To emerge from the tunnel with Z-Cars ringing in your ears. To step onto the hallowed turf. To run, pass, tackle, even score, at Goodison Park. Is that not the dream?
For a lucky band of Evertonians – plus a handful of non-believers – the dream came true, as William Hill staged a ‘Play at Goodison’ event on May 17.
Just days after the Toffees concluded their home campaign with victory against Watford, winners of William Hill’s social media competition gathered in the Brian Labone Suite to begin their matchday experience; two Everton Aren’t We representatives, including yours truly, came along for the ride.
And what a ride it was. After making our way down to the changing rooms to put on the kit provided by William Hill (blue for the ‘home’ side, yellow for the ‘away’), the players posed in front of the green screen for Premier League-style player graphics.
Game faces perfected, we made our way on to the pitch for the first time to warm up. Ronald Koeman claimed the Everton squad were “70 per cent” fit ahead of the season opener against Spurs; judging by the way the two sides meandered back to the changing rooms, seven per cent fitness would have been an optimistic estimate.
Luckily, two famous faces from Everton’s past were on hand to provide inspiration from the sidelines. Graeme Sharp, one of the club’s greatest ever goalscorers, took charge of the blue team, or “Dixie’s Diamonds”.
Managing the yellow side – dubbed “Team Bag For Life” – was Graham Stuart, present in the Blues’ last cup-winning line-up, and still the most recent player (along with Andrei Kanchelskis) to score in an Everton win away to Arsenal.
The match itself will not challenge the 4-0 win over Manchester City or the 6-3 Bournemouth battering as the most quality-laden contest on the Goodison turf in 2017. There was plenty of drama on show though, as Stuart’s side edged an 11-goal thriller 6-5 despite dominating throughout.
A goal scored from an indirect free kick after a picked-up backpass and a hilarious shanked own goal were offset by some ruthless finishing, meaty challenges and a miraculous overhead kick that, had it gone in, would have forced Tom Davis to relinquish his Goal of the Season award.
The enormity of the pitch is something that can only really be appreciated when you are forced to sprint from the half way line back to your own goal to retrieve the ball. Those who took part won’t be accusing Everton players of being lazy any time soon.
There was a surprise minutes before the end of play as first-team regulars Joel Robles and Enner Valencia arrived to greet the players and pose for photographs; their appearance topped off a remarkable day at Goodison.
Rob Connor, who tasted victory with Graham Stuart’s side, said: “It was one of those ridiculous pinch yourself moments. My brother and I spent our youth either sat in the Gwladys Street or pretending to be playing on the turf, and then we actually had the chance to realise those dreams.”
James Hewitt notched the opening goal of the day; he said: “Walking out to Z-Cars made the hairs stand on end, and then to actually play a match on there, to run around where many legends have, was an unforgettable experience.
“To be honest, playing a game in the presence of Diamond and Sharpey was a real honour.”
Even non-Evertonians revelled in the aura of the occasion. Asa McKenzie, a Man City supporter, said: “It’s such an iconic ground, I was thrilled to be given the chance. I’ve recently come back from two years out with a broken kneecap, but I could’ve ran all day!”
There was a further treat in store for the competition winners after full time, as Everton legend Kevin Ratcliffe arrived to discuss the glory days as well as the modern game in a Q&A session.
Ratcliffe waxed lyrical about memories of Howard Kendall, *that* Goodison night against Bayern Munich and his favourite Everton memory, the 1984 FA Cup final.
‘Rats’ had the crowd in stitches with anecdotes about Ian Rush, and named Kenny Dalglish, Oleh Blokhin and Iain Dowie – yes, Iain Dowie – as some of the toughest opponents he faced. “If he didn’t know what he was going to do next, how the hell was I meant to know?” Ratcliffe said of the former Northern Ireland international.
The former Everton captain gave an honest assessment of the Everton squad, including fellow Welshman Ashley Williams – “really, we signed him four years too late” – and offered a withering assessment of the modern-day treatment of the FA Cup.
Ratcliffe claimed that Leighton Baines could have slotted into the Everton side of the Eighties (“though you’d be a brave man to drop Pat van den Hauwe”), and lauded the talent of his team mates of the time, most notably Neville Southall and Kevin Sheedy.
“The Q&A with Ratcliffe was an eye opener”, said James. “It’s only when he was talking, do you realise how much of a focal point of the club he was”.
Rob added: “The real thing I took from it was just how he spoke about Howard Kendall as a man and a manager, his stories about Nev in training making saves with his hands behind his back, just stuff I hadn’t heard before, and hearing that warmth when he spoke about that time and those players”.
Thanks to William Hill, a few more people can now claim to have played on the fabled Goodison Park pitch, in esteemed company with the likes of Dixie Dean, Neville Southall, Alan Ball, and Jo.
“I was really impressed with the event as a whole”, said Rob. “They went all out to create a player’s experience, all the staff were friendly, the green screen and filming were remarkably professional, and everyone really made it a great experience. We all left feeling really lucky to have been a part of it.”
Asa agreed: “William Hill organised the day brilliantly. I want to do it again!”
There may have been better players who tasted the Goodison Park experience this season, but none who felt more lucky and grateful to be there.
And in case you were wondering, yes, I did score in front of the Gwladys Street. Scoring in the warm-up counts, right?