When an own goal sealed a 1-0 victory at Sunderland in April 2014, Everton recorded a seventh successive league victory for the first time since 1986/87. That season was perhaps one of the most remarkable in living memory. The previous season’s side were runners-up in both the league and the FA Cup, and Howard Kendall’s Blues were not expected to build on either of those finishes.
Firstly, Everton said goodbye to Barcelona-bound Gary Lineker after one stellar season. While the England international made Everton a more predictable side, something that made signing off on the transfer more acceptable to Kendall, his goals would be hard to replace. The signings had mixed fortunes at the club – Paul Power, Wayne Clarke and Ian Snodin are remembered more fondly than Neil Adams or Kevin Langley.
Such upheaval would be difficult enough without an injury crisis akin to an Agatha Christie novel in which Everton players are routinely picked off. Derek Mountfield had a dire fitness record across the season, while Pat van den Hauwe’s injury issues were such that Power amassed 40 appearances. Peter Reid’s season only started in February, two months after Gary Stevens was able to get up and running. Everton also had to do without the unfailingly brilliant Neville Southall for the opening two months, and captain Kevin Ratcliffe was often unavailable. Perennial backup Alan Harper became a first team regular as a result, and Bobby Mimms notched up 11 starts in place of Southall.
This rag-tag, injury-blighted Everton side became the champions of England, laying down a marker that no Blues side has lived up to since. It would be wrong to say Everton capitalised on a poor league or ground out gritty wins either – there were some seriously impressive runs of form needed to pip Liverpool to the title.
Everton picked up some eye-catching and memorable wins across the season, notably the home thrashings of Norwich, Wimbledon, Leicester, Aston Villa, Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle with an aggregate score of 25-1. Yet it was an away performance in the midst of a six-game league victory streak, on Boxing Day, that could be considered Everton’s finest in the title-winning campaign.
St James’ Park was a fairly good stamping ground for Everton. It had been a decade since Newcastle had last defeated the Blues, either home or away, though the two sides had not met every season thanks to the Magpies’ inability to remain in the First Division. Everton were best at home – they would only lose once at Goodison all season, against Arsenal – but had won four of their last six away fixtures. Newcastle had already been put away that season, a Graeme Sharp hat-trick helping the Toffees to a 5-2 win in the Full Members Cup.
It was from a Newcastle free-kick in a dangerous position that Everton took the lead. The ball was cleared from danger and then hooked away by Kevin Sheedy. Adrian Heath latched onto it and gambolled into the Newcastle half, awaiting support. He got it, from Alan Harper out to the right, and Paul Power, silently overlapping on his left. Heath opted for Harper, who spotted Power’s lung-busting run and slid the ball into the middle of the penalty area. Power lunged, stretched, and a combination of attacker and defender deflected the ball into the net to give Everton the lead.
The performance was typical of Everton that season; doggedly determined, full of fight, but with a goal or two up their sleeves. They had the goal, but only in the second half did they find the two. Some slack passing from the home side gifted the ball to Sharp. Power was released on the left and his centre trundled to the penalty spot, where Trevor Steven held a lone vigil. With not one Newcastle defender within ten yards, Steven took a touch, picked his spot, and doubled Everton’s advantage.
Everton’s quick football was causing the Newcastle defence and midfield all sorts of headaches. A well-placed long ball found Heath on the left. He played it in for Power, whose pass provided Steven with the chance to swivel, scuff the ball into the left-hand corner and double his tally.
The cake was iced and merely needed the cherry on top. Steven bombed down the right and whipped in a deep cross, which was met by Heath. Again, the Newcastle defence had vanished, and Heath had the simplest task of looping a header back across goal and in.
It was a hugely successful day for Power, who notched a goal and two assists. Steven scored the only two of his ten goals for the season that did not come from the spot. Sheedy, who would be Everton’s top scorer, wasn’t directly involved in any of the goals. It was the side’s ability to share the goals among them that made them a threat. Rather than relying on one focal point, Everton could trust the attackers, midfielders and defenders to all provide a credible goal threat. A prolific striker had left, but in his stead came a much more balanced team with the work ethic and camaraderie to succeed without him.
Fast-forward 21 years…well, you get the idea.