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GIVEN this was a meeting of heavyweights, the knockout blows were always going to hurt that much more. Everton and Liverpool were not just city rivals heading to Wembley for the 1986 FA Cup final, they were the country’s two leading lights.
Seven days earlier Kenny Dalglish had guided his team to the First Division title, finishing two points ahead of Howard Kendall’s Everton and at the national stadium they would complete the double.
It was perhaps to be expected that in the same way Kendall’s defending champions had pushed Liverpool hard over the course of 42 league games, the Blues would test the resolve of their closest rivals in the capital on May 10.
Gary Lineker’s 40th goal of the season opened the scoring after 27 minutes, with the World Cup-bound striker firing past Bruce Grobbelaar at the second attempt having been sent through on goal by Peter Reid’s pass of weighted excellence.
On a breezy afternoon and less than pristine looking Wembley surface, Everton had the lead. Seemingly they had a grip of proceedings too.
A chance for Kevin Sheedy came and went early in the second half before the Irish winger’s free-kick was saved by Grobbelaar.
The Blues appeared in the ascendency and Liverpool even snapped at each other but Kendall, an astute and savvy manager, refused to accept such assumptions.
His caution was well founded.
Ian Rush – with 22 league goals to his name that campaign – equalised just before the hour mark as he rounded Bobby Mimms and in the process punished Everton for their surrender of possession near the box.
Graeme Sharp’s looping header was on target and destined to put Kendall’s team back in front.
Grobbelaar’s now iconic leap saw him tip the ball over the bar.
And no sooner had play restarted then Liverpool landed a blow to Everton’s stomach as Jan Molby once more instigated the attack and crossed for Craig Johnston to finish.
Molby and Ronnie Whelan would combine for Rush’s second with six minutes remaining as Liverpool conjured another remarkable turnaround in a high stakes occasion.
Wembley is said to be no place for losers but for those defeated by their closest competitor, the national stadium is far worse.
“To lose a final at Wembley to your neighbours really hits you,” said Kendall.
“You are feeling confident because you are in front but you never feel like you’ve got a hold on the game because Liverpool had many great players.
“We expected them to fight back and expected them to come at us.
“Ian Rush was a threat to not just us, but against every team he played against. But he seemed to get a lift playing in the derby and the final in ’86 gave him an extra lift.
“He was an absolutely tremendous goalscorer and you never relax with him on the pitch.
“Gary Lineker had tremendous pace but Rush had superb pace as well and, I believe, was technically better.”
Kendall, rightly, maintains that the true measure of a side’s prowess comes in its final league position and it is to his eternal pride that Everton won back the championship they had relinquished.
“They went out and proved the next season that they were the best again. It spoke volumes,” he said.
“The first day we came back for pre-season and were back on the training pitch was when we moved on from the Cup final defeat,” said Howard.
“Of course the players who were involved will remember the game going against them. We only lost out on the league and cup by two games in the whole season.”
Watching the final back, especially in the opening stages, you could be forgiven for thinking Jan Molby was a marked man.
But Kendall says tactics were less specific than perhaps they are today and given the ability which oozed through Everton’s side, the manager felt no great need to concern himself the opposition.
Ian Rush apart perhaps.
“In those times you didn’t concern yourself about the opposition,” said Kendall.
“It was all about getting the best out of your own players. We had a very good team remember.
“We had a team of top quality players and if you are telling one of your lads to close down a member of the opposition then they’ll turn around and say ‘he should be worrying about closing me down’.
“Looking ahead to this afternoon’s game and though Everton are playing well as a team and backing each other up, the one Liverpool player that concerns me is Steven Gerrard.
“He is not a striker like Ian Rush but Gerrard is infectious.”
Kendall’s FA Cup experiences with Everton extend beyond his days in the dugout but they were no less difficult.
The debate as to who begins the 218th Merseyside derby today as favourites will rumble on all the way to kick-off though Kendall believes Liverpool and Everton are to start as equals.
Not as the Blues did in the 1968 Cup final and as Kendall explains, defeat that afternoon was harder to accept given the expectancy which weighed on them.
“I lost in the FA Cup final to West Brom in ’68 and the feeling was totally different to losing to Liverpool at Wembley,” Kendall said.
“We were well ahead of West Brom in the league and had walloped them at the Hawthorns 6-2 earlier in the season. On the day we missed chance after chance but Jeff Astle popped up with the winning goal. There was an expectancy level on us going into that match.”
And in a precursor to the reaction from defeat in 1986, Kendall and Everton went on to win the league the following season after the loss to West Brom.