It is probably impossible to regret winning the FA Cup, but if anybody has come close, it's former Everton manager Joe Royle. When his side lifted the trophy in 1995, it was just a couple of weeks after it survived relegation from the top flight, and just six months from what was until now (apologies, fans of winless Queens Park Rangers) the worst start to a Premier League season.
"It seems to me that the story of our great escape (in 1995) is all but wiped from people's memories," he wrote in his 2005 autobiography, the foreword for which was penned by Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, the losing manager at Wembley in 1995. "I suspect that the glamour of the Cup took the shine off what was really our No.1 achievement."
It had taken a miracle to keep Everton from relegation at the end of the 1993-94 season: down 2-0 against Wimbledon -- with only 20 minutes played -- on the final day of the season, the Toffees were toast. A penalty, an unlikely long-range swerver from Barry Horne, and an 81st-minute strike from Graham Stuart that should never have squirmed beyond Hans Segers gave Everton the points, and survival. There were allegations of match fixing, but those in the crowd who had gone hoarse urging their side on preferred to believe that some kind of divine logic had prevailed.
The manager, Mike Walker, had taken over in January 1994 following Howard Kendall's resignation after the board scuppered his move for United forward Dion Dublin. After the club's skin-of-the-teeth survival, new chairman Peter Johnson said £10 million would be available for transfers, but the effect of his offer was to inflate the prices for much-needed targets. Norwich City asked for £5 million for striker Chris Sutton, and Walker balked at splashing half his spending on one player.
"In principle, few would argue," said the Times' season preview. "In practice, Everton's supporters may not agree if their side is again left facing a struggle at the wrong end of the table while Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers turn their vast resources into success on the field."
Walker was nothing if not confident, however. Everton had been fined £75,000 for poaching him from Norwich, where he had lifted the club to third and taken it on a UEFA Cup run that included a win over Bayern Munich. He was cocksure, and those who questioned him were "clever dicks." The Everton manager signed three players before the 1994-95 season: Brett Angell (the striker's loan deal was made permanent), Arsenal winger Anders Limpar (gladly sold for £1.6 million by George Graham) and the midfielder Vinny Samways, a £2 million signing from Tottenham. Even without the quantity and quality signings expected, Walker insisted there was confidence enough to carry Everton into the new season.
"Confidence alone is worth 15 to 20 points a season," he said.
How he must have wished he could have cashed them in, because it took Everton until round 13 to register a win. Until now, when Queens Park Rangers are winless in 14 matches, this was the worst start to a Premier League campaign.
The 1994-95 season began with a 2-2 draw with Aston Villa at Goodison Park, a game in which Everton was barely transformed from the side that had limped over the line in May. "For a while here," said the Guardian's match report, "it was possible to close your eyes and make-believe the summer had never happened." Four days later came a trip to White Hart Lane and a 2-1 defeat to a Spurs side led by £2 million signing Jurgen Klinsmann; three days after that came a thumping 4-0 defeat to Manchester City. All of the goals came in the second half, Uwe Rosler's late lob rounding things off in cruelly elegant fashion. Everton "were terrible, a disgrace," wrote the Daily Mail.
In an attempt to improve the frontline, Walker arranged the £3 million transfer of Daniel Amokachi, who had impressed while playing for Nigeria at the 1994 World Cup. He described watching videos of Everton as a boy, in the 1980s:
"They were the top team then, but I know that over the last few years they haven't done that well," Amokachi said.
Amokachi was still waiting for his work permit when Nottingham Forest came to Goodison and beat Everton 2-1, and now he watched his new teammates booed off the pitch. During the international break, Tony Cottee moved to West Ham United in a swap deal involving left back David Burrows. "It's no secret we have to tighten up at the back," said Walker, with Everton having conceded 10 goals in the opening four games. Even QPR took five to reach the same goals against tally this season.
