The climax to the end of the 1997/98 season was one which I will never forget for so many different reasons. A 4-0 defeat at champions-elect Arsenal had left the Blues in real danger of losing their impressive record of top-flight existence, in fact if Everton didn’t better Bolton Wanderers result on the last Sunday of the league season against Coventry, we would have been relegated for the first time since the 1950’s.
That prospect chilled the bones of not only the manager and players but the entire staff at Goodison Park and beyond. It was inconceivable and almost frightening to think of the ramifications that relegation would’ve brought, even today it scares me to think about what might have become of our great club had that situation occurred.
The Friday before the game, there was an FA Cup final build up feel to Bellefield; so much media interest, so much nervous tension and so much preparation to complete.
I had arranged to take a number of players up to Goodison Park to do interviews with the media, such was the intense interest around the game. Earlier that morning though, the press, television and radio had amassed in their numbers at the training ground to interview Howard Kendall.
The manager and I peered down from the window in the canteen at the great masses of reporters waiting, in those days we didn’t have the luxury of just one press conference, we did what we called one-to-ones for all the news outlets. I turned and said to Howard: “I think we should do one radio, one television and one press interview, this is ridiculous, you can’t do all these this morning separately”.
“Aye lad! Your right” proclaimed the Gaffer, “I’ll be here all morning, you tell them that’s what we’re doing”. That agreed we went downstairs and out into the cauldron of the press pack. I announced to them all my intentions, to the disgust of the waiting journalists!
“Howard” they pleaded, “Myers is saying we can’t do one-to-ones,” to which Howard replied with a confused stare in my direction “let them do the interviews lad,” completely ignoring our agreed plan and thus becoming the hero instantly, and in turn making me the villain of the moment. He was a genius with the media, that was his way of getting them on his side ahead of what would’ve been a difficult round of interviews. I of course didn’t mind being the bad boy if it meant an advantage for the club!
We got through the build up to the game and found ourselves at Goodison Park on matchday and you could feel the tension everywhere; in the street, in the lounges, in the tunnel, pretty much anywhere around the club!
Hardly anybody spoke to each other in the hours up to the game, everybody just had that look in their eyes; fear! I decided to stay away from the tunnel and try and avoid attention, the atmosphere around the place outside was toxic, the fans were not happy with the chairman, Peter Johnson, and no matter where you looked, people want to tell you.
In the build up there were apparently threats made against him and there was a police presence around the club as a precaution. I was summoned to the Chairman’s office at approx 3 o’clock (an hour before K.O.) One waiting for me was Peter, “What are we going to do about after the game” he enquired. The feeling around the place meant I suggested we did a pre-recorded interview which would be given to the media straight after the final whistle. I said we should do two versions, one if we stayed up and the other in the unthinkable event of the alternative happening. We recorded The two interviews and I have to say doing the one in the event we went down was quite upsetting for both myself and the chairman, it really was! I think I still have the cassette in my loft somewhere! However at the time it was the most sensible thing to do as feelings were running very high.
That over, the Chairman locked himself away in the relative safety of the boardroom and I returned downstairs as I had to read the teams out on the public address system. That was to prove more difficult than I had expected also! I read the Everton team out, and halfway through the Coventry team I noticed out of the corner of my eye Howard waving at me to come down and speak with him at the dugout. I promptly stopped reading between Dion Dublin’s name and went to find out what Howard’s trouble was.
“Look at the pitch” he screamed!
“What about it?” I replied.
“Look at the length of the grass, I’m just telling you now so people don’t accuse me of excuses after” he explained.
My stress levels got to me at this point, “I don’t drive the f#**#ing tractor” I shouted at Howard. I immediately regretted it and took my place at the microphone just as the referee blew the whistle to start the game.
The fans poured onto the Goodison Park pitch to “celebrate” but it was at that moment as I stood on the touchline trying to get the players off safely that what it meant to be an Evertonian was rammed home to me in a no nonsense fashion by a fan, grabbing me round the neck he screamed in my face:
“This isn’t Everton Alan” “This isn’t Everton!”
The game came and went in a flash, and thanks to Gareth Farrelly we stayed in the Premier League, with a little help from Chelsea of course. At the final whistle the place erupted into what I could only describe as bedlam. A perfect storm of tension, relief, joy and much anger. The fans poured onto the Goodison Park pitch to “celebrate” but it was at that moment as I stood on the touchline trying to get the players off safely that what it meant to be an Evertonian was rammed home to me in a no nonsense fashion by a fan, grabbing me round the neck he screamed in my face “This isn’t Everton Alan” “This isn’t Everton”
As quickly as he appeared he was gone, and I was then met with the vision of Thomas Myhre coming out of the crowd and asking me: “Did we stay up?”
“Do you think you’d be alive if we hadn’t?” I shouted back. He promptly turned and went back into the madness!
Later that evening and once things had died down we all gathered in Howard’s office to share a few drinks (ok more than a few). Howard, smoking the biggest cigar I’ve ever seen, called me over, sat me on his knee and said in an apologetic tone: “I’m sorry about having a go at you about the pitch lad”
I laughed, after all that had gone on, the gentleman that he was remembered that it was important to put that right, what a man and what a manager!
Pressure eh, who needs it!