Even though Everton were the reigning league champions, the summer of 1987 was an unsettling time for the club. Howard Kendall departed for Athletic Bilbao, leaving his former assistant Colin Harvey with the unenviable task of filling his great friend’s shoes. Most of the players stayed but, by the turn of the year, it was apparent that the league title would be going across Stanley Park to Anfield. Liverpool went on to finish 20 points clear of their local rivals, who dropped down to fourth in the table. Although Harvey did have the satisfaction of knocking Liverpool out of the League Cup. And, of course, the FA Cup provided the chance of winning some silverware.
The draw for the third round paired Everton with a club that had suffered a stuttering start to the 1987-88 league campaign. Sheffield Wednesday had won just one of their first 12 league matches – a dire run that included a 4-0 defeat at Everton. Yet their fortunes improved when manager Howard Wilkinson signed centre-back Nigel Pearson from Shrewsbury in October. With Pearson slotted into a five-man defence, Wednesday won eight of their next 11 matches and shot up the table.
They even managed to beat Everton on New Year’s Day. It was their first victory over the Toffeemen in 20 attempts and it gave them a welcome boost before their FA Cup tie at Hillsborough the following weekend. “If Wednesday can beat Everton for the second time in just over a week, a season which began badly for Howard Wilkinson could take on an added glow,” wrote David Lacey in his preview in the Guardian.
Sheffield Wednesday 1–1 Everton, 9 January 1988
The first instalment of the tie was a battle. “Not what you’d call a classic football match,” said Wilkinson. Everton probably had the best of the chances, Dave Watson passing up a glorious opportunity in the first half, Ian Snodin missing twice and Wayne Clarke having a goal ruled out for offside.
With 14 minutes left, Wednesday struck first. A deep Brian Marwood cross was helped back across goal by Lee Chapman, allowing Colin West to head past Southall. But Everton equalised just five minutes later. Martin Hodge parried a shot from Graeme Sharp and Peter Reid scored to force a replay. “I don’t trust my left foot, so I hit it with my right,” Reid admitted later. “The match was scrappy even by early-round Cup standards,” wrote Michael Nally in the Guardian. “Both teams were energetic but unimaginative.” It would be a theme for the first three episodes of the soap opera.
Everton 1–1 Sheffield Wednesday, 13 January 1988
The first replay at Goodison four days later followed the same template. Everton, who had lost skipper Kevin Ratcliffe in the first match, drafted in Neil Pointon and moved Pat Van Den Hauwe to centre-back. Wednesday, in their silver away kit, were tough to break down, their centre-back trio of Pearson, Madden and Larry May absorbing pressure. And up front, targetmen Chapman and West proved a handful.
Chapman gave Wednesday the lead this time, his header from Sterland’s cross in the 32nd minute sending the away fans among the 32,935 gate into raptures. Chapman had a chance to put the tie to bed later in the game but Southall saved his effort and he could only fire the rebound narrowly wide. He must have been kicking himself when Sharp volleyed home a superb equaliser in the 76th minute. The match went into extra-time, but neither side could find a winner. They would have to meet again at the same ground after Everton won the toss to decide the venue for the second replay.
Everton 1–1 Sheffield Wednesday, 25 January 1988
Their third meeting also ended in a 1-1 draw but at least the order of the goals changed. Everton took the lead, Trevor Steven heading in Adrian Heath’s cross just after half time. But, with just five minutes remaining, Chapman deflected Nigel Worthington’s shot past Southall to drag the match into another period of extra time.
“It is the tie that will not die,” wrote Stephen Bierley in the Guardian. “After 330 minutes of muck and nettles, these two sides will meet again at Hillsborough to decide, if at all possible, who will play Middlesbrough on Saturday. Do not bet on the winner.”
The second replay was watched by 37,414 supporters and, with 38,953 at Hillsborough for the denouement, more than 142,000 spectators went through the turnstiles. The clubs reportedly earned £250,000 each from gate receipts. This would be of little consolation to Wilkinson and his players come the fourth instalment of the tie.
Sheffield Wednesday 0–5 Everton, 27 January 1988
Crucially, Madden missed the third replay with a calf injury, meaning Wilkinson had to revert to a back four, with Mark Chamberlain coming into the team. Everton took advantage in spectacular fashion. West should have fired Wednesday in front after just 15 seconds but, from that moment on, the game was an unmitigated disaster for the home team.
Sharp gave Everton the lead after five minutes and, when Pearson was dispossessed by Steven, Snodin put Heath through on goal to score their second. After 19 minutes of the fourth match, one of the teams finally held a two-goal advantage for the first time.
Pearson’s wobbly night continued. In the 39th minute, Heath dispossessed the Wednesday centre-back and cut the ball back for Sharp to score with a delicious left-footed chip from the edge of the box. Everton were out of sight, but there was still time for two more goals in the first half. Sharp completed his hat-trick, heading in a cross from the superb Steven, and Snodin slotted home after a surging run from midfield to give Everton a 5-0 lead.
The supporters at Hillsborough could barely believe what they had seen in the opening 45 minutes. Not that every Everton fan was able to witness the mayhem. “A lot of Evertonians had encountered problems travelling across the Pennines,” wrote Sharp in his autobiography Sharpy. “And they refused to believe that we were 5-0 up at the break.”
Under the headline “Wednesday at the Sharp end,” Bierley noted that Everton had “made a complete mockery of the three previous tighter-than-tight encounters by completely crushing the life out of Sheffield Wednesday.” Wilkinson described it as “a horrendous affair”.
“It was quality finishing,” said Harvey. “Every chance we got, we took.” Three days later he turned his attention to a fourth-round tie against Middlesbrough. His players could not get enough of the FA Cup, taking another three matches to reach the fifth round, where they were beaten by Liverpool – who would go on to lose to Wimbledon in the final.
The Sheffield Wednesday tie had been an epic in its own right, requiring four games in 18 days to separate the teams. A few years later the FA decreed that these marathons would be a thing of the past after another four-match series between Leeds and Arsenal. Wilkinson, who was in charge of Leeds at the time, was probably in full agreement.