The marked change that occurred to the team over the summer of 2005 is staggering in hindsight. The team that Mick McCarthy had assembled during his time in charge had been superb – a true ‘team’ full of promise and potential.
Yes, we all realised the team needed strengthening, but we were comfortably stronger than the other teams who we’d come up with.
A disastrous – grossly underfunded – transfer window ensued, however, which left us weaker, not stronger, than the previous season. The departure of Mart Poom and Thomas Myhre – to be replaced by Kelvin Davis, was fundamental in our downfall, as too, was the free transfer given to Marcus Stewart.
Well, more pointedly, the signing of Jon Stead and Andy Gray to replace him.
Whether Stewart could have cut it in the top flight again is one matter – it could well have been a push. However, it was far more likely than Andy Gray ever being a Premier League forward, and while Stead had promise, his mixed spell at Blackburn hardly filled you with confidence.
The arrival on loan of Liverpool forward Anthony Le Tallac was another signing of hope rather than certainly, and the season petered out into a complete mess.
And, nine months after his arrival, we were still waiting for Jon Stead to score a goal for us.
It just had to happen on April Fool’s day, didn’t it?
The game itself, 16 years ago today, was a decent one for us, actually. Kevin Ball had taken over for his first spell as caretaker after McCarthy paid the price for an appalling transfer window.
However, any hope of Bally being the saviour had been extinguished with three consecutive defeats, with no goals scored and four conceded.
It had been an impossible ask anyway, and we headed to Goodison in the knowledge that defeat could send us down.
And it looked likely that would happen – because, after only five minutes, Leon Osman didn’t manage to trip himself up and win a penalty, but he did manage to score to put David Moyes’ team ahead.
But then, the impossible happened.
Firstly Stead had a shot. On target. Which was a rarity in itself. Keeper Richard Wright kept it out and conceded a corner, which Grant Leadbitter took, Chris Brown flicked on, and Sunderland scored.
From the side-on away end at the other end of the ground, we stood in disbelief. Firstly that we’d scored, full stop. After all, we’d only scored two in the past nine games.
But – could it be?! The celebration seemed over the top for the context of the goal – and, yes, we could understand why.
Jon Stead had scored!
There’d be songs written about this moment! Books written! T-shirts made!
Well, one out of three ain’t bad, as Meatloaf nearly once said.
James McFadden, once briefly and totally forgettably of this parish, put Everton back into the lead ten minutes later, and it looked as though it was going to be the game that sealed our fate.
The prospect of delaying the inevitable seemed to spur the lads on, however, and Rory Delap headed Dean Whitehead’s cross in at the far post with only nine minutes left.
And, remarkably, we could have won it. Delap again, playing what turned out to be his best game for the lads, hit the woodwork from 30 yards out in the last minute, only for it to rebound to safety.
After the game, Bally said:
The players kept going and going and got their rewards. We could have had a winner because Rory Delap’s strike was one of the best I’ve seen.
When it hit the post I looked to the heavens and said ‘come on give us a break’, but to be fair there were times near the end when Everton put us under a lot of pressure.
It was nice to celebrate a goal at last and I felt we fully deserved our point.
As it turned out, Delap’s season was over the following week, after suffering a broken nose in the April SoL snow – while Sunderland’s fate was confirmed a few days later at Manchester United.
But at least we had April Fool’s Day...