their hands on their first piece of European silverware, beating Rapid Vienna 3-1 in Rotterdam. They also won the First Division by an astounding 13-point margin ahead of their city neighbours, finishing up with 90 points, as well as being top scorers in the division by seven goals, and were only denied a famous treble by Manchester United’s Norman Whiteside in extra time in the FA Cup final. These were the days when Merseyside, and not Manchester, dominated English football. Since the 1980-81 season, the title had not left the city of Liverpool and it would not do so again until Arsenal’s epic win over Liverpool in the final game of 1988-89.

Which leads one to wonder what might have been during those five forlorn years, when English football was rooted firmly in the doldrums, left in the dark to finally get its house in order while on the continent Arrigo Sacchi took the plaudits, winning back-to-back European Cups with a Dutch-infused AC Milan side that would be considered one of the greatest of all time. With English football in the early and mid parts of the 80s so subjugated by the spectre of hooliganism, it is very easy to forget that it was English sides who had dominated Europe in the years prior to the ban. Incredibly, between 1976 and 1982, the European Cup didn’t leave English shores. In that time Liverpool won a hat-trick of competitions, Nottingham Forest won back-to-back big cups under Brian Clough and Aston Villa won their solitary European Cup. Liverpool then won it again in ’84.

It may be nothing but conjecture, but it doesn’t take such a leap of imagination to picture Kevin Ratcliffe lifting the European Cup rather than Steaua Bucharest’s Stefan Iovan in ’86 or Joao Pinto of Porto a year later. The Everton side of 1984-85 was a relatively young one with the experienced Peter Reid and Andy Gray added. To the younger generation, Reid may now just be an ageing man with the head of a monkey, famous for the amusing way he said Gerardo Torrado in the 2002 World Cup and selling his cup final medal to help save Plymouth, but he could really play. So much so that Reid was voted fourth best player in the world in 1985 behind Michel Platini, Preban Elkjaer and Diego Maradona. And Gray, when he wasn’t being sexist, was your classic British ‘put himself about’ striker, revelling in scoring spectacular diving headers. Add to those two the brilliant Neville Southall, England winger Trevor Steven, the ‘robust’ Welsh defender Ratcliffe, ball-winning foil to Reid Paul Bracewell, free-kick specialist and left-foot-wanded Kevin Sheedy and Scotland striker Graeme Sharp, and it was quite a side.

A season later, when Everton and the rest of England would be banned, Gray would be replaced by a young Gary Lineker, joint top scorer in the league with 24 goals the season before and who would finish the 1985-86 season with 30 and the Golden Boot. For that season and the next, Everton and Liverpool were head and shoulders above the rest of the First Division. Who knows what they’d have achieved in Europe. These were the days before the Champions League was a bulge in Lennart Johansson’s trousers which meant that anyone could draw anyone; there were no seedings. England’s unprecedented dominance in the late 70s and early 80s surely points to the fact that more European trophies would have been won during the years of the ban. And Merseyside could certainly have had their fair share.

But history intervened, and the great Everton side was broken up when ambitious manager Howard Kendall inevitably sought European football and joined Terry Venables as an Englishman managing in Spain, taking the Athletic Bilbao job. Kendall admitted to the Independent in 2010 that he ‘wanted Europe’:

‘I know it was a tragedy but in purely football terms I think that Everton suffered more than anyone. We were on a high, we'd just qualified for the European Cup and we wanted to prove we were the best. One of the biggest compliments was from Brian Clough during his commentary [on the Rapid Vienna game]. He said: 'On that performance, how long is this team going to rule Europe?’’

Highlighting the unfairness of the ban, Joe Ashton, MP for Bassetlaw, explained in the Commons: ‘A great deal of damage has been done to the image of football in this country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr Heffer) mentioned, when Everton went to Rotterdam, there was not a single arrest and nothing went wrong. To punish, or to suggest punishing, innocent people is something that the House should never condone. Yet all too often, when there is a fault, a crime or a happening at a football match immediately the cry is, "Punish everybody". The supporters of Norwich committed no crime. They were totally innocent. They had a perfect record and had never been in trouble, but immediately after the Liverpool problem in Brussels all English clubs were banned.’

