Earlier this decade, I was holidaying in Brittany with my wife and children when our poolside idyll was almost ruptured by tragedy. My eldest son, aged five, suddenly found himself out of his depth. From the corner of my eye I saw his head disappear under the water. The pool was full, but no one other than me had noticed.  He rose again, and I could see the panic in his eyes before he sank to the bottom.

Terrified, I jumped in, fully clothed and scooped him out and onto the side. But for a bit of swallowed water, he was fine. A French lady watching the unfolding drama applauded me, but most people carried on reading their books and lazing in their reclining chairs as if nothing had happened. In a way it hadn’t. The whole incident hadn’t lasted more than 20 seconds. But for weeks after my dreams were filled with nightmares of drowning. 

Yet after a few of these restive nights, it was I, not he, who in these dreams was submerged in escalating darkness, gasping helplessly and clawing at the surface for salvation. Always I emerged at the surface, breathing deliriously, free and alive.

I wondered each morning in which part of my subconsciousness these nightmares lay, for I had always been a strong swimmer and risk averse too, never straying out of my depth and never getting into trouble either. Was it all just imagination?  What was going on in my mind? 

Several weeks later, back in England, back watching my team, Everton, at Goodison, the answer returned to me. It was here, at a dramatic game in the mid-90s, that my own moment of oblivion and redemption had come. I had drowned not in water, but under a sea of bodies just as it seemed as Everton were at their lowest. And then I – like my sinking team – had been saved.

The early Premier League era was a strange time for Everton Football Club. As recently as 1987 they had been league champions, but, decimated by the post-Heysel European ban, the club had lost some of its best players as well as its legendary manager, Howard Kendall. High-profile signings, such as the British transfer-record holder, Tony Cottee, had struggled to fill the boots of those they had replaced. This was exacerbated by dressing-room splits between the old guard – who had brought an unprecedented glut of trophies in the mid-1980s – and new signings made by Kendall’s successor, Colin Harvey.  Kendall returned as manager in November 1990, with Harvey resuming his previous role as his assistant, but the magic was no longer there. Whatever had gone on before, the chemistry we had, it wasn’t the same,” Harvey recalled.

Led by its former chairman, Sir Philip Carter, the club had been one of the architects of the new Premier League, with its constitution even being thrashed out in the Goodison boardroom. But of all the big clubs, Everton seemed least able to adapt to the new era. A state of limbo pervaded at Goodison. The club’s owner and patriarch, the Littlewoods pools and home-shopping tycoon, Sir John Moores, was in his mid-90s, and no longer played a role at the club. But whereas Littlewoods executives previously played active parts on the Everton board, the chairman was now David Marsh, a local GP and Moores’s bridge partner. The club didn’t even have a chief executive until the new century.

“I was pitched in at a difficult time. I remember attendances falling and trying to get finance when I was chairman,” recalled Marsh in 2017.  “Jim [Greenwood, the club secretary] and I went on various trips to try and arrange finance. You could get the finance, but the people who were prepared to give it would not have been approved by the rest of the board or probably by the FA. You needed millions not just the odd few hundred thousand and that wasn’t enough. They were very difficult times for finance.’

On Sunday evenings, Marsh would go to Moores’s home in Freshfield to play cards. Although the nonagenarian was a fixture in the top ten of Sunday Times rich list, Dr Marsh says he never asked him for money for Everton. “Nor would he have given it to me,” he said. “It was just an unwritten rule: you don’t ask, he’s done his time at Everton and we move on.”

Everton finished the 1990-91 season – Kendall’s first back as manager – ninth, the following season twelfth, and then they came thirteenth in 1992-93, the first of the Premier League years. Kendall could always talk a good game and lift spirits, but it became clear that the rumours of high-profile transfer targets were fanciful. A move for Real Madrid’s Gheorghe Hagi ended up as the signing of Barry Horne from Southampton. A British record deal for Duncan Ferguson transpired as a loan move for Southend’s Brett Angell. The money was no longer there.

In September 1993, Moores passed away, aged 97. Everton marked the occasion by losing 5-1 at home to Norwich City. Efan Ekoku scored four times. Watching, aged 14, on a half-empty Gwladys Street terrace the linesman, not the team, bore the full brunt of my teenage rage. I was one of a generation of Evertonians brought up on tales of the club’s great comeback from the brink in the mid-80s, when a near-mythical backpass from Kevin Brock had led to a dramatic Milk Cup quarter-final equaliser and formed a springboard to unparalleled success. I still believed inherently that Howard would turn it around. Like many around me, I still believed in Everton.

