Everton had a problem. Their FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur was on a knife-edge with 23 minutes to go, and Paul Rideout was sprawled on the Elland Road grass in considerable pain. The forward had been carrying an injury going into the game, and now Joe Royle had a decision to make. Daniel Amokachi was warming up when Rideout signalled across the pitch that he would be able to carry on. The Nigerian, unaware of the meaning of Rideout’s gestures and eager to make a difference, ran on to the field. Royle and Rideout both watched on, perplexed, as the fourth official confirmed the substitution.
The man who wasn’t meant to be on the field would put the team that wasn’t meant to be in the Cup to the sword, on a remarkable afternoon in 1995.
The road to Everton confirming their place in the FA Cup final for the first time in six years began months earlier, in the summer of 1994. Wet Wet Wet were top of the UK charts with their hit ‘Love is All Around’, the Tories were in disarray after the European Parliament elections brought their worst results in the 20th Century, and Tottenham were in trouble. They had been found guilty on 40 counts of financial malpractice, and the FA had thrown the book at them. A £600,000 fine and a 12-point deduction for the upcoming season was topped off by elimination from the 1994/95 FA Cup. Spurs chairman Alan Sugar was outraged, but the North Londoners had been caught bang to rights over a series of illegal payments. Exactly six months later, though, the FA did a U-turn. Spurs were reinstated and given back their docked points. Suddenly, Gerry Francis’ side were dark horses for the Cup.
Altrincham and Sunderland were dispatched, before a 1-1 home draw with Southampton in the fifth round. Spurs went to the Dell for the replay, and fell 2-0 down before half-time. Enter Ronny Rosenthal who, without the need to score an open goal from six yards out, excelled. His double took the game to extra time before he completed his hat-trick as Spurs won, remarkably, 6-2. Next up were Liverpool at Anfield. The Lilywhites fell 1-0 down against a side they had never beaten in the Cup, but Teddy Sheringham fired home an equaliser before, 90 seconds from time, Jurgen Klinsmann stunned Roy Evans’ side. Their reward: Everton at Elland Road.
Mike Walker’s side had just about survived relegation the previous season, and they looked set to battle against the dreaded drop again. Everton won none of their opening 12 league games, and were also dumped out of the League Cup by Portsmouth. Walker could not leave fast enough. Blues legend Joe Royle came in and began in style, the former striker masterminding five clean sheets in a row to turn the side’s fortunes around. Everton would finish the season in 15th, with better to come. It was the FA Cup, though, where excitement was beginning to grow.
Derby had been seen off in the third round, Andy Hinchcliffe scoring the only goal. Just the one strike was needed to defeat Bristol City as well, Matt Jackson claiming it. Clearly, Everton were saving up for their fifth round game against Walker’s former club, Norwich. Five different scorers – Limpar, Parkinson, Rideout, Ferguson and Stuart – sealed a 5-0 thrashing. (I was born the day before – feel old yet?) Blues captain Dave Watson netted the winner as Royle’s self-anointed ‘Dogs of War’ won their quarter-final 1-0 against Newcastle and took their place alongside Spurs, Manchester United and Crystal Palace in the final four.
United, embroiled in a title race with Blackburn, were odds-on to defeat Palace. They were widely expected to meet Spurs, blessed with an array of attacking options, in a showpiece Wembley final.
“Sorry about the dream final, lads”, said Joe Royle to open his post-match press conference. Everton had crashed the party.
There were plenty of hurdles to overcome. Duncan Ferguson, Vinny Samways and John Ebbrell were all suspended, with Stuart Barlow out injured. Rideout was carrying a knock, while Watson had spent the week in bed fighting off a virus. Spurs were the favourites, and Everton were expected to step aside and allow the London club passage to Wembley.
Luckily, Everton didn’t read the script. “Semi-finals are traditionally tense and nervous, but we came out and played well”, Royle said afterwards. He was right. The Blues came roaring out of the traps, with Anders Limpar forcing three saves from Ian Walker within the first ten minutes. The Swede undertook a one-man crusade to see Everton through, while Hinchcliffe’s always excellent set pieces were keeping Walker busy. Stuart Nethercott, out of position and tasked with containing Limpar, was tied up in knots. And yet Spurs survived. After all their tribulations, were they destined for glory?
Not if Hinchcliffe had anything to do with it. On 35 minutes, his inswinging corner was met at the front post by Jackson, whose header was too hot for Walker to handle. The Evertonians packing Elland Road had already been making plenty of noise, but the goal sent it up a notch. Almost immediately, Sheringham headed wide to remind the Blues that a one-goal lead is finite.
Yet the favourites were struggling to lay a glove on the royal blue heavyweights, bound by a collective spirit and driven by a dogged determination to succeed. When Walker made a mistake in the second half, fluffing a free-kick, Rideout pounced. His effort was poor, but Walker spilled, and Graham Stuart had the simple task of slotting the ball into the back of the net. A couple of Everton fans came onto the pitch to celebrate.
But this is Everton, remember. There had to be a twist. Klinsmann sent a looping header into Sheringham’s path and the English striker crumpled under Watson’s challenge. Penalty. It was an undeserved punishment for Watson, who had been a colossus alongside David Unsworth, considering the fact he had barely trained at all. Klinsmann took a long run-up and slotted his penalty into the left corner to reduce the deficit by half. Everton had conceded for the first (and only) time in the FA Cup that season. Spurs fans began to believe that a comeback reminiscent of the one at the Dell in the fifth round was possible.
Enter Amokachi. The scorer of the first ever Champions League goal had only managed one strike in a torrid first season at Everton. It was not for a lack of trying, nor a lack of encouragement, but it seemed the Nigerian World Cup star would not make an impact in England. Thanks to his own intervention, Amokachi’s impact would go down in Everton folklore.
Nick Barmby (note: booooooo) had a shot blocked, before the tie was decided. Neville Southall made a superb save to deny Nethercott, and Everton burst forward on the counter. Limpar fed the ball to Horne, who laid it off for Stuart to provide the cross. At the back post, Amokachi powered ahead of two defenders and headed the ball in off the turf. The Evertonians were delighted, but no smile was bigger than Amokachi’s.
Everton’s last Elland Road trip in the FA Cup semi-finals had been in 1980, for a surprise defeat to West Ham. Since then, they had won 10 of their 11 semi-finals. Thanks mostly to Limpar, the run was extended to 11 in 12. The midfielder burst forward again, the Spurs midfield and defence trailing in his wake. Limpar slid the ball into space and Gary Ablett, steaming on to it, lurched and crossed the ball in one fluid motion. Again, Amokachi found himself in space. Again, he made no mistake, finishing high over Walker and into the net to seal a comprehensive win.
The Everton fans streamed onto the pitch after full-time to celebrate with their heroes, though some were caught up in scraps with dejected and infuriated Spurs supporters. The most important scrap of all had been won on a knockout. Spurs had come at Everton, and been suckerpunched. The Royle revolution had borne fruit and, with the Dogs of War setting their eyes on Wembley glory, nobody would stand in their way. As Amokachi proved, for once fate was on Everton’s side.