Football Commentary / Premiership Relegation Focus: Relieved Everton in need of money: Walker succeeds in his tiptoe along the tightrope but Bassett's heroics come to a brutal finish

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The Independent Online
AT THE end, the look on Tommy Smith's poker face came as heart- warming confirmation. Scousers of every hue had genuinely wanted Everton to stay up, and not just to keep alive the keenest of derbies.

Teak-tough Tommy was always one to relish a scrap, of course, but it was not just a fightback which bordered on the miraculous that split those granite features into an ear-to-ear smile. The man who put the iron in Anfield had wanted the old enemy to survive, for the good of the game on Merseyside.

Liverpool having slipped into decline, the proudest football city of them all could ill afford the additional embarrassment of having its other club relegated. To the obvious delight of Smith, and all those of the blue persuasion, it has not come to that, but it was close. It could hardly have been closer. Everton had to win their last match, at home to Wimbledon, to preserve premier status stretching back 40 years, and at 2-0 down it was goodbye Old Trafford, hello New Den. A team with three goals in their last nine games needed three in 70 minutes to claw their way out of the abyss. Some chance. Mike Walker scolded those of little faith afterwards, but even this Mr Micawber of managers must have been yearning for Carrow Road.

The transformation was as remarkable as the rest of Everton's season was mundane. Amid scenes of mass hysteria, sheer will-power dragged them out of the grave they had dug for themselves over 41 matches and 20 minutes in which they gave away two goals of What Happened Next? absurdity.

Wimbledon are no shrinking violets, and were fully committed in pursuit of their highest-ever finish and a holiday bonus which would have gone with it, yet Vinnie and company were swept away on a tide of emotion.

Everton, it must be said, also enjoyed the rub of the green, in the shape of a couple of dodgy decisions by the referee, but no one was inclined to begrudge them on a day when crowd and players united in a common purpose that had the hairs misbehaving on the back of the neck.

The supporters were marvellous, queueing before midday to fill the ground to its reduced capacity (31,000) with thousands more locked outside. The team may be second-rate these days, but the fans are still first class, and the atmosphere was the equal of anything produced by the hotbeds of Manchester or Newcastle.

The din was stilled, briefly, when Anders Limpar conceded a ludicrous penalty, senselessly handling a Gary Elkins corner. Goodison had barely found its voice again when Everton were spreadeagled by a second self-inflicted wound, Gary Ablett panicking and nudging a ball that was going wide just inside Neville Southall's left-hand post.

The crowd were stunned. They had done their bit, only to have the wind knocked out of them by some Fred Karno defending. Now they needed a lift. One of the culprits provided it, Limpar escaping the lynching he feared by taking a tumble over Peter Fear and winning the dubious penalty with which Graham Stuart lit the blue touchpaper of revival.

That luck was wearing an Everton scarf was never more evident than in the 34th minute, when Dean Holdsworth spurned the best chance of the game, heading over from four yards. Had he scored, as he should have done, the comeback would have been strangled at birth.

As it was, belief was draining from players and crowd alike midway through the second half when Barry Horne picked the most opportune of moments to score his first goal of the season. It was an inspirational strike, thrashed in from 25 yards, and Everton were duly inspired. Drawing on the dregs of energy from the recesses of the reserve tank, they assembled a high-octane finish which had its reward eight minutes from the end, when Hans Segers reacted in slow motion and allowed a shot from Stuart to squeeze under his late dive.

Bedlam. The crowd cavorted on the pitch, the dressing-room and VIP areas were awash with champagne. The relief was only natural, but bubbly? For finishing 17th? Walker, as was right and proper, seemed embarrassed by it all, and was unusually reluctant to share his thoughts. Coaxed into the customary debriefing, he spoke of the need to build a team 'who will bring in 30,000 for the right reasons'.

He was relieved, but not disposed to celebrate. Managing a big club - the chance he had craved in his Norwich City days - had proved 'more difficult than I thought', but he would stay true to his purest principles and seek improvement, and renewed prosperity, through the passing game which had got him the job.

The boardroom takeover close to completion, he has been promised pounds 10m to strengthen a side conspicuously lacking in all areas. He is likely to need every penny.

Walker sympathised with Sheffield United and Oldham, the perennial relegation fighters who played Russian roulette once too often, but both have had plenty of chances to get it right, and the 'no money' excuse is too trite at a time when Norwich and Queen's Park Rangers continue to prosper on shoestring budgets.

Ditto Wimbledon, of course. The day belonged to Everton and those fantastic fans, but it would be wrong to overlook the fact that the not-so-dastardly Dons finished a creditable sixth playing football of a higher quality than they are given credit for.

The Crazy Gang are long gone, the rough stuff with them, and Joe Kinnear's homespun team are characterised by the clever wing- play of Fear and Marcus Gayle more than the thud and blunder of Vinnie and Fash.

Money will be tight again this summer, but Kinnear is looking to buy rather than sell. 'I hope to add one or two to the squad, which would give us a good chance of winning something next season,' he said. 'Whatever happens, we'll frighten the life out of the top teams, as usual. How did we finish - 20-odd points ahead of Everton?'

Magnanimous mood or not, old Tommy loved that one.

Goals: Holdsworth pen (3) 0-1; Ablett og (20) 0-2; Stuart pen (23) 1-2; Horne (68) 2-2; Stuart (82) 3-2.

Everton (4-4-2): Southall; Snodin, Watson, Unsworth, Ablett; Stuart, Horne, Ebbrell (Barlow, 81), Limpar; Rideout, Cottee. Substitutes not used: Angell, Kearton (gk).

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Segers; Barton, Scales, Blackwell, Elkins; Fear (Blissett, 84), Jones, Earle, Gayle; Holdsworth, Clarke. Substitutes not used: Perry, Sullivan (gk).

Referee: R Hart (Darlington).

(Photograph omitted)

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