1996 was the light at the end of a long tunnel for Everton. The preceding year had brought the end of the cup drought (and the start of a worse one), but it had come amid a season of struggle – something which had become the norm. Joe Royle’s revolution came to fruition in the next campaign. Everton came sixth in 95/96, unheard of since the advent of the Premier League, and started the 96/97 season in good form. When Southampton came to town in the middle of November, they faced a side who had only suffered six league defeats in the calendar year. They would leave with their tails firmly between their legs, having suffered a battering. The humiliation inflicted on the Saints, on a par with Graeme Souness picking up the phone and saying “George Weah’s cousin, you say? Sounds promising,” became Everton’s best ever Premier League win. It is now joint-best, along with the 2007 pounding of Sunderland.
Bar a shock League Cup exit at the hands of York City and a 4-0 drubbing away to Wimbledon, the season was going well for Royle and his charges. Three summer signings had settled in fairly well: the future was ahead of Oldham youngster Paul Gerrard; England international Nick Barmby had made his first appearance and started on the road to 116 Everton appearances before sealing his name in infamy; and Gary Speed had swiftly endeared himself to the Goodison crowd. The latter pair would both enjoy the demolition job on the Saints.
It is bizarre to think Southampton would finish just one point and one place behind Everton, given the start the two sides made. Souness’ south coast side actually came into the Goodison encounter in a rare spot of good form, having gone unbeaten for eight games in all competitions – their best run in a decade. That included 3-0 and 4-0 wins over Sunderland and Middlesbrough, as well as a remarkable 6-3 thrashing of Manchester United. Everton were on a five-match unbeaten streak of their own, though, and fancied their chances at Goodison.
It was 25 years to the week since Royle had scored four in an 8-0 hiding of Southampton; the Everton icon was to enjoy another comprehensive win from his seat in the dugout. A minute’s silence to Blues great Tommy Lawton was followed by the perfect tribute, a masterclass in scoring goals. It took 12 minutes for the floodgates to finally open. Barmby whipped in a cross from the right that evaded Andrei Kanchelskis but found Graham Stuart, who had the simple task of knocking the ball into Chris Woods’ unguarded net.
22 minutes later, it was 5-0. Tony Grant played a big part in the second goal, his determination giving Stuart the chance to tee up Kanchelskis. The talented Russian cut inside before firing into the far corner. On the half-hour mark, a weak kick from Woods could only find Speed. The Welshman played a one-two with Barmby, sauntered through as the Southampton defence dissolved, and his effort whizzed past the Saints keeper. Two minutes later, the same pair combined again. Barmby flicked the ball onto the six-yard line and Speed arrived with a diving header that compounded Southampton’s misery. This is Nineties Everton, remember, and no vintage performance would be complete without a beautiful Andy Hinchcliffe assist. His cross was superb, Kanchelskis’ header was weak, but Woods had already collapsed to the ground by the time the ball had reached him, and it spun into the net.
When a sixth goal arrived, it was Southampton who got it. A neat through ball was met by summer signing Egil Ostenstad, and while this sort of display was not what he signed up for, the Norwegian’s fine finish at least provided some consolation. At the break, Royle dished out the ultimate humiliation, by swapping his goalkeepers. A bored Neville Southall sloped off to sit back and relax – do you think he noticed the difference? Gerrard was brought on to take in the jubilant second-half atmosphere. Duncan Ferguson, normally Everton’s attacking spearhead, was left on the bench to watch as his team-mates helped themselves to goals.
Barmby was next to add his name to the list. Kanchelskis slid the ball across the face of goal, and the former Middlesbrough man arrived to tuck home a much-deserved goal in front of the Gwladys Street. The cake was baked and iced, and merely required a cherry on top. Gary Speed’s hat-trick goal was that cherry. Hinchcliffe’s corner was swung in to the back post, and the flying Welshman arrived to head home, taking in the ovation of the giddy Goodison crowd.
“I was a bit disappointed by their one goal”, Royle smirked afterwards. Everton were lifted to eighth, then moving up to seventh after a 1-1 midweek draw at Anfield, and then sixth the next weekend thanks to victory over Leicester. That was, sadly, as good as it got. A run of six straight defeats that started on Boxing Day precipitated a slide down the table. Kanchelskis was a Fiorentina player before the season’s end; Royle was unemployed, having quit in frustration after Peter Johnson refused to stump up for Tore Andre Flo, Claus Eftevaag and Barry Horne. 15th place was a disappointment after the 1995/96 season, but it would hardly get better until the arrival of David Moyes. There was plenty to enjoy about 1996, though, not least a fine afternoon when everything clicked, and Southampton were absolutely Dia.