Kendall’s Calling: Everton’s Last League Winners
When Everton were crowned champions in May 1987 they could rightfully claim to be the best team in the country for the second time in just three seasons; but who would have believed that this would be the club’s last title for another three decades - and counting?
Back then the average house price was around £40,000, Madonna topped the music charts on both sides of the Atlantic and Three Men and a Baby was on its way to becoming the highest grossing film at the box office; and when it came to football, Merseyside dominated.
Between them, Liverpool and Everton had shared most of the spoils in the 1980s. The Blues, under Manager Howard Kendall, had won the FA Cup in 1984 as well as a League and European Cup Winners’ Cup double in 1985; narrowly missing out on what would have been an unprecedented treble when they lost the FA Cup final to Manchester United.
Meanwhile, the Reds, under new player-boss Kenny Dalglish, won their first league and cup double just 12 months later to add to the three consecutive titles that were accumulated earlier in the decade, not to mention two European Cup wins.
To add to the drama, Kendall’s men had relinquished a huge lead to their neighbours and foes across Stanley Park in the closing stages of the previous season as Liverpool took their chance of glory with both hands after a tremendous run that spring.
For Evertonians the 1984/5 season would take some beating though. They had won the league with games to spare, amassed 90 points and scored 88 goals while remaining undefeated from Christmas to mid-May – a run of 28 games and that’s before they beat Rapid Vienna in Rotterdam to ensure European glory for the first time.
However, there is an argument that their title win of 1987 was actually more of an achievement as, unlike the swashbuckling style they had adopted two years earlier, this time they relied on a more pragmatic, functional and rigid approach that was required to meet the challenges they now faced.
Going into the 1986/87 season Everton were without the lethal Gary Lineker, who had scored 40 times the previous campaign before joining Terry Venables’ Barcelona and were also missing the goals of Andy Gray, who had been key in their ’85 success before moving on.
But the change of personnel had brought with it a different approach and rather than playing a more direct style that suited Lineker’s pace and accuracy, they now utilised a more workmanlike, yet just as effective, group of players as manager Howard Kendall reshuffled his pack like a croupier in a casino.
Trevor Steven topped the scoring charts in the league, while Kevin Sheedy and Adrian Heath followed close behind along with notable contributions from Gary Stevens, Dave Watson and Paul Power in the absence of the injured Graeme Sharp. They scored 76 goals that campaign, four more than Liverpool and eight more than Spurs; whose Clive Allen chipped-in with 33 alone.
Although the two Merseyside teams would eventually finish first and second there were other contenders that season too. Nottingham Forest looked a potential threat and played some superb football, while Arsenal had topped the League from mid-November to the New Year and Tottenham had the talent to mount a serious challenge for the first time since their double of 1961.
Despite injuries to Paul Bracewell, Pat Van den Hauwe, Gary Stevens and Derek Mountfield, Everton remained unbeaten until late September, but the large number of draws that punctuated that run meant that they were only ever seen by many onlookers outside of Goodison Park as having a slim chance of winning the league.
But as so often it was the Christmas period that proved to be key as six wins out of seven during the festive spell set Kendall’s men on their way to a title charge and propelled them into second place behind Arsenal.
As well as a good run of form Everton had also welcomed back a number of their ranks from injury just in time for the run-in which set-up a titanic tussle with neighbours Liverpool as spring arrived.
Between Boxing Day and March, Liverpool amassed 32 points out of 36 with 10 wins and two draws; but a tiring Littlewoods Cup campaign and a number of crucial absentees soon took its toll on the men from Anfield.
Liverpool held a healthy lead over Everton at the top of the First Division come mid-March and looked certain to make it back-to-back titles, but a run of seven straight wins put Everton back in the driving seat at the most vital time while breaking their rivals’ resolve in the process.
Come April and Everton were now out on their own and even had the opportunity to clinch the title just across Stanley Park. However, despite a blistering strike from Kevin Sheedy, the Reds staved off the ignominy of their rivals being crowned champions in their back yard with a 3-1 victory, but it was only a matter of time.
A home draw with Manchester City delayed the inevitable before a Pat Van den Hauwe goal saw them win 1-0 at Norwich on May 4th and with two games remaining the title was Goodison bound, where it has not returned since.
Kendall and his assistant Colin Harvey had shown that the art of good management is exactly that, doing whatever they can when the team is hit by injuries, plugging the gaps while making signings that fit easily into the system and still maintaining a high level of performance.
And that’s why the league title triumph of 1987, Everton’s last to date, is still looked upon by some as one of Howard Kendall’s, if not the club’s, greatest achievements.