When Andy Gray joined Everton in November 1983, the move represented a last throw of the dice for both the player and the manager who signed him, Howard Kendall. Back then, Kendall’s Everton were lingering in the nether regions of the table and an air of malaise was hanging over Goodison Park.
‘The side had started the 83/84 campaign poorly. It came on the back of two underwhelming seasons since Kendall had arrived. There was a feeling amongst the fans that his Everton project just wasn’t going to take off. Talk of sacking was spreading amongst the fans’, remembers, Phil Redmond, co-founder of the Everton fanzine, When Skies Are Grey.
Goals that season, in particular, had been hard to come by. By early November the team had managed just seven in the league. With Graeme Sharp struggling with injuries and his comrades in the Everton attack doing little to share the burden, Kendall dipped into the transfer market in search of a solution. The man he turned to as a remedy did not come risk-free.
Andy Gray, for a time, had been the hottest property in British football. The Scot had started his professional career at Dundee United, scoring freely at Tannadice before pricking the interest of clubs in England. It was Aston Villa who succeeded in obtaining his signature, shelling out £110,000 to bring him south in October 1975. Gray hit the ground running on arrival, scoring 29 goals in his first full season, earning both the PFA Young Player of the Year award and the PFA Player of the Year Award.
Despite his value to the side, in a surprise move, he was sold to local rivals Wolves for a British record £1.5m in 1979. The Molineux club, hoping to recapture past glories, placed their hopes on the shoulders of Gray. But, despite winning the League Cup in his first season, his time at Wolves proved a disappointment. Blighted by the club’s rapid deterioration and, more significantly, by his recurrent injury problems, when Kendall came calling Gray’s best days were widely thought to be behind him. He had become a player more famous for his troublesome knees than any goal scoring exploits.
In light of this, when he arrived at Goodison, for £250,000, he was hardly welcomed with open arms by Evertonians. The letters pages of the Liverpool Football Echo were deluged with complaints, missives accusing Everton of buying another knackered veteran, alongside Peter Reid, there for little more than a payday. Understandably, this was not how Gray viewed the move:
‘I knew the responsibility that was on my shoulders’ he recalls. ‘When you come to a club like Everton and you wear that “Number 9” shirt, you know what’s expected of you. I came to the club to do my best for it and to win things. I still had something to prove.’
If the under-fire Everton manager expected an immediate on the pitch impact from his new acquisition, he was to be sorely disappointed. Indeed, so poor was Gray that Kendall dropped him after a few games. But the striker’s influence was about more than scoring goals. Behind the scenes, on the training ground, his natural charisma and winning mentality were starting to make an impact on a squad devoid of self-belief.
When he had first arrived at the club, in his first press conference Gray had already provided a taste of what he brought to the table, telling the assembled hacks that he had come to Everton. ‘to win things’. When they pointed out that others in his position had said exactly the same thing, he replied, ‘You’ve never heard it from me.’ It was the kind of self-assurance that Everton’s young squad lacked.
‘Adrian Heath told me he and the other young players would look at Andy Gray – and Peter Reid too – and get a lesson in what it took to win football matches. Including the nasty stuff. What stands out for me is the Cup Final Grandstand clip of Reid and Gray on the Everton bus en route to Wembley in 1984. It brings home Gray’s sheer force of personality. His charisma jumps out of the screen’ says Simon Hart, author of Here We Go, Everton in the 1980s.
Around the turn of the year, something, at last, began to click amongst Kendall’s young team, as that ‘blend of youth and experience’ finally started to gel. Gray’s form, which also began to improve, added to this, providing Kendall’s young side with a sense of steely determination.
‘There were a few games in January – Birmingham in the league, Stoke in the FA Cup, Oxford United away in the League Cup – when you got the first signs that things were starting to go our way’ remembers Gray. ‘It soon became clear that this side, which until recently had been thought of as potential relegation candidates, suddenly had something about them.’
The two cup runs that season, first the League Cup and then the FA did a lot to galvanise the squad, instilling a sense of confidence and belief that had been sorely lacking. In the FA Cup, Gray played his part, opening the scoring with a stupendous header against Stoke in the third round, bagging an implausible header against Notts County in the quarter-finals – diving at a ball just six inches off the ground- and scoring the second goal in the final against Watford.
‘I know it wasn’t the prettiest of goals in the final, heading it out of the keeper’s hands, but they all count’ he remembers. ‘It capped what was a great day for us and the fans. It had been a long time since Everton had won any silverware and after the disappointment of losing the League Cup final to Liverpool, we felt we owed it to the fans to bring that one home.’
On the back of that victory, Everton went into the following season with a rare sense of confidence.
‘And it was easy to see why’ says Gray. ‘We’d played exceptionally well during the second half of the previous season. We were united, with that vital sense of togetherness. But perhaps more important than anything else, we’d tasted success, which made us hungry for more.’
But, to begin with at least, Gray was a marginal presence in the side. The blossoming of the Graeme Sharp/Adrian Heath strike partnership meant that he didn’t feature much during the early part of the season. That was to change following a horrific injury sustained by Heath during a home game against Sheffield Wednesday in December.
‘When poor Inchy got injured, it gave me an opportunity to come in and show what I could do’ says Gray. ‘I can recall that there were concerns that me and Sharpy were too similar for it to work. But we were mates, we understood each other and we’re intelligent footballers. We made sure that it worked and that the side’s momentum kept going.’
