It is "Inside Everton" week all week on Bleacher Report. To kick things off, we sat down with three of the best players in the club's history to talk about the club and what makes it unique within English football.
FINCH FARM, Halewood — In the long and illustrious history of Everton Football Club, few players have been as successful, and indeed as beloved, as Graeme Sharp.
A talented 19-year-old when the Toffees signed him from Dumbarton in 1980, Sharp went on to help the club through arguably its most successful period, during which they won the First Division (the precursor to the Premier League) twice, in 1985 and 1987, along with a famous FA Cup win in 1984 and, a year later, the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
In total, Sharp played for the club for 11 years—finishing as the club's top goalscorer in four seasons—before returning to the club as an ambassador at the turn of the millennium, a role he has reveled in ever since.
The demands of such a post have grown exponentially in recent times, however, leading the club to appoint two other club legends, Ian Snodin and Graham Stuart, to join Sharp. Stuart enjoyed his own special moments at the club—scoring the goals that kept Everton in the Premier League against Wimbledon in 1994 and helping the club win the FA Cup a year later—while Snodin played briefly with both players during seven years at the club, during which he enjoyed a special rapport with the fans.
Bleacher Report sat down with all three men to talk about their relationship with Everton, their thoughts on the club’s current progress and, inevitably, the rivalry with Liverpool and how they see this weekend’s derby panning out.
Bleacher Report: Despite all growing up in different parts of the country, you seem to have found a home with Everton as both players and, now, as ambassadors. What makes the club so special?
Graeme Sharp: As Alan Ball once said, 'Once the club has touched you, you will never be the same.' I have really fond memories of playing for Everton, and yes, I was probably more successful than many others, but I think we all recognise it’s a very passionate, very proud group of supporters.
People say football is a matter of life and death, but it really is here. You’re born a blue or a red, everything involved with your life—births, marriages, funerals—all revolve around the club as well, so it grabs a hold of you.
Graham Stuart: In London, you’ve got Arsenal, you’ve got Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United [and] others. So the intensity of it all isn’t what it is up on Merseyside. And that’s the thing I always go back to.
I’m not suggesting for one second that fans of those clubs aren’t as passionate about their side as Evertonians are, but in terms of geography, it being [just] Liverpool and Everton [up here] does make it bigger. It is a special honour to turn out at Goodison Park week in and week out.
Ian Snodin: I was born in Yorkshire, spent most of my younger playing days at Doncaster Rovers and went to Leeds for 18 months before I signed for Everton. From the first week that I was here, though, you could tell.
Everton were successful then, they had a great side in the 1980s—I managed to scrap a championship medal—but joining a successful Everton team, the fanbase was fantastic, the atmosphere was fantastic, and even though we had some disappointing times as well, the fans have always made it a big club in my eyes.
It’s called the 'People’s Club,' and it really is. The fans are fantastic here. You don’t realise until you play for the club what it means to be part of the club. I’m enjoying it just as much now, being an ambassador, as I did as a player.
What does being a club ambassador entail, and how did you get approached about the role?
Snodin: Sharpy has been here since he arrived, in 1980, as a player and then as an ambassador for 13 years or so, so he’s the No. 1 ambassador. Graham and I know that. Sharpy’s a legend at this club, and I don’t mind saying that in front of him! The chairman didn’t really approach me—he asked for Graham Stuart’s number and I didn’t know what it was about, so I just forwarded him it.
Sharp: He’s been asking for your number for about five years now. I just wouldn’t give it to him.
Snodin: But I didn’t know why he wanted it. He thanked me in a text, and I wondered what it was about. When I found out it was to ask him to be an ambassador I was like, ‘Well, why didn’t he ask me?’ But it was only two minutes later that he rang me and explained that he wanted me to be an ambassador as well.
It’s a privilege. I’ve said on numerous occasions that there are many better players who have played for Everton over the years—many who have played more games than me and many perhaps regarded as legends at this club—so for him to ask me, he must have seen something, that I get on well with the fans or whatever, and the same with Diamond [Stuart].
Stuart: It takes 0.5 of a second to say yes, because you ask any [retired] footballer, the thing they miss most is the footballing environment as a whole, so to have the opportunity to come back into a club and work as an ambassador is a great privilege.
