What is, to date, the best FA Cup match ever? Ask a fan of every team that has taken part, and you’d probably get a unique answer from almost every single one. Evertonians can point to an incredible night at Goodison Park in February 1991 that really could stake a serious claim to be the best of the lot. What’s more, the frenetic 120 minutes of action could go down as the best-ever edition of the Merseyside derby. It was a night of quite unprecedented drama.
1990/91 was perhaps the midway point between Everton’s golden age, and the long period of mediocrity after the advent of the Premier League (literally a midway point – the Toffees would finish 9th). There was a mix of ageing stars who had claimed silverware with the Blues – Neville Southall, Kevin Sheedy, Graeme Sharp, Kevin Ratcliffe, Dave Watson and Alan Harper – and the newer generation, the likes of Tony Cottee, Andy Hinchcliffe and Martin Keown. Colin Harvey was relieved of his duties on Halloween, with the Everton board spooked by the thought of relegation. Everton had won just one of their opening ten games, and needed a hero. The board can’t be accused of using their imaginations, though, as it was Harvey’s predecessor who was appointed. Howard Kendall’s second (sadly, not last) stint as Everton boss began with a four-game winless run before claiming 15 points from the next 21.
In February 1991, Everton played six games. Four of them were against Liverpool. Two Merseyside derbies a year is bad enough. Pat Nevin scored for the Blues at Anfield in the first meeting of the month – unfortunately, Liverpool scored three times. The second was in the FA Cup, at the same venue, but a goalless draw meant the two sides had to reconvene at Goodison three days later. Everton were denied a clear penalty in the Anfield tie when Pat Nevin was felled, but had a spot-kick been given and scored, it would have cost us a truly memorable replay.
Before kick-off, referee Neil Midgeley – who had denied Nevin the penalty at Anfield – had a red and white scarf jokingly wrapped around him. Luckily, Midgeley would be far from the centre of attention that night. It was the away side that threatened first, with Southall forced to beat away a long-range Peter Beardsley effort, before getting up quickly to scramble the ball clear. The hosts then had a chance of their own; Hinchcliffe’s cross was nodded back across goal, and volleyed wide by John Ebbrell.
All it would take is one moment of magic or madness for the deadlock to break. Unfortunately for Kevin Ratcliffe, it was the latter. The Everton skipper was robbed by Ian Rush, who stalked through on goal, fooled Southall by delaying his shot, before lifting an effort over the prone goalkeeper. Out of nowhere came Hinchcliffe to make a superb goal-line clearance, made less memorable by the fact Beardsley was on hand to convert on the rebound.
Everton failed to muster any good chances in the first half following the Beardsley goal, and opened the second with a tame Neil McDonald strike that was easily gathered by Bruce Grobbelaar. Kendall’s side needed a goal. Timely goals are Sharp’s forte, and the Scot popped up at a vital juncture yet again. Hinchcliffe delivered a whipped cross from the left, and despite having only Sharp to aim for amidst a sea of red, the ball was delivered to perfection. Sharp’s header was too much for Grobbelaar to handle, to the delight of most of the 40,000-strong crowd.
But again, the hosts’ slack defending would cost them. Beardsley picked up the ball, drove towards goal, and hit the top corner from 25 yards out. Liverpool like to one-up Everton at every opportunity, and two minutes after Beardsley’s fine strike, they decided to do so by putting on an even worse defensive showing. A Mike Newell flick-on was bobbling innocently towards goal when Grobbelaar decided to steam out and claim the ball. Steve Nicol got there first, and inadvertently knocked the ball past his own keeper. Nicol scampered back to rectify his mistake, but a gleeful Sharp was already on hand to finish the job.
2-2. Excellent. Just hold steady for a bit, and look for a late winner.
Four minutes later, Liverpool led again. It was just one of those nights. A short corner was played to Jan Molby, who curled in a near-post cross. Rush got there first, and nodded home to restore the away side’s lead yet again. Liverpool were holding on, but the drama of the night dictated that a late twist was in order. McDonald fed a ball into the centre which was flicked on behind the Liverpool defence. Somehow, nobody had noticed Newell, and nobody had noticed substitute Cottee, who had only been on for five minutes. The latter reached the ball first, and tucked it home to spark absolute pandemonium in the stands.
Extra time, normally a period of goalless tension, was just as open and combative as the 90 minutes that preceded it. John Barnes picked up the ball on the left wing, cut inside, and curled a beautiful strike inside the far post. It was a goal worthy of winning any tie. Except it didn’t.
It was at this moment that Kenny Dalglish noticed his Liverpool side were still vulnerable, and changes needed to be made. And, yet, he made no such changes. His moment of indecision would be punished, and would lead to his shock resignation just a few days later.
The floodlights were blaring down on the 22 men on the pitch, the ceaseless roars of the crowd ringing in their ears. Liverpool had just six minutes left to hang on, Everton were struggling to fashion an opening. A long throw had led to nothing, and Molby saw fit to play the ball back to Grobbelaar. But it was underhit, and Cottee pounced. He did not need two touches. The first, slotted under the goalkeeper’s body and into the Gwladys Street net, was enough.
“The roof came off that night”, Cottee would say later. It was thanks to the striker, who had hit an unlikely brace, that the biggest explosion of noise of the night met the eighth goal of a pulsating Cup tie. “Merseyside derbies should come with a government health warning” quipped the Echo’s Ric George.
It was all too much for a despondent Dalglish, still suffering from the strain of the Hillsborough fallout. To wide shock and sympathy, the Scot resigned before the second replay. The tie would be settled by just the one goal, provided by Dave Watson. After 300 minutes of exhausting derby drama, Everton were through.
They then lost 2-1 to West Ham in the next round. Obviously. At least memories of one of the most incredible nights in the history of a grand rivalry would linger on.