Things did not improve when the domestic calendar returned, though, with Alan Shearer running riot at Ewood Park. He scored twice and set up another in a 3-0 win for Blackburn. By now -- mid-September -- Everton seemed to wear permanently flushed cheeks. A much-vaunted move for Brazilian Muller fell through when it became clear that neither party wanted to pay the tax due on the player's proposed £10,000 a week wage. Paul Kitson opted for Newcastle United rather than Everton, and Reading would not even consider selling goalkeeper Shaka Hislop. Questions were being asked about Walker with increasing regularity and a growing sense of urgency. Why had he not shored things up?
"I know we have conceded some stupid goals this season," Walker said, but he insisted the problems were up front. Despicably, goalkeeper Neville Southall had received a letter threatening that he would be the victim of a firebomb. "I still feel he's saving more games than he's costing us." Walker asked for patience in the same way that parents demand it of children grabbing for sweets.
The table started to look really ominous Sept. 17, when a 2-2 draw with QPR, combined with results elsewhere, left Everton two points adrift of the rest of the Premiership table. It was an encouraging debut for Amokachi, but both of Les Ferdinand's goals took advantage of defensive weaknesses. Everton's backline virtually stood and watched Ian Holloway's chipped pass loop over them before Ferdinand turned the ball beyond Southall. Now several newspapers speculated over who would replace Walker, with Ray Wilkins, Joe Royle, Peter Reid and Steve Coppell all getting mentions. The current manager had the backing of the majority of Everton fans, however, as they craved stability and, naturally, hoped to succeed playing the kind of soccer that Walker had been known for at Norwich. The kind of soccer for which Everton had been famed.
There was little sign of it as Leicester City, also struggling, arrived at Goodison Park and left with a point. Only an acrobatic display from Southall kept Everton in the game, despite the switch to a back five -- or what the Guardian called "a chronically dithering defence." "It worked brilliantly for him at Norwich," said the Daily Mail, but "he must know that he doesn't have the men to make it work now." He had also removed John Ebbrell and Joe Parkinson from the midfield, costing Everton considerable steel, and shifted Limpar to the reserves.
At the start of October came a week that many believed would make or break Walker's reign: Manchester United away, a league cup second-leg at Portsmouth and then a trip to Southampton. United labored hard in Europe a few days before the match and played against Everton as if the league was of no consequence, but with Amokachi alone up front (despite asking to play in support of the strikers, where he was far more comfortable), Everton could only trouble Peter Schmeichel from set pieces. "They could not have punched a hole in a wet Liverpool Echo," quipped the Independent. Walker angrily refused to answer questions about his formation, or his forwards.
At this point, Duncan Ferguson joined the club on loan from Rangers, along with Ian Durrant. Rumors -- swiftly denied -- went around that Durrant had failed a medical, and Everton had agreed to a one-month loan only to save face. Ferguson had a court case hanging over him and was keen to get away from Scotland and try and get people talking about his game again. Their arrival prompted a dreadful overuse of the phrase "the loan Rangers," but also some hope that Ferguson, at least, might have the same impact as fellow Scot Andy Gray had done, rescuing Everton in 1983-84. Everton drew 1-1 with Portsmouth and exited the cup. Ferguson injured his ankle. The decisive goal was scored through Southall's legs. Once the whistle was blown on a 2-0 defeat to Southampton, it had become Everton's worst ever start to a season.
Walker talked about Everton's problems as if they were somehow removed from him, even joking that if he had put the kit on, he would at least have "run around a kicked a few" Southampton players. No matter which newspaper you took, by that point in the season there was a tangible sense of disbelief that Walker had not been relieved of his duties. Everton was being linked with any and every defender and Paul Rideout, the forward who was being played in the reserves instead of just ahead of Amokachi, put in a transfer request. Coventry visited Goodison Park and won 2-0; a vocal group of fans chanted Walker's name anyway, but outside the ground later on, those fans who stayed behind added "Out!"
A week later Everton gave Crystal Palace their first home win of the season, Andy Preece heading the winner over a hesitant Southall. Peter Johnson's weekly vote of confidence began to sound a little less convincing: "It's not for the press to decide our new manager or to decide when he's going." Everton was so deep in the brown stuff that a draw with Arsenal did not alleviate the pressure; few doubted that had Ian Wright been fit, the Gunners would have scored more than once. "There's no way we are going to pack in," said a defiant Walker. "We might have one foot in the grave, but we are not dead yet." Instead, Tottenham manager Ossie Ardiles was the man to get the sack that week.
