Football: Everton looking for a Heath to end the grief: As Howard Kendall's men struggle, Phil Shaw meets the catalyst who revived the manager's career a decade ago

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The Independent Online
HOWARD KENDALL goes into Monday's Merseyside derby against Liverpool - a game which could make or break his second spell in charge of Everton - with a message of solidarity from the man behind the rise of Old Heroes FC in the Potteries & District Sunday League.

While such an endorsement would normally strain credulity, this one carries credibility. It comes from Adrian Heath, who earned a place among Goodison Park's own pantheon of old heroes by scoring the goal regarded by many Evertonians as having launched the club's greatest era and saved Kendall's managerial skin.

Heath, these days playing for Burnley as well as putting his local pub team through their paces, will join his former club-mate Andy Gray on the BSkyB commentary gantry at Goodison. Now 31, he is struck by the parallels between Everton's plight nine years ago this month and their present predicament, arguing that Kendall has the ability and personnel to revive their fortunes.

He was particularly interested to hear Kendall remark this week that Everton could win the championship if only they could translate training-ground form to the Premier League stage.

'People will laugh, but that's exactly how it was at the end of '83,' Heath said. 'We'd be brilliant from Monday to Friday, yet we couldn't score to save our lives on Saturdays. The situation is very similar now, even with the quality of players such as Beardsley, Keown, Snodin and Watson.'

That December, Heath was feeling particularly sensitive to the pressure on his manager. He was the new kid on the chopping block, Kendall's club-record buy at pounds 700,000 from Stoke. The burden weighed heavily. 'My form was pretty awful and the team were poor,' he admitted. 'People were wondering why he'd paid so much for me.'

On New Year's Eve, a 0-0 home draw against Coventry left them with 11 goals from 21 League games (making today's record of 13 in 17 look prolific). Calls for the manager's head grew louder - 'Kendall Out' had already been daubed on his garage - and Heath remembers Jimmy Hill was 'scathing' on Match of the Day.

It was some surprise that Kendall survived until mid-January, when Everton faced a tricky League Cup tie at Oxford. 'Phil Carter (the chairman) has said since that he wouldn't have been sacked if we'd lost,' Heath said. 'But the feeling in the club was that he'd have to go if that happened.'

What followed is now part of Everton folklore. Oxford led 1-0 in the final minutes when Kevin Brock, under pressure from Peter Reid, under-hit a back-pass. Heath can still see it vividly: 'I'd been pushed up front from midfield to try and save the game. Gary Briggs was marking me, but I nipped in and nicked it past the keeper.

'That end of the pitch was icy and hard, and I remember thinking 'Keep your feet' before putting it in from an acute angle. People may think now that drawing at Oxford was no big deal, but they were a very strong side who'd already knocked out Leeds, Newcastle and Manchester United.'

Everton went on to the final, losing unluckily to Liverpool, before lifting the FA Cup, the prelude to two League titles and the European Cup-Winners' Cup. But could a single goal, one of 89 'Inchy' bagged for Everton, really have made such a difference? The scorer makes no such claims. 'Howard Kendall once told me: 'No matter what you achieve in football you'll always be remembered for that goal.' And it's true. I've got a stack of medals but wherever I've been in the world, the one thing people want to ask me about is the equaliser at Oxford.'

Its greatest impact was on morale. 'The feeling in the dressing-room was that we'd gone to the brink and now we were on our way. We beat Spurs on the Saturday, and came through three hard FA Cup matches with the Gillingham side of Tony Cascarino and Steve Bruce. Confidence went sky-high, and we hardly lost again all season.'

However, Heath points to three underlying factors that outweighed the value of any one goal: the arrival of Gray, who brought 'an infectious desire to win'; Reid's return 'with something to prove' after injury; and above all, the promotion to first-team coach of Colin Harvey, the perfect foil for Kendall's man-management skills.

After a period during which Kendall worked in Bilbao and Manchester, when Harvey endured an unhappy reign as manager, they are back in tandem; back, it seems, where they started. Now, though, the one-time big spenders are reportedly pounds 3.5m in debt and might be pushed to raise even the pounds 310,000 they paid for Gray and Reid.

No one talks any more about Everton being part of a Big Five, being more concerned about their little forwards. And the old Shanklyism about there being two good teams on Merseyside (Liverpool and their reserves) has been resurrected; now it is Liverpool and Tranmere, second in the First Division to Everton's 19th in the Premier.

Rumours abound about the manager being dismissed or resigning, with Reid or Joe Royle tipped to take over, but Heath believes history shows the need for patience. 'They should stick by Kendall. If he goes, where do they get someone of his stature? I saw what he achieved at Man City. We were bottom when he arrived and the top five when he left, with the likes of Niall Quinn in the team.

'Of course he's made mistakes, and he may be regretting getting rid of Graeme Sharp and Mike Newell, because he has tended to favour a big target man. But the Liverpool game couldn't have come at a better time, and the great thing is that no one needs firing up for the derby.

'Winning this one, even if the goal goes in off someone's backside, could do wonders for the spirit. Without confidence even great players can look mediocre. To turn it round like before might be asking too much, but if anyone can do it, it's Howard Kendall.'

(Photograph omitted)

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