What if Everton had followed up initial interest in Ian Rush in 1980?
“And it’s played across for Rush… that’s another one! And that will make it safe for Liverpool.”
Brian Moore’s words cemented what those watching had felt for some time, that the 1986 FA Cup was Anfield-bound. Outplayed by Everton and 1-0 down at the break, the Red Machine had turned the game in the second period, scoring three without conceding. It was a determined performance that had broken Evertonian hearts.
With the league wrapped up a week earlier, the victory meant that Kenny Dalglish’s side had done the double over their city rivals, leaving the Blues as the bridesmaid in both competitions.
Although Dalglish, as player/manager, had been the architect of this success, for Evertonians, the role played by Ian Rush could not be understated. Already loathed and feared in equal measure as a player with an almost supernatural eye for goal, one who had powered Liverpool to domestic and European glory in recent seasons, Rush had also earned the ire of the Goodison faithful by reserving a special place for Everton in his goalscoring exploits. The two that afternoon merely represented another notch against the club to add to the others he had plundered since arriving across the park a few years earlier.
And yet, it could have all been so different. But for the reluctance of the Everton chairman, Philip Carter, to sanction the purchase of two rather than just one promising youngster back in 1980, Rush might well have been wearing blue, not red on that May afternoon.
For Rush, such an outcome would have made sense. Everton had been his first love and the boyhood Blue had often made the pilgrimage to Goodison growing up, heading there from his north Wales home to watch the Everton sides of Billy Bingham and Gordon Lee.
His hero back then had been Bob Latchford. The teenage Rush had been in the lower Gwladys Street to watch his idol make history on the final day of the 1977-78 season when Latchford scored his 30th goal of the campaign. It was a feat that won the Everton forward £10,000 from the Daily Express, who had put the bounty up for the first player to reach that target, its own attempt to encourage greater attacking verve amongst the First Division’s low-scoring forwards of the 1970s.
By that point in Rush’s life, with dreams of emulating his hero, he was already taking the first steps on his own professional journey, having recently been picked up by Third Division Chester City. At Sealand Road, the teenager would become the club’s best prospect in a generation. Inevitably, that attracted attention, not least from the two nearby Merseyside giants.
Over the years, Rush has spoken about his disappointment that Goodison never came calling, believing that Everton had come to look at him and returned across the Mersey unimpressed.
But that isn’t the full story. Although the club did indeed pass on Rush, it was nothing to do with his ability. Far from being unimpressed, the Everton manager at the time, Gordon Lee, thought that Rush had it in him to become one of the best strikers in the country. And he came very close to signing him.
In the spring of 1980, Lee was looking for ways to bolster his underperforming attack. With Everton languishing near the bottom of the table and finding goals hard to come by, he set out to find some fresh blood to change his side’s fortunes. In an interview with the Lancashire Evening Post in 2003, the former Everton boss outlined what happened next: “I went to watch Chester Reserves and a young boy called Ian Rush playing as an attacking midfielder. The next night, I was at Dumbarton and saw a raw striker called Graeme Sharp. I went back to the chairman and told him that, paired together, they could be one of the most exciting partnerships in English football. Chester wanted £300,000 for Rush, so I signed Graeme for £80,000 because the board said I couldn’t have them both.”
Everton’s loss ended up becoming Liverpool’s gain. Around the same time that Lee was running the rule over Rush, the Liverpool manager Bob Paisley had been down to Chester to watch the young prospect. Encouraged by what he saw, the Reds made a move, offering Chester £300,000 for the teenager. But Liverpool’s quarry took some persuading. “When they did come in for me, I turned them down first time.” Rush told LFC TV in 2014. “People ask me why I turned them down. Partly confidence but mainly I didn’t think I was good enough to play at that level.”
Determined to get their man, Liverpool persevered. A few weeks after the initial rejection, Paisley invited Rush and his Dad (a lifelong Red) down to Melwood. “He [Paisley] was so down to earth,” Rush recalled. “He was just ignoring the likes of [Kenny] Dalglish, Graeme Souness and [Alan] Hansen coming in. He called them ‘the bigheads’ and would look after me and go and talk to the dinner ladies and people like that. That was how Bob Paisley was. It was like a family club and he gave that impression to me. ‘We’re all in this together. It doesn’t matter who you are or why you are here, we’re all the same.’ With that, I decided to give it a go.”
Rush joined Liverpool in April 1980. Tall, thin and ungainly, he seemed initially to be the very embodiment of teenage awkwardness. And he has since admitted that it took him time to feel comfortable at Anfield, particularly in the dressing room. That nagging lack of confidence that had briefly held him back proving difficult to completely shake off.