It is quite diverse—you can be traveling abroad, doing some work abroad with fans, it can be attending funerals—there are lots of different environments. To be able to get up in the morning and have a focus is a huge thing. Loads of players really don’t know what they are going to do for the rest of their lives, and this is an incredible opportunity for us.
Sharp: We’re involved in so many projects throughout Merseyside and around the globe. We’re adaptable. We’ll do anything we’re asked. The involvement with the fans, to reach out to the younger generation, is great. It’s nice to have a bit of help from these two, although I have to keep them in check occasionally!
How do you feel the club has managed to retain that identity, especially in the modern-football environment in which different owners and different demands have seen so many clubs change so significantly?
Sharp: I think the chairman and the board have to take some credit. Bill Kenwright is a proud Evertonian and knew all about the past successes and how much the club means to him. It is great to have someone in charge who knows the values and what the fans want—that it isn’t just a money-making concern.
It’s all well and good having the money and riches of the big clubs, but sometimes, you lose the identity along the way, and you cannot accuse Everton of that. We’ve had our successes, and we want to have them again, but we will do it our way.
Stuart: There’s just a burning desire and enthusiasm in and around the club to keep pushing forward. We can’t do it overnight, because we don’t have the finances for that, so we’ve had to do it in a different way—we’ve had to be a bit more patient about it.
Sharp: The motto, Nil Satis Nisi Optimum—nothing but the best is good enough—I think that is what everybody tries to drive toward.
While the club retains its local feel, the global nature of the Premier League means it now also has a huge number of fans around the world.
Sharp: It has changed. [Over] the last few pre-seasons, it has hit us how many fans we do have out there. We might not be in the Manchester Uniteds of this world, but in America—because we’ve had so many [American] players—and Thailand—where we went last summer [and] where so many fans came to see us—[it] is amazing. So the fanbase is out there, and it’s important to reach out and connect with them. We know we have supporters out there, and obviously, more success on the pitch will help that.
Snodin: When I’m working on Everton TV, we get tweets and comments from all over the world. It’s fantastic and amazing to see.
All three of you had your successes at the club. What is it like to win a trophy for Everton?
Snodin: I was quite fortunate to join a fantastic football team in 1987. I honestly believe Everton at the time could have signed anybody and still won the league because they had that many good players.
Then, it was a transitional period after Howard Kendall left. In 1994, we just survived relegation against Wimbledon—it was only Graham who was on the pitch that day! He just saved us. The other 10 were very poor, but he was unbelievable that day. It’s perhaps not something to be proud of, winning that last game to stay up, but it was an incredible day—especially that atmosphere at the end. It was something I’d never experienced in my lifetime.
Stuart: I was fortunate enough to be involved in the last trophy we won, back in 1995, which is disappointing in some respects because it is a hell of a long time without trophies in the cabinet. But we are trying our hardest.
People forget that it is not easy to win trophies. [With] the top sides and the amount of funding and top-class players they are bringing in, it’s not getting any easier, and I think we have to realise that.
In 1995, yeah, of course I should have scored; it would have been fantastic to score. It would have been lovely from a personal perspective to look back and tell you kids you scored in an FA Cup final, but you don’t want to be greedy. The irony of it is the majority of people talk to me about the scrap at Wimbledon, staying up, rather than the FA Cup victory!
It speaks volumes about he passion of the football club—on that day, everyone realized how precarious our situation was, even more so when were 2-0 down after 20 minutes, but we got fortunate. Lady Luck was shining on us and, somehow, we got out of it. To play a big part [in] getting the club out of trouble is great, but [I'm] certainly not proud to have been involved in a situation [in which] Everton was 90 minutes from potentially being relegated. I hope we never go down to those dark days ever again.
Sharp: I was fortunate enough, in the time I played, [that] it quickly came together under Howard Kendall. There were a lot of games [in which] we simply did not think we would be beaten. Even when we went a goal down, especially at home, we just had that inner belief. Once we won the FA Cup in 1984, that was the springboard to go on. We won the league, then the league again, along with the European Cup Winners’ Cup, so for that six- or seven-year period, we were really, really strong.
It was a fantastic time to play for the club. Hopefully this team can go on to emulate that—the last competition we won [was in] 1995, and that is far too long. It would be great to stop talking about us, our memories and our achievements and start talking about the current team and their achievements.
