Football: Resurgent Everton shed blood, sweat and relegation fears

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The Independent Online
According to Goodison Park's management duo of Howard Kendall and Adrian Heath, the club's return to form is all due to confidence.

After months of doom and gloom at Goodison Park, the back-page lead in Merseyside's morning newspaper reflects the upbeat mood enveloping Everton. But while Howard Kendall's manager of the month award may be the only thing they win all season, Adrian Heath is not reading too much into it.

Heath is in no doubt that Kendall richly deserves the honour. It is just that under the football sub-section of sod's law, its recipients customarily come a cropper in their next match. Although there are few clubs where the past has a more evocative presence, this is one tradition which Everton's managerial duo are anxious not to uphold today.

Victory at Barnsley would plump up a nine-point cushion between Everton and the bottom side; defeat would erode their position dangerously. Kendall, 51, is too canny for what he calls "all that stuff about a game we can't afford to lose", yet is acutely aware of the stakes for which they are playing. As if to prove that none of Liverpool's great institutions is immune to collapse, the front of Heath's paper carries news of drastic redundancies at Vernons Pools.

When Kendall first came to Goodison as a player, in 1967, Everton were bankrolled by John Moores of Littlewoods Pools fame. By the time he returned as manager, 14 years later, funds were still plentiful enough for him to lavish a club-record pounds 700,000 on Heath.

The assistant manager, now 37, had been an apprentice at Stoke when they met. "Adrian was a 16-year-old cross-country runner and I was coming to the end of my playing career," Kendall recalled. "So this little fella, bombing around, embarrassed me a few times. He always had the enthusiasm. Now he's got the knowledge."

They have worked together five times, never more successfully than when Everton won two championships, one FA Cup and a European Cup-Winners' Cup in the mid-1980s. After they left, their hearts stayed behind. Last summer, Kendall forsook Sheffield United for a third spell in charge; Heath relinquished the top job at Burnley to join him.

In one critical sense, the Everton to which they returned was not the one they first knew. However wealthy the chairman, Peter Johnson, may or may not be, he is no Jack Walker. Despite the realisation that money is no longer no object - or maybe because of it - fans who saw Kendall's appointment as a retrograde step now inundate local radio phone-ins to admit they were wrong.

The shift in public opinion is remarkable given that Everton propped up the Premiership as recently as mid-December. When they won at Leicester with a late penalty - their first away win in 12 months - there was an understandable temptation to invest the moment with the symbolism of Heath's fabled equaliser at Oxford 14 years earlier. That goal reputedly transformed a blue period into a golden era.

"With respect to Adrian, you don't suddenly have a very good side because you've drawn one particular game at Oxford," Kendall says. "We don't suddenly have a side who shouldn't be struggling because we won at Leicester. The real value was the boost to confidence. You should have seen the dressing- room afterwards."

Heath had seen it coming for three or four away matches. "We'd had a good goal ruled out at Villa, missed a penalty that would have won it at Leeds and led Blackburn 2-1 with nine minutes left. It wasn't as if we were getting steamrollered."

The lowest point for Kendall came in October, a 4-1 capitulation at Coventry in the Coca-Cola Cup which prompted him to go on the pitch to show his displeasure. "It was the manner in which we lost that was unacceptable," he explains.

Heath cites defeat at Manchester United, 2-0 going on 10-0, as another chastening experience. "It's hard enough going there with your strongest XI, but we had several kids in. When they scored early on I thought: `Oh no, here we go'."

In between those setbacks, Everton hit rock bottom. "In hindsight, it was a blessing," Kendall says. "If you're fourth bottom, no one ever believes you'll go down. That shocked everyone, made it sink in."

Even though the club have endured frequent scrapes with relegation in recent years, Kendall's latest reign is inevitably compared with his first. "I want to be judged as a newcomer," he insists. "Management isn't about months, or at least it shouldn't be. It's about building something."

The players who have emerged as cornerstones of the reconstruction are a surprising bunch. Who would have imagined, for instance, that Duncan Ferguson could don Peter Reid's former mantle as captain? In what Heath terms "a masterstroke, typical of his man management", Kendall did.

This, remember, is the striker who attracted the nickname "Duncan Disorderly" and went to prison for butting an opponent. Now he is to marry John Parrott's sister-in-law and is finally showing a sense of responsibility on the park.

Heath describes him as "a true Evertonian". Kendall, who admits the Scot was "fairly ineffective" early in the season, regards his form as "awesome" since the Frenchman Mickael Madar arrived to partner him.

Then there is Nick Barmby, widely written off as another expensive underachiever. Next Tuesday he plays for England B, having caught Glenn Hoddle's eye as a deep-lying attacker. "The graft he puts in in training is incredible," Heath says. "He's turned the situation round himself."

Whereas Ferguson and Barmby cost the previous regime nearly pounds 10m, Kendall has been outspent even by Barnsley. Some supporters claim he was duped into believing Everton would be able to compete for the best. He sums up the situation more diplomatically: "The fans wanted big names, pounds 5m players coming in. We did try for an Ince and a Ravanelli, but it didn't work out."

But, as he points out, the bulk of his most successful side were picked up for comparative peanuts in the lower divisions. He sees Carl Tiler as a modern equivalent. His signing from Sheffield United in November was perceived as proof of Everton's lack of ambition. The critics quickly came round.

Recruiting a young, unknown Norwegian, Thomas Myhre, to replace a legend, Neville Southall, was another example of Kendall having the courage to back his judgement. (At the same time, Liverpool bought Brad Friedel to take over from David James but have not bitten the bullet).

He also sold the one Everton man in Hoddle's squad, Andy Hinchcliffe, confident that one of several outstanding teenagers, Michael Ball, will play for England eventually. And when Gary Speed withdrew his labour, after having his head turned by Newcastle, Kendall used the situation to his advantage by confirming the popular Ferguson as acting captain.

With the club's overdraft reportedly running at pounds 12m, it remains to be seen how much of the Hinchcliffe and Speed fees Kendall is allowed to reinvest. In the meantime, he and Heath will continue to impart their passion for Everton to a new generation of players. This is a cause, the junior partner asserts, for which they are ready to sweat blood. No one should doubt that it would be blue.