Everton sold hero behind manager's back and star player to bitter rivals after 'turning point' claim

When Walter Smith became Everton manager in this week in 1998, you wonder if he could have envisaged what he was letting himself in for.

Over the next four years he’d have to deal with claims Duncan Ferguson was sold behind his back, Alex Nyarko refusing to carry on after an irate pitch invader tried to swap shirts with him and player of the season Nick Barmby defecting to arch rivals Liverpool.

It’s a good job that those who knew Smith described him as a level-headed man who carried himself with great dignity because he needed such traits to deal with the often wild shenanigans that often went on around him during his time on Merseyside. All that was to come though when he first arrived in typically dramatic fashion after the previous occasion the club had survived on the final day of a Premier League season.

Everton’s managerial search the previous summer had descended into farce as chairman Peter Johnson declared: “I have been pleasantly surprised by the high level of interest from home and abroad. All I have heard, and all the soundings I have taken, suggest to me that this is THE job.”

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Johnson then spent several weeks on a wild goose chase for Bobby Robson only for the former England boss to remain at Barcelona in an upstairs role and after insisting he’d be appointing “a world-class manager,” he was snubbed by former Blues striker Andy Gray, a man with no experience in the dugout who turned down a Goodison Park return to sign a lucrative new contract to continue as a pundit at Sky Sports instead. Embarrassingly, Johnson was then forced to turn to Howard Kendall for an unprecedented third spell in charge with the club’s most-successful manager stating: “I know I wasn’t first choice, but that is not a concern because people know how much Everton means to me.”

Nevertheless, while Johnson had previously been eyeing big money stars Pierluigi Casiraghi and Dino Baggio, Kendall was forced to work on a shoestring and signed the likes of Tony Thomas, John O’Kane, Carl Tiler and Mitch Ward. After the Blues went through a second final day escape from relegation in the space of four years, only staying up on goal difference, Kendall was sacked and this time Johnson placed what became a much-maligned job advert to find his successor.

The wording read: “Candidates must have a proven track record at the highest level. You will be expected to possess first class coaching qualities and motivational skills.

“It will also be a prerequisite that the successful applicant will have an extensive knowledge of both international and domestic football.”

While Smith didn’t need to respond to the advert himself and having already departed Rangers, he was approached by Johnson under the noses of fellow Premier League side Sheffield Wednesday who were furious over his 11th hour change of heart. The 50-year-old had agreed terms with the Owls and the ECHO reported it was believed he had even shook on a deal to move to Hillsborough but chose to join Everton instead after meeting with Johnson at his Jersey home.

Smith had steered Rangers to seven consecutive Scottish titles to equal Celtic’s record of ‘nine in a row’; three Scottish Cups and three Scottish League Cups but as he conceded to the ECHO in his first interview, while “we hope to do as well as we can to get the club back to its rightful position", he tellingly added: “It is even more competitive down here.”

That proved something of an under-statement and although from certain angles, Goodison Park and Ibrox, two grounds with stands grafted by prolific Glaswegian architect Archibald Leitch, are strikingly similar, Smith was unable to replicate his success from north of the border. Back in 1998, Johnson was distinctly upbeat when unveiling his new appointment though.

He said: “I’m absolutely delighted we’ve now got one of the best managers in Britain. I’m sure he can do it because he’s done it at another big club.

“There are big club managers and there are small club managers and, as it happens, we have got a well-respected name in the game. It is difficult to run big clubs like Everton and he’s shown he can do it at Ibrox, they don’t come much bigger than Rangers.

“He’s handled big names and taken Rangers to the semi-finals of the European Cup. I’m just pleased we’ve got a good manager who has succeeded at the highest level… I think it could well be the turning point for this club.”

After a highly-decorated spell in his previous position, Smith himself wasn’t afraid to discuss the prospect of chasing more silverware. He said: “I’m a football man, I know all about Everton’s history and that is what attracted me in the first place when I was approached.

“Everton’s traditions were some of the reasons that I accepted the job. They are a club that can get themselves into a winning position in terms of going for trophies and I intend to help them along in that respect.

“I will be looking at the situation here, but it’s not for me to say what has gone wrong in the past. The final league position was not a good one, but we will be looking forward and trying to rectify that situation.

“We just hope we can change the pattern and get the club back into a more stable position for a club of this size. It’s a big challenge, it’s one of the reasons we (he and assistant Archie Knox) are both here.”

Smith’s three Premier League finishes with Everton were 14th, 13th and 16th and it’s only after he made way for his younger compatriot David Moyes in 2002 that the Blues’ fortunes improved. His footballing legacy at Goodison proved a mixed bag and over two decades on he remains the last Everton manager to win at Anfield in front of fans but also the boss who presided over a humiliating 3-0 FA Cup defeat at Goodison Park to Tranmere Rovers.