Gary Lineker’s 40-goal season with Everton

WHEN Everton won the Football League title in 1984-85, it made them an attractive proposition for potential new players. The season had been a big success form a financial standpoint, Everton’s income of £ 4.6m was higher than their neighbours and bettered only by Manchester United in English football. 

Everton made a move for the most coveted striker in English football, Leicester City’s Gary Lineker, a fast, goal-hungry player with a good attitude. Lineker had already been capped by England, but had yet to make his mark on the international stage. ‘We are delighted to have signed him, his record speaks for itself,’ said Howard Kendall.

Leicester City wanted to fully monetise the deal and were asking £ 1.25m from Everton, who had bid £ 400,000. In the end, a tribunal settled on £ 800,000 and even at that price, the league champions got good value from their acquisition. 

Everton had to adapt their style to suit the arrival of Lineker. He was quick off the mark, difficult for defenders to keep pace with, but he didn’t have the robust, combative and greatly appreciated style of his predecessor Andy Gray. Naturally, with the new man’s skill-set Everton started to hit long balls for Lineker to run onto. This was no attempt at the much-derided Wimbledon or Watford-style of play, but it was pragmatic, and yielded lots of goals. In Lineker’s only season with Everton, the team scored 87 league goals, one less than in their title-winning year.

Whereas nobody predicted Everton as title contenders in 1984, one year on, they were favourites to retain the trophy. English football, though, was under something of a cloud due to the events of May 1985 in Brussels at the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus. 

Gary Lineker’s goals, 1985-86

League      4130
FA Cup65
FL Cup53
Super Cup42
Charity Shield10

It would, of course, be tough to retain the league, especially as Liverpool were still smarting about a trophy-less season in 1984-85. Everton, ironically, started their defence of the title at Lineker’s old club, Leicester City. It was one of the surprises of the opening day, Leicester won 3-1 and Lineker’s replacement, Mark Bright, who had cost a modest £ 33,333 a year earlier, stole the show, scoring twice. 

Lineker netted his first competitive goal on 26 August at White Hart Lane, a stadium he would later grace in his career. He scored a late diving header to win three points against Tottenham. This victory seemed to inspire Everton, for they clicked into gear with a 4-1 win against Birmingham – Lineker hat-trick – and 5-1 success at Sheffield Wednesday (another two Lineker goals).

Then came a sticky patch for Everton, four defeats in nine games, including a Merseyside derby which ended with Liverpool winning 3-2 at Goodison Park. The Reds had gone in at half-time 3-0 ahead but Everton staged a rousing second half comeback that only just fell short. Kendall’s men also seemed to have trouble playing in the capital, losing at Queens Park Rangers, Chelsea and West Ham United, but In November they thrashed Arsenal at Goodison by 6-1. 

Everton ended 1985, arguably the best 12 month period they had ever experienced, with three 3-1 wins. They were perched in third place, behind Manchester United and Chelsea. While United had started the season in barnstorming style, including a ten-win sequence to open the campaign, they had lost four of their last eight games of the year, including a defeat at Everton.

Everton hit the top in early February, taking advantage of Manchester United’s ailing form. They went three points clear when they trounced Manchester City 4-0, with the lightning quick Lineker scoring a hat-trick as he took advantage of some appalling defensive work by City. At this stage, it did look as though Everton would not be letting go of their trophy in a hurry.

Everton demonstrated their determination when they went to Anfield a week or so later, winning 2-0 thanks to goals from Lineker and Welsh defender Kevin Ratcliffe. The victory maintained a three-point lead over Manchester United and separated the Mersey teams by eight points. Liverpool and Chelsea both had 54 points to Everton’s 62 but Chelsea had two games in hand. Chelsea started to fade at Easter when they were beaten 4-0 at home by rising West Ham and 6-0 at Queens Park Rangers in the space of 48 hours.

Meanwhile, Everton were making a gallant attempt to return to Wembley for the third consecutive year in the FA Cup. They had beaten Exeter City, Blackburn Rovers, Luton Town, and Tottenham Hotspur to reach the semi-finals where they would meet Sheffield Wednesday.

On 22 March, Everton’s 11-game unbeaten run in the league came to an end at Luton, allowing Liverpool – who had regained form and were scoring prolifically – to draw level on points, although the Reds had played one game more. Manchester United were now slipping out of contention.

Everton were now finding goals harder to come by. Over Easter they managed just one, beating Newcastle 1-0 and drawing 0-0 with United at Old Trafford. Liverpool leap-frogged Everton on Bank Holiday Monday, but only on goal difference.

On 5 April, both Everton and Liverpool won through to Wembley for the first all-Mersey FA Cup final, Everton beating Sheffield Wednesday in extra time and Liverpool overcoming Southampton. With both teams also neck-and-neck in the league, the season would effectively be decided in the city of Liverpool. But West Ham had now emerged as serious competitors, thanks to a striking partnership of the diminutive Tony Cottee and Scotsman Frank McAvennie.

Liverpool had hit their best form at the right time, improving their goal difference with 5-0 wins against Coventry and Birmingham City. Everton, who were without hamstring-injured Lineker, ground-out wins at Arsenal and Watford, but were fortunate to draw 0-0 with Nottingham Forest at the City Ground. Liverpool were now two points ahead after that emphatic win against Birmingham, the pendulum had swung to the other side of town. It didn’t help that Everton had lost goalkeeper, Neville Southall, to injury during the run-in. Bobby Mimms, his understudy, took over for the season’s climax.