But even Kendall’s patience wore thin with Everton. In December 1993, just 13,667 – the lowest league attendance in a decade – turned out to watch a workmanlike 1-0 win over Southampton. Straight after the match Kendall announced his resignation, furious that the board wouldn’t back a move for Manchester United’s Dion Dublin. 

Everton entered a spiral of turmoil. The club was officially up for sale, with the board member and theatre impresario, Bill Kenwright, vying for control with the Tranmere chairman, Peter Johnson, who had made his fortune in Christmas hampers. In this void there was prevarication over Kendall’s successor, lasting five disastrous weeks, during which the club lost seven consecutive league games. Eventually the Norwich manager Mike Walker took over. 

Walker’s rise to managerial prominence had been meteoric. His playing career had been undistinguished and confined to the lower leagues. With a previous spell in charge of Colchester United in the late 1980s famous only for his being sacked having just won the Manager of the Month award, he later joined the Norwich City coaching staff and was appointed manager in June 1992, still virtually unknown outside Carrow Road. With a reputation for free-flowing, attractive football, they improbably ended 1992 10 points clear at the top of the Premier League. But for a lack of depth they might have won the title that season, but their third-place finish was still the best in the Norfolk club’s history. Perhaps ominously, they had the unusual distinction for a club who had finished so high of having conceded more goals, 65, than they had scored, 61.

There was an initial spike in form at Goodison, but results quickly started to decline. When Everton visited Walker’s former club on 20 March Norwich routed them 3-0. Relegation became more and more of a threat, and fears were reinforced a fortnight later when Sheffield Wednesday thrashed Everton 5-1 at Hillsborough. 3-0 reversals at Blackburn and Leeds pushed Everton closer towards the trapdoor, with only a win over West Ham stemming a seemingly irreversible tide. 

Walker was already deeply unpopular with his players. Neville Southall said that because he had never worked at a big club before, there were problems dealing with big characters in the dressing room, training-ground routines were disliked and a tactical system was imposed that was beyond the players Everton possessed at the time. “We’d pass the ball 50 times without it leaving our half, give the ball away and our opponents would score,” he recalled. 

Everton approached the final match of the season against Wimbledon occupying the third relegation spot, lying behind Sheffield United whose result against Chelsea Everton would need to better in order to survive.

Saturday 7 May 1994 was Everton’s judgement day. Almost exactly 40 years to the day previously, they had ended their second and most recent spell in the Second Division. It was a matter of significant pride at Goodison that only Arsenal had a longer uninterrupted top flight reign. 

It was a massive thing for Everton,” the captain, Dave Watson, recalled. “They'd been in the top flight for all their lives. It was a bit of a nervous situation for some players. What it boiled down to: ‘Have you got the bollocks? You got us in this situation. Get us out of it.’”

But pride bred complacency elsewhere in the club, and no one seemed to be more carefree about the whole affair than the manager himself. “Walker kept saying ‘I just know we’re going to get out if it.’ Even to the very last day he still had that sort of arrogance,” the midfielder, Graham Stuart, who had been Kendall’s final signing, recalled. “From a manager’s perspective that’s probably not a great way to be going about your business with the players, to keep turning round to everybody saying, ‘We’ll be alright, I know we’ll get out of it’ and stuff like that. There was sort of an air of complacency about it, and if you got it from the manager then it transmits itself to the players.”

“There was a feeling that a draw might be enough to keep us up,” said Barry Horne. “But I absolutely knew that we had to win. There was never any doubt that we had to win, even if a draw might have been good enough. I never thought that we could take that chance, I thought all the way through leading up to it that that was a game that we had to win.”

Many supporters were in turmoil ahead of the match. The Liverpool Echo’s Everton correspondent, Dave Prentice, recalled fans calling the Echo’s sports desk and “absolutely panic-stricken seeking reassurance, which we couldn't really give them.” 

Others were ready to glory in their demise. There were allegedly plans for a funeral procession carried out by Liverpool supporters from Anfield, while the players were also a target.  “I got a card before the game,” said Watson. “I don't know if it was from a Liverpool fan. It said, ‘Let’s hope you're like the captain of the Titanic!’ That made me realise how big it was. Top flight all these years and I’m captain! Taking Everton down! Who was the captain who took Everton down? It wasn't going to happen.”