But it didn’t last for long. By the beginning of the 1981-82 campaign, Paisley had seen enough of a change in the young forward to warrant a regular start in the senior side. Although it would take nine games for Rush to find the back of the net, once he began scoring, he didn’t stop; his 30 goals across 49 appearances that season helping deliver yet another league title to the Anfield trophy room.
Meanwhile, over at Goodison, Sharp was beginning to find his feet too. Like Rush, the young Scot had taken time to adjust to his new surroundings and during his first season with the club had been a marginal presence. But with Bob Latchford moving to Swansea City in the summer of 1981, Sharp began to get more chances, an opportunity he capitalised upon, ending as Everton’s top scorer for the 1981-82 season.
But for the man who had plucked Sharp from relative obscurity, it all came too late. Gordon Lee’s Everton project had ultimately left the club mired in the nether regions of the table and in the spring of 1981, he’d been sacked. His replacement was the Blackburn Rovers manager Howard Kendall, an alumnus of Everton’s 1970s title-winning side.
But it would take time. Although Sharp’s gradual improvement offered Kendall a vital outlet, his Everton project stuttered to begin with, two and a half seasons of struggle punctuated with numerous lows. And for many fans, one of the lowest of these came on a cold November afternoon in 1982.
It was a game that would provide a painful reminder of how wrong Everton had been to ignore Lee’s judgement on Rush. Kendall’s side were devastated by the young striker, as he scored four in a 5-0 rout. It remains Liverpool biggest win at Goodison.
But, as bad as that was, it would get worse before it got better for Kendall and Everton. At one point during the 1983-84 season, with the club hovering above the relegation places, calls for the manager’s head echoed around Goodison. Philip Carter resisted. It proved to be one of his better decisions. Form turned and from January 1984 until Kendall left the club in the summer of 1987, Everton were transformed.
After collecting the FA Cup in 1984, Kendall’s men romped to the title the following season, finishing 13 points above second-placed Liverpool. They even collected the club’s first European trophy along the way, defeating Rapid Vienna in the 1985 Cup Winners’ Cup final. It was a mini golden age at Goodison, one that would see the club reach five major finals and bring home two league titles between 1984 and 1987.
So great was the turnaround that Everton became the first club in some time to challenge Liverpool’s dominance of the domestic game. Sharp played a vital role, delivering on the promise that he had shown at Dumbarton. “Sharpy was integral to those great sides of the mid-1980s,” recalls Andy Costigan of the fanzine Grand Old Team. “He was a playmaking centre-forward, at times unplayable in the air and no slouch with his feet too. He was a constant goal threat and I can only imagine opposition defenders had nightmares about playing against him. What Sharpy lacked in finesse he more than made up for with a dogged determination and his ability to lead the line with different players around him.”
By the mid-1980s, he and Rush had become indispensable elements in the forward lines of what were the two greatest sides in the country. This was the era of Merseyside dominance of English football. It didn’t last for long, but while it did, the accuracy of Lee’s prediction, albeit splintered across Stanley Park, was clear for all to see.
Clear enough to frustrate Evertonians. Because, for them, success was only part of the dream. “The aim had been not just to return Everton to the pinnacle of the game but also to eclipse Liverpool in the process, to restore the Blues to the dominance we had enjoyed over our local rivals since the two clubs first began playing each other in the 1890s,” says Costigan.
From Everton’s perspective, Liverpool’s pre-eminence in the 1970s and early 1980s was an affront to the natural order. Although Liverpool were blessed with more than their fair share of playing and managerial talent in the mid-80s, the key element was that signing from Chester. From his first goal until he briefly left the club for Juventus in 1987, Rush scored 207 times across six seasons in all competitions, providing the kind of ammunition that kept the glory days rolling at Anfield. As good as Everton were – and at times they were exceptional – possessing a forward of Rush’s talent constantly kept Liverpool in the game.
What would have happened had the Everton board been more accommodating to Lee? Within the many permutations of ‘what if?’, not only does the tantalising prospect of a Rush-Sharp partnership under Kendall exist, but so too does a Rush-less Liverpool. Could any Evertonian, if offered the chance, resist the opportunity to whizz back in time and whisper something different into Philip Carter’s ear?
It was a mistake that gifted Liverpool their record goal-scorer. Rush plundered 346 goals across a 15-year stint at Liverpool, so many during his mid-1980s pomp. In his career, 25 of those goals were scored against Everton alone, as time and time again he became the cause of so much heartache amongst the city’s blue contingent. That fact he had once stood amongst the die-hards of the Gwladys Street only adding salt to the wound. one of Goodison’s own turning his firepower against the club he once loved.
This article first appeared in Issue Three of The Squall, a monthly magazine we produced for six months in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. You can read all six issues, for a recommended donation of £3 each, here.
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