Snodin: I would much rather talk about Phil Jagielka lifting the FA Cup or the Europa League than talk about what we [did] in the 1980s and 1990s. We’d love to say, 'We were there when Jags lifted [the cup].' We would much rather talk about that than ourselves.
The current squad has been knocking on the door over the last few seasons. From your experiences, is there anything you think this squad still needs?
Sharp: We had a chance a few seasons ago against Chelsea in the FA Cup final, and that could have been a springboard to kick on. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, but hopefully in the near future we can.
Snodin: At the start of the season, when I saw our squad, I [thought] we have one of the best squads in English football. Obviously, you are going to get injuries, suspensions and dips in form, but it’s been a massive frustration from last season because then we played some good stuff, played some teams off the park, and this season, it hasn’t quite gone like that. Perhaps we need one or two signings, but we are not a million miles away.
Stuart: It’s been a stop-start season for us. Of course everyone complains about injuries, but if you look over the season, we’ve had a number of injuries to key personnel—and not just for a week or so but months. You build your foundations from the back, but we’ve had dissimilar back fours every week. Even the goalkeeper has been out!
There was a lot of talk about the style of play we played last season; it’s a great way to play when you are full of confidence and have a settled team, but it’s very difficult way to play when confidence is low and you aren’t winning so many games.
Sharp: We have a lot of young players who will learn from this experience. They have to overcome this. We have been unfortunate with injuries, but we are struggling a bit, and we will have to turn things around quickly. Sometimes, a situation makes or breaks players; some will stand up and fight it, others might shrink away and you won’t see them again. We need everyone to roll their sleeves up and pull in the same direction.
The club has recently produced some fine young players, such as Wayne Rooney and Ross Barkley. Where does that rich pipeline come from, and how important is it for the club to have local lads coming through into the squad?
Sharp: Big cities always produce top players—Glasgow, London...
Sharp: Well, [I'm] not sure about that! But [in] our academy, the players know that if they do well here, they will get a chance. If you look at all the academy players who have gone on to make a debut for Everton, then it’s impressive. There’s the Rooneys and Barkleys, but there’s also Jack Rodwell, Francis Jeffers [and] Victor Anichebe.
Everton have that reputation of giving young players a chance. Sometimes you can get swallowed up in the system, especially at the very biggest clubs who have so much choice. But here, if you show the ability and work ethic, you will get a chance.
Stuart: You only have to look at the facilities at this football club, especially here at Finch Farm. There are no excuses for anyone at all. If you have the required application, hunger and ability, then everything is here for you to become a footballer if you really, really want it.
We touched early on how it is impossible to compete financially with the Manchester Citys and Chelseas of this world. But youth development is perhaps one area where Everton can really differentiate themselves from others and lead the way.
Sharp: It’s not cheap to run the academy, but it’s important if you do run one to get something at the end of it. I think the academy is under pressure to produce kids for the first team, and that pressure is good. Those academy coaches will tell you they want to discover the next Barkley or the next Rooney.
Snodin: We’ve got big Evertonians involved as well. Kevin Sheedy is there with the academy, then players move on to the under-21s and David Unsworth, and then there is [former manager] Joe Royle overlooking everything. It does not get any better than those three, as Evertonians, to look up to and to be guided by.
I imagine that is pretty rare as well to have so many ex-players come back and be involved with a club.
Snodin: There [are] loads of others too—Franny Jeffers, John Doolan, Paul Tait—and you want that passion around the club to make you aware of what it’s all about.
From the positive to the negative, then. The Merseyside derby. Liverpool. What makes the rivalry so special, and what memories of the game standout for you?
Sharp: It’s a massive game. We talk about how much football means, especially in this part of the country, and the leadup to the derby game ever since I came down is immense.
The demand and clamour for tickets, you are getting bombarded by people you don’t know—I’ve never had so many cousins and uncles—but there’s a big demand for tickets. From Sunday onward, everything is geared toward next Saturday.
