“You don’t have good days without bad days,” said Neville Southall, remembering the afternoon when an inspired Leeds United team drove him to distraction at Goodison Park.
Nothing said more about United’s barnstorming start to the 1990-91 season than the sight of Southall sitting on the pitch with his back against a goalpost, contemplating a 2-0 deficit at half-time.
Everton’s goalkeeper had submitted a number of transfer requests before the first day of the campaign and his odd behaviour looked like a protest against a club who were refusing to sell him.
“That day people said I was bonkers, that I wanted a transfer,” he told the Daily Mail in 2012. “I thought I’d had a s**t first half and I just wanted to clear my head. That’s all.”
Everton’s half was as bad as that but in the away dressing room, a newly-promoted Leeds squad were exuberant. “They’re back in business,” shouted commentator Clive Tyldesley after defender Chris Fairclough bundled in a header eight minutes into United’s return to the first division.
The Elland Road club, as second division champions, were an unknown quantity but their display in a compelling contest on Merseyside left no doubt about how competitive they would be. Leeds stood up to a good Everton side that looked thoroughly rattled as goals flew in against them. Southall epitomised their frustration by spending the interval in front of a packed away end.
His annoyance was easy to understand. With one of their earliest attacks, Leeds caused disarray at Southall’s near post with a long, hopeful throw into the box. A crowd of defenders missed the ball, leaving Fairclough to knock it over the line with the help of a shoulder.
It was clear before long that the day would be United’s. Midway through the first half, Fairclough was penalised for handball in front of goal but Neil McDonald pulled a penalty kick across John Lukic and wide of the goalkeeper’s right-hand post. It would prove to be a costly miss.
At the other end of the field, Southall and his colleagues continued to amuse.
On 41 minutes Everton’s defence misjudged a long clearance and Imre Varadi dived into a challenge with Southall, injuring himself in the process. The ball spilled out to Gary Speed, who stabbed it into the net.
The home crowd were not impressed and Southall added to the bemused atmosphere when he emerged from the dressing room well ahead of every other player.
The away crowd taunted him and the Welshman applauded them with a wry smile.
“I was perceived to have eccentricities,” he said later.
Varadi claimed a third Leeds goal on 56 minutes, lashing the ball home from point-blank range after Everton made a mess of clearing David Batty’s cross.
And only then did the fightback come.
Pat Nevin replied first, cushioning a low shot around Lukic after breaking into the penalty area, and John Ebbrell reduced United’s lead further with a left-footed finish from 12 yards.
That strike set up a dramatic finish in which Mike Newell failed three times to claim an equaliser, shooting into the side netting, heading straight at Lukic and then drawing a good save from the keeper with a volley.