An embarrassing penalty shoot-out defeat to Brentford in the Carling Cup on Tuesday night continued what has been a difficult start to the season for Everton. In fact, it has been the Toffees' worst start to a campaign since 1994-95, when a dismal run of form led to the departure of Mike Walker. But, under his predecessor Joe Royle and his self-styled 'Dogs of War', torment gave way to elation in a most unexpected conclusion to the season.
Everton had only just avoided relegation on the final day of the 1993-94 season thanks to a dramatic 3-2 win over Wimbledon and the start of the following campaign was beset by further problems as the Toffees collected only one win in 14 games. Change was inevitable.
On November 8, Everton's patience ran out and Walker was sacked, his dismal record reading only six wins in 35 games. The departing manager left Bellefield in a black Jaguar, accompanied by a police escort, with chairman Peter Johnson explaining: "Having spent 40 years in the top division, I believe all supporters will agree it is imperative that the club maintains its position. It was decided that it would be irresponsible for the directors to let the situation continue."
Walker's reign proved an expensive mess. Everton had been fined £75,000 by the FA for the manner in which they lured him from Norwich in January 1994 and it was estimated that in ending a contract that had just under three years remaining, his dismissal cost the club a further £500,000. Walker invested his pay-off in a Norwich skip-hire firm.
Andy Gray, Ron Atkinson, Gerry Francis, Howard Kendall, Peter Reid, Bruce Rioch, Bobby Robson and Ray Wilkins were all mooted as potential candidates, but it was to Royle that Everton turned. A former striker for the Toffees during his playing days, Royle had impressed during his 12 years as manager of Oldham Athletic, winning the Second Division in 1991. But while Royle may have been "an Everton legend," Johnson also conceded that "his greatest challenge now awaits him."
It was a challenge he would undertake with aplomb. Royle's very first game was a Merseyside derby against Liverpool at Goodison and immediately the defeatism of the Walker era was cast aside in a 2-0 win. With David Unsworth marshalling the twin threat of Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler, Royle coaxed a more convincing attacking performance from his team and it was two of the eventual heroes of the season who kick-started Everton's rejuvenation.
First Duncan Ferguson - a striker of intimidating proportions, signed on loan from Rangers and with a spell in prison awaiting him following an on-field assault during his time in Scotland - opened his account as David James flapped at a corner from Andy Hinchcliffe, allowing the striker to head home. It would become his trademark in a long career at Goodison Park. The second came from Paul Rideout, a Wembley hero come May, as he capitalised on another James error. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: "Everton are still in deep trouble but they are no longer lying on the seabed listening for taps on the hull."
Royle certainly steadied the ship, and the Liverpool victory ushered in a run of just two defeats in 11 games in the Premier League. This resurgence was founded on a fierce team spirit and determined attitude which saw the more robust elements of the squad earn the nickname 'The Dogs of War' from their manager. Royle set about the process of restoring pride, and it worked. Ferguson, signed on a permanent £4 million deal in December, epitomised this new attitude within the ranks with his endless running and confrontational approach, while a combative midfield including Joe Parkinson, John Ebbrell and Barry Horne ensured no quarter was given on the pitch.
The more unpredictable elements of the squad - Nigerian forward Daniel Amokachi and Swedish winger Anders Limpar - were initially somewhat marginalised as Royle sought to introduce solidity, though both would memorably play their part in FA Cup success come May.
Prior to the turn of the year however, results were the only currency and in December a 3-0 win over Leeds United saw Everton finally clamber out of the relegation zone for the first time since August. Hinchliffe set up Rideout and Ferguson, before Unsworth claimed a third from the penalty spot. "The commitment was terrific," a satisfied Royle said. "At one stage litter blew across the pitch and three of our players tackled it."
In a season in which four teams were relegated, Everton were never far from danger but, such was the newfound confidence at Goodison, Royle was happy to say in February (with his team only one point clear of the relegation zone) that: "When I took over here we needed three snookers. We were still in the starting blocks." Note the use of the past tense.