You talk about people not going into work on the Monday if their team loses—that is certainly what it used to be like. It really is serious. We had some good times against them; we had some bad times. When you win, great, you can go out. When you lose, it is a case of get dressed and go home. I’m not sure if that will be same now if Balotelli loses. But for us, it was a case of if you lose, don’t you dare be seen out
Snodin: I never really used to get nervous, but for a derby game, you knew with the buzz and everything around it. It’s just second to none. They are not great to play in because you are worried about making the mistake that gives a goal away, and there’s a lot of pressure, because it meant everything to the fans. Life and death, almost—it really felt like that.
If you got beat, there was so much disappointment. But if you won—oh my God!—it was unbelievable.
What are they like to score in?
Sharp: They are great to score in if you get the winning goal—but even when Jags scored at Anfield, it was just fantastic. What a time to do it. But it’s more than just that—it’s the joy when you get a win for the blue half. The biggest thing in the dressing room afterward is not that you scored but that you won. It could be an own goal—the result was the most important thing.
Snodin: I’ve seen Sharpy’s goal a few times. Okay, Jags’ [was] good, but Sharpy’s was different class.
Sharp: Jags’ was an equalizer...
Snodin: Yeah, exactly. It was good, but Sharpy’s—you could tell from his [and] the fans’ reaction how much it meant to them. I never remotely came close to scoring in a derby game. I think he’s playing it down, it must be something.
Sharp: Nah. That one I scored, I don’t think we had won there for 11 years or something. I got that goal, but the most important thing was winning the game. Because that gave us the belief we could go on. We won that game 1-0, and then we went on to win the league that year. So it was more important for the whole team, how they felt that we could really compete with Liverpool. It was what it meant inside the dressing room. We all felt this was it, let’s kick on. And we did.
That’s what happens. We’ve talked about this season not being great, but if we can get a tap-in or something and win 1-0, you will see the effect it will have. [It will be] just the same if we lose, but if we win the game against Liverpool, I think we can kick on and finish the season very, very strongly.
Do you think, in a way, both clubs need each other? That without the other it wouldn’t be the same?
Snodin: Like Celtic-Rangers up there, now, it’s just not the same. Celtic fans might joke about the Rangers fans and the state the club is in, but as a football spectacle, Rangers need Celtic and Celtic need Rangers. They are two big clubs in British football, never mind Scottish football.
The Everton fans couldn’t wait to tweet about Liverpool losing to Chelsea [in the Capital One Cup], but I think if we went down, there’d be a lot of comments from Reds, but you need both Merseyside clubs in the Premier League fighting each other. Not just in the league but battling for top honours and European qualification.
Sharp: Liverpool fans would not be sorry to see Everton disappear, though, and vice versa, so there’s always that edge to it as well. Different fans have a different feeling about it all.
Stuart: Derbies for me, growing up, [was] Chelsea’s [against] Fulham, but you try to compare a Chelsea-Fulham game and a Liverpool-Everton game, and it isn’t even possible. It’s not even close. You have to jump on board quickly with the intensity and importance of it all.
In that respect, I think the two clubs do need each other. There’s not any question in my mind. There might be bravado in it and stick flying around, but the two clubs do need each other. Liverpool, as a city, if there is any adversity, the two clubs will bat for each other, which is honourable, but for twice a year, they want to win more than anything.
So to wrap things up nicely, a prediction for the game?
Sharp: It is that old adage that form goes out the window. It’s a difficult one; I think 1-1 would please a lot of people, a draw would please a lot of people, and they would take that—but for us especially, I think we need to win it. And I think that might give us the edge.
Snodin: It was an unbelievable game last season at Goodison, 3-3, one of the best games I’ve seen in many a year. It was end to end and had you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. We all want an Everton win, but we’re realistic.
As Sharpy said, I think they are starting to look a bit of a team. They were good against Chelsea at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, [and] their confidence is coming back. It’s going to be a difficult game, but I’m hoping we’ve got enough in that dressing room to get some kind of result.
Stuart: I’m glad the next game at home is Liverpool. It has been difficult with the West Broms and Stokes coming—I think with it being a derby, it is a guarantee that the fans will be onside from minute one. That will help the lads. Liverpool are in a run of form, but I think the fact it is going to be a full house [filled with] huge amounts of passion [means] we’ll nick it. We’ll nick it by a goal and turn our season around...
Snodin: ...then we’ll go on and finish in the top four and win the Europa League!