Today marks what should be a much more significant event for Everton than history allows. A day when the side on the pitch put aside off-field turmoil, proved a country full of doubters wrong, and rose to a peak not achieved by the club in the 15 years since. Just how do you go from being tipped for relegation to securing a place in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League in mere months? It’s an achievement seldom few clubs have managed in the Premier League. Leicester City’s incredible accomplishment in 2016 is the one that of course springs to the forefront of thinking when it comes to this particular category. But, 11 years previously, Everton were the side raising collective eyebrows with their dogged displays and ruthless desire to acquire points.
They might not have had the money, the technique or the star power as many other clubs in the division at the time – but they found a way to emphatically shove all of those perceived disadvantages to one side. And, on this day 15 years ago, Blues supporters were brought within touching distance of a concept that once seemed beyond even a pipe dream. Of course, the 2-0 win over Newcastle on 7 May 2005 isn’t remembered as fondly as it should be – and there’s a huge Pierluigi Collina-shaped explanation behind that. In some ways, it serves as a painful reminder more than a happy occasion to reminisce on.
On the day itself, however, there was no focus on any bad experiences that may lie ahead in the future. Evertonians were left to revel in their highest league finish in 17 years and were dreaming of a first appearance in Europe’s elite competition for a generation. And, in true Everton fashion, the road to get there was not an easy one in the slightest.
Summer of woe
The turmoil the club found itself in at the beginning of the campaign shouldn’t be underestimated. Many were tipping Everton for relegation after only escaping the drop by six points in the previous term. Even Tomasz Radziński, who left to join Fulham that summer, was initially preparing for a fight at the lower end of the table.
Tomasz Radziński said: “I hope Wayne Rooney goes somewhere where he can improve and grow as a player. Sadly, I don’t think that is Everton. I don’t think this club is a good place to be at the moment because we will be fighting another relegation battle next season.”
Of course, what he’s referring to is Manchester United’s interest in his teammate. The 18-year-old had truly burst onto the international scene in the European Championships that summer and there was no secret in the Red Devils’ interest. Rooney made the switch to Old Trafford at the end of August after a protracted saga, too late to bring in a replacement in the summer transfer window. James Beattie was eventually added the following January. And, even before the teenager was finally sold, the Blues boardroom already found itself at loggerheads.
Six weeks into his job as chief executive Trevor Birch resigned with “civil war”, as one report described it, breaking out in Everton’s hierarchy – namely between Bill Kenwright and Paul Gregg over the potential of outside investment.
Trevor Birch said “I hope the other shareholders recognise the urgency of the situation; we need to attract new investors as quickly as possible.”
The pair were founder members of True Blue Holdings when it took control of the club in 1998 and their disagreement would become the focus of the summer aside from the Rooney saga. While the squad will have ultimately tried not to let matters higher up affect their pre-season preparations, there was the clear evidence it was taking its toll – not least in a 2-1 loss to Crewe in July 2004. Banners were on display in the Everton end including one reading “From John Moores to Death’s Doors, 125 years”, and other which quipped “The People’s Club ask what happened to Once a Blue, Always a Blue Rooney?”.
With many players finding the exit door and only three coming in at Goodison Park over the summer, many predicted the term could end in disaster. How wrong that would prove to be, although a 4-1 defeat to Arsenal at home on the opening day of the campaign might not have made that immediately apparent. From that point on right up until Boxing Day, the Blues lost just twice in the league, and established themselves as the masters of winning by a one-goal margin. Of the 18 matches Everton won throughout 2004/05 in the Premier League, only four were by a margin of more than one strike. Half of the victories were achieved through a 1-0 scoreline.
David Moyes’s astute work in the transfer window to bring Marcus Bent and Tim Cahill to the club was crucial, while the loss of Thomas Gravesen in winter was perfectly offset by the loan arrival of Mikel Arteta. The rest of the squad stepped up in a way no-one could have expected and, by the time Newcastle visited Goodison Park in May, the Blues knew that a victory would put them within touching distance of a dream which seemed completely unbelievable amid the turmoil of the summer.
