Tottenham and Everton are facing big questions as the season begins. Will José Mourinho close the gap to the top four in his first full season at the club? Will Carlo Ancelotti be able to revive Everton’s fortunes in his first full campaign on Merseyside, restoring hope to fans who have had little to cheer in recent years? The two clubs have won three trophies between them in 25 years, which shows the size of the tasks facing the managers. Their meeting at White Hart Lane on Sunday is hardly a tussle between two title contenders.
The situation was very different in the 1984-85 season, when both clubs emerged as serious title rivals. Tottenham were thriving under new boss Peter Shreeves and Everton were building on the FA Cup success achieved under Howard Kendall in the previous campaign. Their clash at White Hart Lane on 3 April 1985 was viewed as a pivotal match in the race for the title. It was also a big night for one of the keepers on show.
Although he is now regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the world in the 1980s, it had taken Neville Southall a few years to establish himself as Everton’s No 1. He made his debut in 1981, but was dropped after a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool in 1982 and then sent on loan to Port Vale in early 1983. His days at Everton seemed to be numbered.
Port Vale were keen to sign Southall permanently but Kendall recalled him and gradually his quality shone through. Southall grabbed his opportunity in the 1983-84 season and helped Everton win the FA Cup. Thing improved further the following season. Southall was the rock upon which the team was built and he become just the fourth goalkeeper – and the first Everton player – to win the football writers’ player of the year award.
He pulled off some stunning saves as Everton won the league – denying Ian Rush at Anfield; a fantastic tip over against Leicester; this stunning save at Hillsborough – but one particular stop stands out. On 3 April 1985, he pulled off a save that gained the ultimate accolade of being compared to Gordon Banks’ save in Mexico 15 years earlier. It also proved to be a pivotal moment in the title race.
Everton arrived in London with confidence soaring, having gone 17 games unbeaten. They were three points above Tottenham and also had a game in hand, so a draw against their nearest challengers would be welcome –but a win would be priceless. Tottenham had just been beaten by Aston Villa so could not afford to lose further ground on Kendall’s team. “Our ambition all season has been to win the title,” said an expectant Shreeves before the game. “In that context, this game is as big as they come.”
Tottenham had been brilliant on the road all season, even beating Everton 4-1 on the opening day of the campaign. Now they had to produce a similar performance in front of 48,108 fans at White Hart Lane. Thins did not begin well for the home team. Andy Gray opened the scoring for Everton before a mistake from Spurs full-back Mark Bowen allowed Trevor Steven to double the lead just after the hour mark. Graham Roberts scored a long-range screamer to bring Spurs back into the match. And then came Southall’s moment of brilliance.
With three minutes remaining, a fine Glenn Hoddle cross was met by Mark Falco, whose firm header from six yards looked destined for the roof of the net. Perhaps the Tottenham striker should have headed the ball down but, in fairness, his effort would have beaten most keepers. Not Southall. Demonstrating lightning-quick reflexes, the Everton keeper turned Falco’s header over the bar acrobatically, leaving Tottenham players and fans with their heads in their hands. At the other end of the pitch, Ray Clemence sunk to his knees before applauding his opposite number.
Everton held on to win 2-1, hammering a nail in the coffin of Tottenham’s league aspirations. Understandably, Southall’s save was the talk of White Hart Lane. “The talking point in my dressing room has been that world-class save,” said Shreeves. “It has prevented us from getting an important draw.” Falco was astonished. “I thought it was in. So did our players and even Everton thought we had equalised. No one on the pitch could believe it.”
“He’s been doing it all season,” said Kendall. “But that one was something special.” Everton skipper Kevin Ratcliffe said later that a keeper of Southall’s class is worth extra 14 points in a season. He had banked two at White Hart Lane.
The press were just as enthusiastic as the players. “Southall tightens Everton’s grip,” proclaimed the Times headline the next morning. “Not since the steamy afternoon when Gordon Banks kept out a header from Pele in the 1970 World Cup has a goalkeeper produced quite such an astonishing save as Southall conjured at White Hart Lane last night,” wrote Steve Curry in the Express. Stuart Jones in the Times described the save as “astonishing”.
What of the man himself? Modesty prevailed. “It was a bit of a fluke – the ball just hit me,” he said at the time. The save was anything but routine, but Southall was adamant. Writing in his Binman Chronicles autobiography years later, he played it down even further. “What more can I say? It was straight at me and I’ve saved plenty like that on the training ground. I always knew I was going to get it. My teammates certainly didn’t congratulate me. Ratcliffe yelled at me: ‘Why didn’t you catch it? Why are you fucking giving a corner away?’”
Whatever Ratcliffe may have said at the time, the Everton players knew the value of Southall. “That is what wins you league championships,” said Gray after the final whistle had sounded, and it is hard to disagree.
Everton went on to win the title and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, as well as reaching the FA Cup final. A special strike from Norman Whiteside at Wembley denied Everton their treble. Interestingly, Southall blamed himself for Manchester United’s winner in the FA Cup final. He had no need to admonish himself, though. The perfectionist in him may have been frustrated with Whiteside’s winner. But there were plenty of times Big Nev had saved his team throughout that season. Tottenham could vouch for that.
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