The vicar at St Luke’s church, on the corner of Goodison Park, Reverend Harry Ross, opened the chapel up on match day, so supporters could seek solace. “I realised that most of them were worried about what was happening to Everton,” he recalled two decades later. “Everton is such a big part in people’s lives and so where there is a worry it’s important that the church recognises that and tries to help people in whichever way it could.”

I passed St Luke’s around 11am on the day of the match, on my way to the Gwladys Street terrace, where I usually sat with three school friends. In those days, a Junior Evertonian membership card gained admission with £5 off – cash on the gate of course – meaning you could see Everton for £3 or £4 a game. (This was at a time when a daily paper-round earned £13 a week.) The only game of the season that was ever all-ticket was the derby against Liverpool; you could usually walk in a couple of minutes before kick off and have your pick of the available seats. Unbelievably, the Wimbledon match hadn’t been declared all-ticket, so we turned up on the day, cash in hand, albeit four hours early.

We weren’t the only ones with that idea. The streets around Goodison were already packed with thousands of people. The average attendance that season had hovered around the 20,000 mark, but thousands of the desperate and the hopeful had made their way to Goodison and were waiting hours and hours before kick off. No one had ever seen anything like it before.

We pushed our way through the masses, to the Junior Evertonian turnstile at the far end, with the corner of Bullens Road. In front of us were hundreds of other teenagers and children. The turnstiles were shuttered and would remain so until 1pm, a horseback police officer told us. Would we get in? “They’re still selling tickets for the Wimbledon end in the box office,” he said. “You just need to find yourself a Cockney.”

We faced a dilemma: stick with the queue and hope the turnstiles would stay open long enough to let us in, or abandon it for the box office and pray that we could find a willing Wimbledon supporter who would vouch for us. My friends were eager to pursue the latter course, but I knew all about Wimbledon’s travelling support. When I was younger I used to count them with my father, their heads pockmarking the empty Park End where the visiting support stood. There were never more than 50 of them.

As my mates went off in search of their way in, I waited by the Gwladys Street. Around 12.30pm, the queue started to move. They had opened the gates early. The lined shuffled forward a few steps at a time and we moved along the Victorian street, closer and closer to the gate. Finally, I found myself pressed up against the turnstile, handed over my money and entered. Behind me I could hear the slam of the wooden gate outside, casting the inside of the stand into shadows. The turnstile had only admitted a couple more supporters after me.  

It was a strange time to enter Goodison, with the Park End at the opposite end of the stadium demolished and the half-built steel skeleton of a new stand in its place. As I squinted into the distance I could see people sitting in the trees of Stanley Park, assuming their match specs. It was 1.30pm, and an eerie sense of calm descended upon Goodison.

It was a mood that Barry Horne, arriving at the stadium around the same time, also sensed. “It was a clear day, bright blue skies, very still. That was the thing that struck me. In amongst all this turmoil everything just seemed to be very calm and very, very, very still” he said. “Even as I was driving in, there were people hanging around the ground. And, of course, the other odd thing about it was that there was no Park End. It was all boarded up, so we could see trees in Stanley Park. There were people on roofs. My overriding thoughts were we had to win and just how calm and how serene everything appeared to be.”

17 years later I found myself in the front room of Neville Southall’s home in Kent. He was working as a teacher for children who had dropped out of mainstream education, and we were collaborating on his autobiography, The Binman Chronicles. These were the days before his Twitter fame and emergence as a social justice campaigner. Since his retirement he had largely disappeared and to me – who had grown up idolising him and still didn’t know him particularly well – he was still an elusive and slightly intimidating figure. The Wimbledon game soon came into our conversation and I told him that at no stage that day did I believe Everton would lose.

“You must be the only nugget other than me who thought that,” he said.  “I never ever thought we were going to lose the Wimbledon match. A game of such importance, I never thought we were going to lose, ever. For me, back then, Everton getting relegated was just completely and utterly inconceivable. Even when things got particularly bad, which they soon did.”

That few others shared our confidence was unsurprising. Wimbledon’s entire reputation was predicated on giant-killing. In nine seasons they had risen from non-league to the First Division and had remained there since 1986. They had beaten arguably Liverpool’s greatest ever team to win the 1988 FA Cup, denying them an unprecedented ‘double double’. In May 1994 they were on course for a best ever league finish of fifth – if they could beat Everton. Their reward was an expenses paid trip to Las Vegas courtesy of the club’s Lebanese owner, Sam Hammam. 

