Football: Stuart an old hand in relegation stakes

Trevor Haylett talks to a former saviour hoping to repeat past glory
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The Independent Online
HAVING ONLY just renewed his membership of the Premier League, Graham Stuart is determined it will not all end in tears in four weeks' time. He would love to keep Charlton in the top division and, since he once singlehandedly took charge of Everton's fight for safety, it is no wonder the London club believe they have recruited a lucky charm in the relegation stakes.

On a memorable afternoon five years ago, when football prepared to wave goodbye to Everton as a club with serious pretensions, they somehow summoned the spirit to turn back from the relegation precipice. Stuart's double- strike on that final, do-or-die day overturned Wimbledon's two-goal advantage and guaranteed him a special place in blue-and-white folklore, though it is entirely possible he will forfeit some of that affection should he reproduce those goalscoring feats on his first return visit this Saturday.

Already Stuart has given Charlton supporters a glimpse of his ability to procure vital goals by claiming the winner at West Ham on Easter Monday, one in a series of catch-up victories that have helped Alan Curbishley's side forget their alarming mid-season slump and prepare positively for the run-in. "We'll be giving it everything because history shows that if a promoted club can survive the first year they've a good chance of establishing themselves in the top flight," Stuart said.

If Charlton are to stay up Stuart won't choose to do it immersed in the excruciating tension that enveloped Goodison Park on 7 May 1994. The final relegation place had come down to four teams. Everton were at home to Wimbledon and needed to win. Even that would not be enough should Ipswich, Southampton and Sheffield United all win as well. Through a needlessly conceded penalty and a comical Gary Ablett own goal, Stuart and Co soon found themselves two goals down. Salvation had slipped further away.

Enter the unlikely Scouse hero with the cockney vowels and, crucially, a cool head in a crisis. "We got a penalty which I put away and it meant that instead of going in at half-time virtually down and out we now had a fighting chance," Stuart recalled. "The noise inside the ground was unbelievable and after Barry Horne had scored an equaliser from 30 yards I was fortunate to claim the winner with nine minutes remaining. I played a one-two on the edge of the box with Tony Cottee and when it came back I lunged at it with a defender. Fortunately, the ricochet took the ball past Hans Segers."

As things turned out it was a great day to be an Evertonian, an occasion that for theatre, emotion and unconfined joy was to surpass their visit to Wembley the following season when they pipped Manchester United for the FA Cup. Those involved vowed never to let it happen again, although last year found them enduring more final-day hell, and the present campaign is following a similar route. Four weeks today Everton visit Southampton and from this range it looks as if both will need the points.

By the time of the last-ditch escape 12 months ago, Stuart had moved on to Sheffield United. Involved in the play-offs, he was back at the Bramall Lane ground in time to cheer via the television as his former club scraped a draw with Coventry which relegated Bolton in their stead.

"I still have a lot of affection for Everton, it's a huge club and the supporters were always fantastic to me," he said. "It's surprising that they are in trouble again considering all the money they've spent and whatever happens they have to give Walter Smith at least four years to turn things around. They badly need some stability.

"It's nice to be back in London but really it was the chance of returning to the Premiership that attracted me about the deadline-day move. It's the only place to be; you're playing against the best players and in front of sell-out crowds. Charlton gave me the chance to get back and I'd love to repay them by helping to keep them up."