November brought a 1-0 win over West Ham and a goalless draw against Norwich, a turn up in results that seemed to brighten the skies over Merseyside, even as everyone acknowledged that performances were not much improved.
"If ever a crowd willed a team to victory it was this one," said the Times, suggesting that the prayers of the fans had kept the ball out of Southall's net. Norwich was badly hit by injuries, but Everton failed to take advantage. Three days later, Walker was sacked.
"This decision has been taken after careful consideration and having regard to the club's playing record over the past 35 games," read a statement. Walker had barely managed a handful of victories in that time.
"I'm disappointed that I'm not going to be around to see it when it turns around," said the departing manager. "I think the chairman realized that if we went and beat Liverpool he wouldn't be able to get rid of me for some time."
Nobody really believed that Everton would beat Liverpool, though. During the draw with QPR earlier in the season, one fan had been overhead saying, "Oh God, I don't think I can bear to be here for the derby. I'll have to avoid Liverpool fans for weeks."
There was an international break before then. Everton took only two days to appoint the new manager -- not Ron Atkinson, as the bookies had suggested, but Royle. He had made his playing debut for Everton at 16 and gone on to score more than 100 goals for the club. When Everton won the title in 1970, Royle was the top scorer with 23 league goals.
"Joe would fight for any club," said Johnson, "but would die for this one."
The derby would be on television, on a Monday evening. As it turned out, it was also the day after Duncan Ferguson was stopped for drunk driving. Viewers watched as Ferguson scored the opener and set up a second, watched as the fans mobbed him at the final whistle.
"He went to war in many ways," said Royle, "and showed all the aggression we know he has, allied to his ability." War would be a term that came to define Royle's spell in charge of Everton. "What we need is a 'dogs of war' mentality," he told a local radio station. The nickname stuck.
The key difference between Royle's Everton and Walker's was their style. Walker had signed Vinny Samways to orchestrate an attractive passing game from central midfield, but Everton rarely had the luxury of orchestrating anything except its own demise. After his Southampton side had beaten Everton 2-0, Alan Ball was asked what advice he might give his former team.
"The most important thing is to die for the cause, to try to win games not trying to be pretty," he said.
It was Royle who heeded his words, installing a midfield four of Andy Hinchcliffe, Ebbrell, Parkinson and Horne. They do not come much more defensive.
"I was happy in the knowledge that, by reinstating lads like Ebbrell and Parkinson, I was reintroducing true Evertonians to the cause," Royle wrote in his autobiography.
An injury to Matt Jackson had actually forced the manager to bring Paul Rideout on at halftime against Liverpool, moving Amokachi back into his favored deeper role. Everton was on a roll, beating Chelsea and Leeds before drawing with Aston Villa and Spurs to move off the bottom of the table.
When the teams met in February 1995, Royle said that Manchester United was "capable of doing the double double," defending the league title and the FA Cup. Instead his side -- more Bash Street Kids than the School of Science, as the Observer put it -- foiled both. United arrived at Goodison unbeaten in 13 and seemingly unaffected by the loss of Eric Cantona following his attack on a fan at Selhurt Park, but Everton bounced back from defeat by Leeds to win 1-0. Alex Ferguson lined his team up for a battle, dropping the influential Andrei Kanchelskis and filling up the midfield, but United were outmuscled nonetheless. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister did not know what to do with Duncan Ferguson.
And United paid a higher price, even though title rivals Blackburn failed to capitalize, by drawing with Norwich; Kanchelskis was furious, and demanded a move. Ferguson's response was predictable.
"Nobody is bigger than the club," he said.
A disillusioned Kanchelskis faded from view, preferring to play for Russia than for his club. United suffered for his absence, struggling for inspiration in several costly games and losing the league to Blackburn. Ferguson's team then lost the FA Cup after another 1-0 defeat by Everton, which thus gained entry to the Cup Winners' Cup. Limpar's contribution was decisive, setting up Rideout's goal; Southall was brilliant to preserve the score line. The match turned the season perfectly on its head.