With Derby, Bristol City, Norwich and Newcastle cast aside in successive rounds of the FA Cup, Everton were provided with a sizeable distraction from their survival campaign when facing Tottenham in a semi-final tie in Leeds. Parkinson would later recall: "All I remember when we got to Elland Road was seeing Blue everywhere. There wasn't a speck of white. Maybe Tottenham thought all they had to do was turn up to win, but Joe got us pumped up and it ended up being such a fantastic occasion."
It was a stunning performance. Disciplined and energetic in equal measure, the Toffees thumped their opponents from north London, even with Ferguson sidelined due to suspension. Matt Jackson beat Stuart Nethercott to meet a corner from the superb Hinchcliffe before Graham Stuart took advantage of a mistake from Ian Walker - son of the departed Mike - to make it 2-0. Although Jurgen Klinsmann responded with a penalty, it was Amokachi who would settle the tie. On as a substitute, the striker headed home from a Stuart cross and then added a fourth with a minute remaining.
Amokachi had not scored a goal since his home debut in September, and in fact the striker should not have been on the pitch at all. Rideout had gone down injured and though he signalled that he was fine to continue, Amokachi misinterpreted the gesture and sauntered on the pitch to enforce a substitution that Royle had no intention of making.
The victorious manager said: "That was not a relegation side you saw today. We've been called the 'Dogs of War' but we've reached the final as the 'Underdogs of War'."
Everton battled on in the Premier League until the penultimate game of the season, when they defeated Ipswich 1-0 thanks to a goal from Rideout to finally secure their top-flight status. The 17-year-old goalkeeper, who could only parry an Amokachi shot into the striker's path, was Richard Wright, who would later represent the club between 2002 and 2007.
Eleven days later, at Wembley, Rideout would once again prove decisive.
The FA Cup final pitted Everton against Manchester United - the reigning Double winners, who had lost their Premier League crown to Blackburn Rovers. Everton were largely unfancied, despite their resurgence under Royle.
Speaking on the eve of the game, the manager attributed Everton's improved fortunes to the spirit he engendered within his playing staff, rather than anything more tangible like tactical changes. "We talk about how coaches play a certain way, impose certain styles, but it's baloney really," he said. "When I arrived we faced some obvious problems. Our football was nice enough but I looked at a lot of video tape and saw that really we were too nice, too willing to let things happen to us. That had to chance - but only the players could make the change. They did."
Having spent the majority of the season scrapping for every point, the Toffees were not about to relax on their day in the London sun and showed no fear against a United side deprived of the talismanic Eric Cantona following his suspension for an infamous kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan. With Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs failing to shine, Roy Keane and Paul Ince exchanging bruising tackles with Horne and Parkinson and Neville Southall repelling a series of United chances, Everton struck the only goal on the break after half an hour. The excellent Limpar led the charge before the ball was worked to Stuart, who cannoned his shot off the bar and into the turf. Luckily Rideout was perfectly placed to meet the bounce and headed past Peter Schmeichel. Everton were FA Cup winners.
The Daily Express called it the consummation of "an impossible dream." Relegation had looked a near certainty during the dark days of Walker's reign, but thanks to their new boss the Toffees were parading the most famous cup in British football.
As Royle succinctly put it: "We are no longer 'Dogs of War' but winners at Crufts."
What happened next? Royle departed Everton following a disagreement with Johnson in March 1997, and another Englishman would not win the FA Cup until Harry Redknapp in 2008. Ferguson cemented his reputation as a Toffees legend and after spending 18 months at Newcastle returned to Goodison, scoring 72 goals in 273 appearances for the club before his departure in 2006. Rideout remained at Everton for two more seasons before moving to China, Hinchliffe departed in 1998 to join Sheffield Wednesday, Amokachi lasted one more year before signing for Besiktas and Limpar left for Birmingham in 1997. Everton have not won a major trophy since, though they returned to the FA Cup final in 2009 before being beaten by Chelsea.