Delirium at Goodison
As you might have expected with Everton, they didn’t do things the easy way when their biggest fixture of the season reared up. Newcastle opted to leave Alan Shearer on the bench, with the Premier League’s eventual leading goalscorer of all time having not found the back of the net in his last ten outings. Perhaps that decision became one of the key points of this fixture. The visitors dominated the first half after Arteta saw an early free kick tipped over the bar by Shay Given. On another day, they could have raced into a two or three goal lead. Poor control let down Darren Ambrose when he raced through on goal, an under-achieving Patrick Kluivert somehow headed wide from close range and Nigel Martyn produced a great save to deny James Milner opening the scoring. Newcastle were the ones turning the screw, but Everton were the side who struck at an opportune moment – as they had been doing throughout the campaign up until that stage. Bent won a free kick for the hosts two minutes before half time which would incense the travelling supporters, and their feelings were only made much worse seconds later. Arteta produced a fine ball into the box, David Weir was left unmarked at the back post and the most unlikely of scorers sent Goodison Park into bedlam. As moments to score go, it doesn’t get much better than that – and Moyes’s side made sure they took full advantage in the second half. Shola Ameobi aided the situation by being sent off just 12 minutes after the restart for lashing out at Cahill, but the Australian didn’t let the situation affect him. Moments later, what seemed to be a skewed shot from Arteta found Cahill just onside and bearing down on goal – and he promptly smashed his effort into the top corner from close range, sending Given the wrong way in the process. If the scenes for Weir’s goal in the first half were bedlam, the sight inside Goodison Park’s stands for the second strike of the afternoon were pure carnage. Let’s not forget this was a set of supporters with, unfortunately, seldom little to celebrate for such a long time. The last trophy success was 10 years ago, it had been seven more since a league performance such as this one.
The prize of Champions League football at the end of it for the first time was all too precious, and everyone inside the stadium knew it. The feeling was that the Blues could be taken to new heights with a fourth place finish. Victory put Everton within a point of securing that ambition with two games left to play – and that was only required if Liverpool were to win all of their trio of matches to complete the term. The next day, Rafael Benitez’s side were beaten 3-1 by Arsenal. But it was as if supporters at Goodison 24 hours previously already knew that was going to happen.
After fourth place was confirmed, David Moyes said “To take a team from 17th to the Champions League is incredible. It’s the greatest achievement of my managerial career. There was an awful lot of confidence coming out of Liverpool saying they’d catch us and that they were the best team in the city but there was never any pressure on us. Very few people would have thought we’d be in this position and, to be honest, the best we hoped for was mid-table. But I relish the challenge of building on this and so do the lads.”
As the manager said, that feeling was pertinent in the squad as well. The underdog attitude is an infectious one – it gripped the supporters quickly and the players clearly bought into the mindset that they could take on anyone, no matter how big the perceived gulf in quality.
Kevin Kilbane said: “We have been mocked by teams up and down the country. But we’ve proved a lot of people wrong. A lot of European teams won’t fancy coming here.”
He’s right, they wouldn’t have fancied it at all. But that was snatched away.
What might have been
Evertonians hardly need reminding of their all too brief jaunt in the Champions League. As if getting the tough draw of Villarreal wasn’t bad enough, the controversy that followed in the second leg thanks to Collina and a disallowed Duncan Ferguson still hurts to this day.
James McFadden recently admitted: “Just the way it was done, there’s something wrong. I think Collina retired two days later, never refereed again. That just added to the feeling of injustice. After such a high of the season before, we knew it was a tough draw, but we went in and more than played our part. Just to take them to extra time would have given us a chance. It would have set us up for the season, because it was a big scalp to take for us. The feeling of total injustice, Alan [Irvine] was usually angry at us but it wasn’t the players he was angry at this time! I still can’t figure out what happened.”
The former Everton man has touched upon the biggest shame of this tale. The battle against the odds – defying boardroom turmoil, predictions of relegation and countless other obstacles – will always have that cloud hanging over it. Looking back at the club’s 2-0 win over Newcastle on this day should have been a joyous occasion, but the memories of a controversial Champions League exit in the qualifying round always rears its head. This is a win that deserves to be remembered. A story that deserves to be told. Maybe that won’t be an option until Everton find success again though. For now, it serves as a painful reminder of what could have been.