Everton were dealt a severe blow to their hopes at unfancied Oxford United, who had surprisingly won the Football League Cup. While Liverpool were winning 2-0 at Leicester City, Oxford were beating Everton 1-0 at the Manor Ground. West Ham won again and jumped above Everton. Liverpool had 85 points, the Hammers 81 and Everton 80. The title was not beyond Everton, they had two games remaining, but all would depend on how Kenny Dalglish’s team fared at Chelsea in their final fixture. If Everton won their two home games and Liverpool lost at Stamford Bridge, they could retain their crown, but then two West Ham wins would also make them champions. 

What made the finale so different was that Liverpool and Everton were simply the best teams in the land at the time, despite representing a city that had lived through  very tough times in the early 1980s. Fortunately for Liverpool, they were meeting a Chelsea side that had lost the plot after looking so good earlier in the season. They had won just nine points in their last ten games and they had the look of a team who could not wait for summer to come. Meanwhile, at Goodison, Everton were at home to Southampton and West Ham travelled to relegated West Bromwich Albion.

By half-time, Everton were 4-0 ahead against Southampton, with young goalkeeper Keith Granger enduring a nightmare debut for the Saints. Down in London, Dalglish gave Liverpool the lead with a typically well-taken goal. West Ham were in control at the Hawthorns. When full time came, Liverpool had held on to beat Chelsea 1-0 and had clinched the league title. Everton, in rampant form, won 6-1, with Lineker scoring another hat-trick. West Ham won 3-2, but it was to no avail.

Howard Kendall was distraught, but magnanimous. ‘I have never felt so low after a 6-1 victory. It was great in the first half when the crowd was roaring, because they had heard, mistakenly, Chelsea had scored. But next Saturday’s FA Cup final is something to look forward to after today.’ Everton ended the season with a 3-1 win against West Ham, securing the runners-up spot. Lineker topped the first division goalscoring list with 30 goals. By the end of the campaign, he had netted 40 across all competitions.

Amid the conventional local posturing, the city of Liverpool presented a united front to the rest of Britain for the FA Cup final, even though some Everton fans resented the fact they had been denied a crack at the European Cup because of Heysel.

Liverpool, for all their success, had only previously won the FA Cup once, in 1965. Everton had last won it in 1984 and were beaten finalists in 1985. The two clubs had never met in the final before, but they had faced each other in the semi-finals of 1906, 1949, 1971 and 1977. In both 1984-85 and 1985-86, the two clubs had contested the league title and met in the Football League Cup final. They had two of the best goalkeepers around in Bruce Grobbelaar and Neville Southall, the two top strikers in the land in Ian Rush and Gary Lineker and squads full of young internationals. And both were managed by men who were veritable legends at their respective clubs.

After losing the league title from something of a winning position, Everton were keen to level the scores with their old foes. But there was something more at stake, the possibility of winning the double, which in 1986 was a rare achievement. 

Fans from both teams laid siege on Wembley stadium, risking life and limb by climbing over all obstacles. This really was one of those great occasions and the game did not fail to live up to expectations. Everton, clearly motivated, took the lead in the 27th minute, Lineker running onto a through ball by Peter Reid and although his first attempt was parried by Grobbelaar, he followed up to score.

Liverpool were frustrated at their lack of progress, with Dalglish showing his anger with Kevin Sheedy, and Grobbelaar berating his team-mates for sloppy defending. Lineker almost added another goal, but Alan Hansen calmly robbed him of the ball. It proved to be a turning point.

In the 56th minute, disaster struck for Everton when Jan Mølby delicately floated the ball into the area and Ian Rush shot home. At that time, Rush’s goals meant a Liverpool win and Everton knew it only too well. But Everton almost regained the lead when a bad clearance from Hansen landed invitingly for Graeme Sharp and his header was acrobatically tipped over by Grobbelaar. Liverpool went ahead in the 62nd minute, Mølby sending a low cross towards Dalglish who just failed to connect but Craig Johnston pushed it past Bobby Mimms. 

Everton looked finished at this point, they suddenly seemed jaded. Again, Mølby turned creator by feeding Ronnie Whelan who picked out Rush on the far side. The finish was perfect from the Welshman and with six minutes remaining, the game was over. Two trophies within their grasp, Everton were denied twice by the same opponent, who made very clear to the pretender to the throne that they were not going to be pushed into the shadows very easily. Some people felt Everton were unlucky, they finished with just four points less than their title season and scored one goal less. They lost the same number of games and conceded two goals fewer. 

Gary Lineker, who ended the 1986 World Cup with six goals and the Golden Boot, was sold to Barcelona for £ 2.8m in the summer, a surprise to many people, but Everton were clearly prepared to let him go. In hindsight, Everton fans have suggested Lineker didn’t totally suit their style of play, that his 40 goals didn’t necessarily make Everton a better team. However, there is also a school of thought that Everton 1985-86 were every bit as exciting as the team that won the championship. In any other season, they may well have scooped the lot and 12 months on, they became champions again. But they will never truly know just how good they might have become had they been allowed to compete on the European stage.

Adapted from The Great Uncrowned, Football’s most celebrated losers by Neil Fredrik Jensen. Published by Pitch Publishing. Buy the book here

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