Former Everton captain Don Hutchinson vividly remembers what happened on September 11, 1998.
Hutchinson, a midfielder, had a furious exchange of words that match day with manager Walter Smith in the dressing room.
Smith subbed him off in the 78th minute, threw water bottles at him and held him by his neck against the wall to say that he would never play for Everton again. “I was devastated,” Hutchinson once revealed in a column for Newcastle’s Evening Chronicle.
Later that day, Hutchinson was called to the boot room and handed the captain’s armband. It was a reward for passing Smith’s character test.
Hutchinson would combine with Kevin Campbell in attack to help Everton escape relegation, his and the club’s second escape in a row.
With two goals and as many assists for Hutchinson and nine goals for Campbell, the Toffees rose from 18th after 32 games to 14th at the end of the season.
Their comeback included wins over Alan Shearer’s Newcastle United and a 6-0 mauling of West Ham United, which had young Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand in its ranks.
In 2023, 24 years later, Everton is again staring at the cold fate of relegation after nearly seven decades of top-flight football. The club occupies the 19th spot in the table with 28 points and plays its last five games against Leicester City, Brighton and Hove Albion, Manchester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Bournemouth.
“It’s truly tragic. I think over the years because over the years I’ve always had hope and belief, being a former Everton captain, that it will get out of the bottom three,” Hutchinson said in a media interaction.
“This year, I’m the most scared I’ve ever been because (in) the remaining games, I’m not sure where the wins are going to come from.”
Everton has played in the English top division more than any other club – 120 years. This is 10 years more than Liverpool and Arsenal, and 25 more than Manchester United, and Manchester City.
“I look at these Everton players and (I) don’t think they have it in them. And (Sean) Dyche, probably, wants to grab one of two (of them) by the throat and shake them to life,” adds Hutchinson.
“But the modern-day players are not built the same way as we were, back in the day. We could have a fight with the manager and still turn up and play our best football.”
After the departure of Frank Lampard in January 2023, Everton brought in Sean Dyche, its fifth manager in four years.
Dyche came with a reputation for helping teams through relegation battles after keeping Burnley in the English topflight for six successive seasons, its most successful spell since 1971.
“The fact that even he’s (Dyche) failing, (his side is) not getting wins and not scoring goals goes on to show that sometimes, it’s not all about the manager,” Hutchinson says.
The last push
Everton plays Leicester on Monday, both sides trying to survive in the Premier League and Hutchinson hopes the club will be able to fight back like it did against Crystal Palace last season.
“They were at Goodison and played Palace and they were 2-0 down at half-time. I was at commentary when (I thought) Everton are gone and they are relegated. I was actually quite emotional,” he says.
“Everton turned it around and won 3-2. They had an amazing second half. That’s what pushed them on and they’re going to need that sort of performance and mental attitude against Leicester. It doesn’t matter how you win against Leicester, but it’s all about the win.”
Speaking about the club fans, the former player said: “I do honestly feel for Evertonians because they are emotional, and they are an amazing set of fans to play for.
“I have played in the Championship, with Sheffield United, and it’s a brutal league – it is Saturday, Tuesday and then Saturday, Wednesday.
If the players can’t play in the Premier League, where they play 38 games, Lord knows how they’re going to play in the Championship where you have to play 60.”
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