Chris Smith takes a romantic look back at Everton 4-4 Liverpool: The end of an era enshrined in the best ever Merseyside derby…
The Premier League era has seen Everton and Liverpool vacate their seats at English football’s top table. A mere 18 months before its inauguration, however, the greatest Merseyside derby – a genuine highlight of English football – took place.
February 20, 1991, Goodison Park. An FA Cup fifth round replay. Eight goals, four equalisers, three braces, two legendary managers, and only one who remained for the second replay. Everton 4-4 Liverpool.
In the blue corner, Howard Kendall had returned and improved the Toffees with five wins in seven after Everton’s worst ever start under Colin Harvey. As for Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool, the wheels were coming off following a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal and cup replays against Second Division Brighton and Blackburn.
Liverpool’s 3-1 league win over Everton eight days earlier was a distant memory as they hung on in the cup. Gary Ablett’s stonewaller on Pat Nevin went unpunished in a bland 0-0 that bucked the trend of five previous derbies which bore 21 goals. But three minutes into the replay on a windy Wednesday at Goodison – when Peter Beardsley’s rasping drive ignited the contest – normal service resumed.
Neville Southall fumbled, Ian Rush advanced but a smothering save enabled Everton to counter. A switch of play, a superb Graeme Sharp dummy, and Ray Atteveld was away. Two cleared crosses later and John Barnes was back down the other end. Everton intercepted, lost it, intercepted, lost it again before Steve Nicol’s wayward volley finally allowed some respite. The atmosphere crackled; the derby had come to life.
After more thrilling end-to-end attacking, Kevin Ratcliffe presented Rush with a sitter having woefully misjudged an interception. With the era’s greatest keeper to beat, Rush deftly lifted it over Southall only for Andy Hinchcliffe to recover and flick the ball away. But it was straight back to Rush. His header allowed Beardsley to volley home. 0-1 at the interval, and time for Kendall to work his magic.
Even by his standards, this was impressive. Two minutes after the break, Everton surged, Hinchcliffe crossed and Sharp headed home. The crowd erupted in joy and relief, although almost immediately Jan Molby stung Southall’s palms from distance. Minutes later, Nevin missed a great chance, chipping over with only Bruce Grobbelaar to beat.
For the next passage of play, Everton were faster, tougher and full of belief – but inevitably their failure to convert cost them.
Once again Beardsley was the architect of their downfall. After ghosting unnoticed for what seemed like minutes, he picked up the ball centrally and drew it onto his left foot before unleashing a powerful drive into the top corner.
It was a crushing blow. Yet Everton were level in an instant. Mike Newell’s innocuous flick-on bamboozled Nicol and Grobbelaar to allow Sharp an easy second. 2-2. Surely now both managers would tighten up and give their defences time to breathe.
Four minutes later however, Liverpool were ahead once more. Rush, a boyhood Blue, notched his 24th goal in 28 derbies after the hosts gave Molby room from a short corner. Despair, elation, despair: it had been quite the six minutes for Everton.
The hosts had about 12 minutes to equalise. That they did so in the 89th minute was one of the mysteries of the evening because they hadn’t vaguely threatened Liverpool’s goal in the time in between. Everton looked shattered mentally and physically, but two substitutes combined to force extra-time.
Stuart McCall changed the game from the centre after coming on at half-time and did so definitively with an optimistic punt that left Tony Cottee – just three minutes into the action – 10 yards out with the goal gaping. Cottee finished calmly to leave the possibility of a quarter-final with his beloved West Ham open. Thirty more minutes of extra time would follow to the delight of every Evertonian and neutral.
Once again, understandably, Everton were gone. Desperate, tired crosses simply offered Liverpool a breather as Grobbelaar easily claimed the ball amid the frantic atmosphere. One man clearly of the mind-over-matter persuasion, however, was Southall – who was outstanding in extra-time. Two brilliant saves from Rush and Barry Venison headers kept Everton level.
Torturously for the ragged hosts, Barnes somehow upped his game, sprinting beyond opponents, and twisting in every direction. His stunning strike just before the midway point left Southall with no chance. Having hugged the touchline with great success all night, Barnes suddenly dipped inside and whipped one into the top corner.
That had to be it. Everton were dead and buried and they had already dug themselves out once. The fatigue was palpable and Liverpool looked capable of withstanding. The Blues had given their all but fallen behind four times. At some point, it had to be too big an ask. The soul was willing but the body incapable.
Then out of nowhere, with just three minutes to go, Molby played the ball back, Hysen missed it and Cottee was in. Before you could say you have got to be joking, he slammed the ball under Grobbelaar for the night’s third brace.
He could have even won it when the Liverpool keeper spilled a cross a minute later. There would be no hat-trick, full-time: 4-4.
Such was the drama of the contest, it did not end at the final whistle. Two days later, Dalglish resigned. Emotionally exhausted by the experience and aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy, and feeling his competitive spirit dimmed, he walked away leaving Ronnie Moran to preside over the second replay – which Everton won 1-0 – the day before his 57th birthday.
For both sides, it was the end of an era; a snapshot of English football preserved in one of its best ever derbies.
They play each other at Anfield on Saturday at 12.30pm
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