The wounds were still raw in the blue half of the city, with David Moyes expressing characteristically blunt sentiments on the matter, telling the Mail in 2007: “It has taken us a long time to get back into Europe, in the 80s Everton were there all the time, but then through no fault of their own they were denied the chance to continue to compete at that level. We are now, after all these years, beginning to get back for this club what the fans have missed all these years.”

He added: ‘There is a bit of me that wants to tell people in Europe that they should not forget that Everton were champions of England, and but for the Heysel disaster they have been denied a chance to have a long run in Europe. People forget that and don’t understand what happened. Everton were unfortunate but I accept it was a tragedy that made football unimportant… What happened after Heysel changed lots of careers. Players and managers. Since then we have been watching from the outside and the club was denied the chance to grow and benefit from the money in European competition.’

Moyes had a very valid point. Everton’s history will always be inextricably linked to those tragic events that occurred at Heysel on May 29 1985. Paling into insignificance of course when compared with the deaths of 39 people, and as Moyes put it himself – ‘[Heysel] was a tragedy that made football unimportant’ – one nevertheless fights the urge to wonder what might have been in those five dark years.


  1. Good post.
    Tommy Carroll

  2. it was such a shame that everton were denied their chance of sitting at the top table of european football and winning! To think that a lot of people forget how big and how good Everton were then and i would have loved to have seen them conquer europe in those times. Who knows where we would be now....COYB ETID

  3. I've heard this argument a lot from Everton fans, and I think that there is undoubtedly a strong argument to say that such a strong side, who would have been building on both their Cup Winners Cup success and the success that similar English teams had had in Europe in the immediate past few years, could have won the 1986 European Cup at least.
    However I can think of three potential contrary arguments as to why that might not have happened or at least to banish the notion that Heysel ruined Everton's long term chances.
    As for the immediate prospects of the first two or three years after Heysel, when Everton were one of the clear best two teams alongside Liverpool, I think it is a bit arrogant to presume that they would have walked to the title. In those days, before the Champions League, the biggest teams from the biggest leagues weren't protected. For all the chances that Everton might have had an easy run playing smaller teams from Eastern Europe or Scandinavia, they might have drawn Bayern Munich, Juventus or Barcelona in the first round. Indeed in 1987, Maradona's Serie A winning Napoli, were drawn against Real Madrid in the first round, and were promptly knocked out. Liverpool were similarly drawn against Nottingham Forest in the late 70s and went out early. Let's also not forget that the 1985 vintage included Andy Grey, who whilst not being as productive as Gary Lineker the following season, it could be argued was a better fit into the team and was an integral part of the success they had had. Without Grey in 1986, would Everton have been as successful in the European Cup that year? Of course we will never know, but it is interesting to consider these things.
    Looking beyond the immediate period that was lost to Everton, comes the argument that the team wouldn't have broken up as it did in the late 80s, and that European football would have kept Everton as a top side competing for the title, rather than the top 6 side they became by 1990. The two strands of this come down to money I fancy. Firstly, despite any European glory coming the players way, the English first division was not the rich super league that the premier league would become. Players had been leaving top English teams, not for the chance to experience European football per se or the chance to learn a new language, but for money for the previous 20 years. Before the ban, Ray Wilkins left a decent Manchester United team for AC Milan; Kevin Keegan left league winning and European Cup winning Liverpool for Hamburg; Liam Brady and Trevor Francis both similarly left top cup, league, European elite teams for continental riches. Despite continuing Evertonian European success, it is a very mute point that the likes of Trevor Steven, Gary Stevens, Gary Lineker etc. would have stayed at the club. Lineker went because it was Barcelona, and he would have gone no matter what had happened at Everton. Stevens and Steven both left the team three or four years after Heysel, so the notion that they left to play in Europe is greatly exaggerated. If they had left for European football they would have left a lot earlier.
    The final financial part to this, and perhaps the most important, is what happened to Liverpool by the time Kenny Dalglish had left, in that Everton, despite being league winners twice in three years (1985, 1987), had started to suffer financial difficulties that would mean that they could not attract the new talent that would keep them at the top of the pile. By 1989/1990, the team was aging (Graham Sharp, Kevin Sheedy, Kevin Ratcliffe were not the players they had been in 1985/1986) and they were not buying the quality of players needed to keep them where they wanted to be. And whilst Howard Kendell had experienced great success with Everton in the mid 80s, it is unclear whether he could have continued to have provided it. He was not sucessful in Spain, and his subsequent employment at Everton was spent in relegation dog fights.