The 2002/03 season, David Moyes’ first full campaign at the helm, was certainly a more interesting one than any of Walter Smith’s efforts. Everton finished one point behind Blackburn in an unlucky seventh (as, for various reasons, fifth, sixth, eighth and ninth all qualified for Europe).
There were some eye-catching games that season as well. Gary Naysmith scoring the only goal in a 1-4 League Cup defeat at Chelsea, three days before Gary Naysmith scoring the only goal in a 1-3 league defeat at Chelsea. Being dumped out of the FA Cup by Kevin Ratcliffe’s Shrewsbury. A thrill-a-minute 3-4 loss at White Hart Lane. And a milestone October win over Arsenal that will feature in this series later on.
Today, though, we go to an early Saturday kick-off at Goodison in February 2003. Everton went into the game with an opportunity to go level on points with fifth-placed Chelsea and keep their Champions League hopes alive. Visitors Southampton knew that defeat would mean their best route into Europe would be through the FA Cup. The Blues’ three-match winning run had been halted at Charlton the week previous, and tough meetings with Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United yet to come.
(Everton would lose all four of those games, scoring once in all of them but conceding 10)
It had been a good season for Everton after a solid decade of drudgery; buoyed by being more than Premier League fodder, a sun-drenched Goodison was in good voice. The hosts opted for the North American duo of Brian McBride and Tomasz Radzinski to lead the line. Radzinski, drafted in from Anderlecht, was firmly focused on fourth spot and a Champions League berth. “It would be three times as fun playing in it for Everton” he claimed, referencing the season he had spent playing in Europe’s premier competition with the Belgians, which included a memorable strike against Manchester United. The Canadian had already contributed nine goals to the Everton cause before the visit of Southampton.
Radzinski looked busy early on but it was Steve Watson who first tested the Southampton defence, with two efforts blocked. In a tight tussle neither side kept the ball for a particularly long period, certainly not long enough to fashion anything better than half-chances. The home defence looked exposed at times, and so it proved when Southampton took the lead with their first meaningful attack.
Fabrice Fernandes lifted an inauspicious ball down the middle, and the Everton defence simply parted. James Beattie couldn’t believe his luck. The future Blue took the ball under control and attempted to loft the ball over Richard Wright. Beattie underhit it but, well, it’s Richard Wright. The ball glanced off the right hand of the hapless Everton stopper and trundled into the net.
Somehow, Everton were a goal down. Going into the break without levelling the scores did not help Evertonians’ moods either. The second half began in the same vein as the first, with Everton pressuring but failing to breach the stubborn Saints defence. Gordon Strachan had his side well organised, and it needed a Moyes masterstroke to change things.
Luckily, this is 2003. Moyes had some tricks up his sleeve back then.
Kevin Campbell replaced the ineffectual McBride, before teen sensation Wayne Rooney entered the fray. That’s right. A Moyes side playing 4-3-3. What crazy days these were.
The three-man attack could have meant further exposure. But Southampton, wary of the triple threat, retreated even further. Radzinski had the best chance of the game so far, collecting the ball just outside the penalty area and unleashing a thunderous effort that bent away and struck the outside of the post. Southampton had been warned.
Antti Niemi’s goal seemed to be living a charmed life. The clock was ticking down, and with just over five minutes remaining it seemed as if Everton would be consigned to a frustrating, and damning, defeat.
But a mood can change in a mere moment. So it was when Rooney found a yard of space on the left and curled in a perfect cross for Radzinski who, unmarked, seven yards out and directly in front of goal, could not miss.
There was not just relief in the celebrations, but excitement. Everton had broken Southampton down at last, and now anything was possible. Campbell had made a significant impact on the game since replacing McBride, and thought he had found the winner. But Niemi, who had made some superb saves throughout, somehow denied him.
Everton had opted to go long more than a few times during the game, often without any success. In the 92nd minute, again route one led nowhere, but the second ball fell at the feet of Thomas Gravesen, the third of the Everton substitutes. The Dane picked out Radzinski, who found himself in a similar position to that in which he hit the post earlier. This time he found the top corner.
The roar almost lifted Goodison off its foundations. Radzinski wheeled away to celebrate with a fist-pumping Moyes, after being mobbed by team-mates and a fair few fans. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is truly one of the sweetest feelings in football.
Radzinski would not score again that season; Everton’s European bid would falter, and the next season would be nothing short of disastrous. But on that dramatic February afternoon Goodison enjoyed one of the best few minutes of action in Everton’s recent history.