For the remainder of the season Gray played a vital part in an Everton team which was near-unbeatable. The title, which had increasingly possessed an air of inevitably about it, was eventually sewn up at home against QPR with five games to spare. For many Evertonians, Gray’s contribution that season had been invaluable.
‘He was all action, selfless and utterly fearless. At times, his centre-forward play bordered on being foolhardy, but his sheer grit and determination pulled all the other players together into an even more cohesive and effective force. Gray, for me, was the catalyst that transformed a more than capable side into a side who had all the hallmarks of being serial winners’, says Andy Costigan of Grand Old Team.
As important as Gray had been in the hunt for the title, some of his best performances that season occurred in the European Cup Winners Cup. He scored his first ever Everton hat trick as the Blues beat Fortuna Sittard 3-0 in the quarter final. And then came the legendary second leg of the semi-final against Bayern Munich at Goodison, a game that has since become indelibly etched into Everton folklore.
After grinding out a 0-0 away in the first leg, the Blues welcomed the Bavarians to a jam-packed Goodison on a balmy night in April.
‘The atmosphere that night was something else’ recalls Gray.’ I can honestly say that I’ve never felt or heard anything like it. 50,000 Evertonians just willing us to win. It was electric.’
Although Everton dominated the first half, they found themselves trailing 1-0 at the break.
‘Howard kept us calm at half time. He just told us to keep going, doing what we were doing and, attacking the Gwladys Street end, the fans would do the rest, sucking the ball into the net.’
His prediction proved prophetic. Within minutes of the restart, Everton were back in the game as Sharp equalized.
‘After the goal, you could see that Bayern were suffering. The atmosphere was intense. And they were also finding our physicality harder and harder to cope with. When you saw their players lying down on the pitch moaning about a particularly tenacious tackle, then psychologically you knew we’d got the better of them. And that was a hugely important part of the battle.’
Even though at 1–1 Bayern were still in the stronger position, it only ever felt like one team would emerge victorious and that another Everton goal would come. When it did, with 15 minutes left, it arrived courtesy of Gray:
‘A huge throw-in from Gary Stevens came into the box which fell perfectly for me to sweep it into the net. I remember the noise from the Gwladys Street almost hitting me when the ball crossed the line.’
Trevor Steven’s goal a few minutes from the end merely confirmed what everyone watching already knew, that Everton had booked a place in the final. And there in Rotterdam, they would meet Rapid Vienna, an opponent that held little fear for the confident Toffees.
‘We knew in our hearts that we would beat them’ says Gray. ‘A few of us had gone to watch one of their games earlier in the competition at Old Trafford. We all agreed that there had been nothing in that performance to give us any reason to fear them. We knew we were by far the better side.’
So, it proved to be. In a one-sided game, Everton were outstanding.
‘I got our first that night. I had an open goal and just volleyed the ball into the net. It was an incredible feeling. And it was the goal that killed the match in my opinion. Our opponents hadn’t shown much before that, and after we scored, you got the sense that they had very little left to offer. The final score-line of 3-1 really flattered them.’
Despite narrowly missing out on the Treble after losing to Manchester United in the FA Cup final a few days later, Everton and Gray could still look back on the season with considerable satisfaction. The gamble that his move had represented paid off better than anyone could have expected.
But football can be a cruel game. Still on a high from a season few had seen coming and assured by Howard Kendall that he formed a key part of his plans for the forthcoming campaign, Gray moved to a new house in Formby. Not long after, just as he was about to go on holiday, his manager turned up on his doorstep to deliver some devastating news. Everton would be signing Gary Lineker from Leicester City and, should he be interested, Aston Villa wanted to buy Gray back. Believing that the arrival of Lineker spelled the end of his Everton career, Gray accepted the move. It was a decision, as he recently revealed to Toffee TV, that he came to regret:
‘Hindsight is a wonderful thing…and I think if I would have taken more time to think about it, to absorb what Howard had said to me, I think I would have stayed. But I was so upset, so disappointed, when Howard said he was going to sign Gary and that I wouldn’t be playing at the beginning of the season.’
Kendall’s apparent decision to marginalise a crowd favourite caused outrage amongst Evertonians. Petitions were drawn up and fans in their thousands wrote to the club demanding that Gray should remain an Everton player.
But nothing would change the outcome. Gray left, spending a few seasons in the Midlands, first with Villa and then with West Brom, before moving north to Rangers for a single campaign where he would help the ‘Gers’ to the first of their nine successive titles. He ended his career at Cheltenham Town in the Football Conference, hanging up his boots in 1990 and switching to punditry with Sky a few years later.
In the decades that have followed, Everton have never again reached the pinnacle of that 1984/85 side. And it was a team that, from the vantage point of today, seems unimaginable without the alchemical element that was Andy Gray.
‘He wasn’t with us for long but what an impact he had’ says Phil Redmond. ‘He had a telling hand in creating the greatest Everton side I’ve ever seen. And we’ll always love him for that. He was the perfect Everton No.9, strong, fearless, and willing to die for the shirt. A true Everton hero, in every sense of the word.’
Jim Keoghan is the author of Everton No.9: Nine Players, One Iconic Shirt, which is available via Amazon