Every team needs that one victory that gives them belief and makes them feel like they belong. For England’s rugby union team, the backs-to-the-wall win in New Zealand in June 2003 was a vital step along the path to World Cup glory. In 2005, England’s cricket team pulled off a nail-biting victory at Edgbaston that saved a summer and set them on their way to winning the Ashes.
Football has produced a few examples of this: Manchester United edging past Sheffield Wednesday during Fergie Time in 1993, Arsenal winning at the same ground in 1998, and Chelsea finally defeating Arsenal in the Champions League quarter-final in 2004.
Everton had one psychological hurdle they had to clear at the start of the 1984-85 season. Howard Kendall’s team had won the FA Cup and reached the Milk Cup final earlier that year, but there was one club that had to be toppled in the league: Liverpool, the champions of England and Europe.
Joe Fagan had lost his influential skipper Graeme Souness, who moved to Sampdoria that summer, but Liverpool were undoubtedly title favourites. They were going for their fourth championship in a row and many teams looked beaten before they had even taken to the pitch. Everton were not alone in living in the shadow of their local rivals.
Winning the Charity Shield against Liverpool provided encouragement for the season ahead. New signing Paul Bracewell slotted in effortlessly next to Peter Reid, and the Gary Stevens/Trevor Steven axis on Everton’s right flank continued to bloom. Graeme Sharp provided the only goal of the game at Wembley – via Alan Hansen and Bruce Grobbelaar. Any goal against Liverpool that secures a trophy is important but it was not as significant as the next time a Sharp effort found its way past Grobbelaar.
Everton went into the 1984-85 season in high spirits but were stopped in their tracks immediately. Kendall’s men were hammered 4-1 at Goodison against Tottenham in their first game of the campaign before suffering a 2-1 defeat at West Brom in their second. A 1-0 win on a Friday night at Stamford Bridge got the ball rolling, and an unbeaten run in September – including a crazy 5-4 win at Watford – pushed Everton towards the top of the table. Then they lost at Arsenal. One step forward, one step back.
After 10 games, they had won five. Then, on 20 October 1984, came their trip to Anfield. It was daunting for Evertonians. Everton had not won a league match against Liverpool since 1978 and they had not won at Anfield since 1970 – the last year they had won the title.
“Liverpool had had a bad start to the season,” Neville Southall explains in his autobiography The Binman Chronicles. “But even though we – as a team – knew we were as good as them, for the fans there was still a hoodoo. They were our nemesis.” The players believed, but they needed to win at Anfield to convince their fans.
The news that Ian Rush would be fit for the game after a seven-week layoff was a concern for Evertonians. Rush had scored seven goals in six matches against Everton so, when he raced through on goal in the first half at Anfield, the away contingent must have been waiting for the inevitable. Not for the first time that season, Southall came to the rescue. Aside from that one chance, Everton were bossing proceedings, with Reid dominant in midfield and Grobbelaar the busier of the keepers.
Three minutes into the second half, the moment arrived for Everton. Sharp had hardly been enjoying his football. He had been dropped after scoring the winner in a league match against Coventry and had rowed with Kendall about it, even handing in a transfer request. He had been left out of the FA Cup semi-final the previous season and it looked increasingly likely that he would leave the club.
Coventry made an enquiry that was rejected and eventually the 24-year-old regained his place in the team. Their relationship remained strained, however, with Sharp revealing in his autobiography that he was never fully convinced Kendall rated him as a player. Surely this was not the case.
The goal was memorable for so many reasons. Obviously the sheer brilliance of Sharp’s strike makes it stand out, but its importance and the celebrations that followed combine to make it a pivotal moment in 1980s football. As Stevens played the ball up to Sharp, all of this seemed unlikely. “My first touch was good,” wrote Sharp in his autobiography Sharpy. “I knew straight away that I had two options: either I could push it forward and run or have a pop. Well, I knew that I was always going to be the second favourite in a sprint with Mark Lawrenson, so I had a quick glance and then smacked it.”
Smack it he did. After cushioning the ball with his left foot to take the ball away from Lawrenson, Sharp hit a dipping right foot shot over a cap-wearing Grobbelaar, before flying through the air in celebration. “What a fantastic goal,” yelled John Motson in commentary. “An unbelievable finish from Graeme Sharp. And the Evertonians have gone berserk.”
Sharp ran to the touchline in celebration and some Everton fans joined the players in a bundle of happiness. “Everyone remembers the boy with the red hair and glasses who lost it completely and ran on to the pitch waving his arms aimlessly in the air,” recalled Sharp. The legend of Frank Willmitt – aka “Windmill Man” – was born.
Little did Liverpool know it, but their choice of football helped Sharp score. In those days, the home side could pick which ball to use and Liverpool went with the Adidas Tango. Kendall made sure his players trained with them in the build-up to the match and Sharp was a fan. “I loved them,” he wrote in his book. “They skidded off the turf perfectly and if you struck them right, they could swerve and move in the air.”
When the final whistle sounded, Everton fans mockingly chanted “going down” to their rivals, who had slumped to 17th in the table. Motson did not hold back in his summary, saying: “The balance of power may be shifting on Merseyside. Everton needed this result to prove it.”
Sharp agrees. “Beating them at Anfield gave us so much self-belief. We were already a confident bunch of footballers and we knew we were contenders, but that day stamped it on us. The Mersey balance of power had just swung our way and the rest of the country now knew it.”
Sharp’s goal deservedly won Match of the Day’s goal of the season award. But it was worth much more than that. “That was the one,” wrote Reid in his autobiography, Cheer Up Peter Reid. “That was the goal that shook the football world, the result that tipped Merseyside on its axis and underlined Everton’s status as the coming force.”
Everton beat Manchester United 5-0 the next weekend as they went on a run that only included two league defeats in seven months. By the time they beat Liverpool 1-0 again in their last home game of the season, they were champions. They have not done the league double over Liverpool since. Sometimes in football, one goal can change everything.