John will be glad to know that the European soccer season is under way. Qualifying rounds for the European Championship. involving the champions of countries like Iceland and lesser clubs from the major European leagues, such as Liverpool, have already started. The English season is only two weeks away. Last night defending champions Chelsea tuned up with a 2-1 victory over DC United. And the French league kicked off this afternoon.
Long time readers know that European soccer leagues have a feature unknown to American sports — the bottom teams get dropped to a lower division. Every year I obsess over whether my club, Everton, will suffer “relegation.” Everton has a streak of more than 50 years in the top division, a feat all the more remarkable given the club’s mediocrity, and worse, during all too much of that period. Last season, Everton shocked the soccer world by finishing fourth, having finished fourth from bottom the previous year (the bottom three teams go down). But this doesn’t mean that I’ll be any less nervous this year, as I root the team on to the 40 point mark normally associated with safety (there are 38 matches — a team gets three points for a win and one for a draw).
The indispensable soccer site Soccernet is celebrating its ten season of soccer coverage by recalling memorable matches, players, and other events. Here it recounts Everton’s “great escape” from relegation during the 1997-98 season:
Loveable old Howard Kendall had dutifully heeded Chairman Peter Johnson’s call to take charge at Goodison Park following Joe Royle’s departure in March 1997. . .The new season was fast approaching. ‘Oh what the hell,’ an exasperated Johnson could almost be heard to sigh, ‘let’s give Howard a call.’ Thus was Kendall’s third spell in charge at Everton born.
An opening day defeat at home to newly-promoted Crystal Palace set the tone for what was to follow. By November, the good ship Kendall III was lilting badly and lay marooned at the bottom of the table. A first away win in over a year sparked a mini-revival after Christmas which saw them rise to thirteenth but that familiar sinking feeling soon returned and Everton’s final two games saw them requiring four points from Arsenal and Coventry to ensure safety. Arsenal thrashed them 4-0. So, if Bolton (playing away to Chelsea) matched Everton’s result on the final day the Trotters would end Everton’s 44-year association with top-flight football.
An early strike from Gareth Farrelly and the news that Bolton were a goal behind calmed Evertonian nerves, but in the last five minutes a Nick Barmby missed penalty and a Coventry equaliser from one-time Toffees target Dion Dublin meant if Bolton scored Everton were down. To the relief of the blue half of Merseyside Jody Morris scored a second goal for Chelsea to relegate Bolton and spark wild celebrations at Goodison.
‘So long as I’m manager we’ll never go through this again,’ vowed Kendall. How right he was. Everton forced him out the following month.
The escape was even more remarkable because Chelsea had no incentive to beat Bolton and, with a crucial European match a few days away, every incentive to take it easy. I remember sitting in an empty local bar mortified by Chelsea’s first half display. Fortunately, player-manager Gianluca Vialli inserted himself into the line-up for the second half and rallied Chelsea to victory.
But a few years earlier Everton pulled off a much greater escape, probably the greatest in the history of top-flight English football. I’ll tell that story soon in The Great Escape, Part I.
JOHN adds: The way the Twins are playing, I may as well start following Everton. They probably score more.