Of all teams you’re paired up against, the last team on the earth you wanted to play is Wimbledon, because they’d have loved it to send Everton down,” said Ian Snodin, Everton’s right back that day. “A big, big club like Everton and a little club like Wimbledon, they would have loved it with the personnel they had in and around that time.” 

“I remember in the lead up to the game thinking, ‘We’re in big trouble here.’ I mean big trouble. Especially playing them, because we’re soft,” said the midfielder John Ebbrell. “I know Everton, I know Everton teams and thinking, ‘We’re soft and they’re as tough a team as we’re going to play. Every set piece is going in our box with quality, with someone 6‘4“ coming to head it. They’re going to turn us all the time. It’s going to be a bobbly pitch. The crowd are going be anxious. They’re going play for throw-ins, corners…”

Yet if intimidation was the mainstay of their reputation, some enterprising Evertonians were not above dishing it out. The night before the match some supporters had taken to torching the Wimbledon team bus. The Dons arrived singed, but apparently unperturbed. 

“Knowing some of the Wimbledon players I’m not sure they’d have been too unsettled by that or the raucous atmosphere at Goodison,” said Southall. 

Ian Snodin recalled “a lot of shouting, ghetto blaster at full blast, they were pumping it to high heaven” before the match. “You knew you were in for a game, simple as that.”

From the first stages of the game Everton looked doomed. In the fourth minute Anders Limpar inexplicably handballed on the edge of his own penalty area while trying to clear a Wimbledon corner. “It was a stupid thing; I was so pumped up, worked up to win that game, so I was everywhere and nowhere,” he reflected years later. Dean Holdsworth stepped up to take the resulting penalty and score his twenty-fourth goal of the season, the ball trickling agonisingly into the net after Southall had got both hands to it.

“We were actually running like headless chickens to win the game, and if you do that and you don’t think what you’re going to do on the pitch, you run everywhere and your teammates don’t know where you’re running,” said Limpar.

The calamity soon deepened. Sixteen minutes later Dave Watson and David Unsworth jumped for the same high ball. It dropped to Andy Clarke, whose mis-hit shot found the net via the shins of the flailing Gary Ablett. Time seemed to stand still as I watched despairing from 12 yards away in the Gwladys Street as Ablett tried unsuccessfully to stop the ball dropping into the net. 

Goodison, which had been an inferno of noise, was hushed. “We thought, ‘This is it,’” said Dave Watson. “The atmosphere wasn't the best because a stand had been knocked down behind the goal. It was like playing on a cricket pitch.”

Yet the veteran Southall remained implacable. It was a catastrophe of errors but even then, when we were 2-0 down, the thought of losing never entered my head,” he said. 

Everton, attacking the void where the Park End once stood, seemed entirely impotent. Then shortly before half time they received a lifeline. Limpar, charging for a loose ball just inside the left channel of the Wimbledon area, took a tumble at the feet of the onrushing Peter Fear. The referee, Robbie Hart, pointed to the spot. It was the softest of penalties, “a great dive”, concluded the watching substitute, Stuart Barlow.

A surreal interlude followed that entirely escaped my memory until searching through my teenage diaries while working with Southall on his book. 

Had this really happened? “Wardy [Mark Ward] wasn’t playing and I could see that Tony [Cottee] didn’t fancy it, so I took the ball,” Southall told me over our fourth cup of tea one morning. “I was the most experienced player and after my goal in the Full Members Cup shootout seven years earlier I had a 100 per cent penalty record. I’d said before kick off that if there was a penalty I’d be taking it, but I don’t think anybody took my pledge too seriously until we were faced with that situation.”

“Neville picked up the ball and started marching down the pitch holding the football,” said Dave Prentice. “Everyone's thinking, ‘What's going on now? Is Neville going to take it?’ And Diamond [Graham Stuart] walked towards him, took the ball off him and there was a ripple of applause around the ground.”

I knew I was taking the penalty, there wasn’t even a doubt in my mind,” recalled Stuart. “But I just looked at him and thought to myself, ‘We all know he’s mad, but is he actually mad enough to walk all the way to the end of the pitch?’ And he probably would have been, but I said, ‘Give us it here, Nev, give us the ball, 'and he threw the ball to me and that was it. I remember putting the ball on the spot and I stepped back and I looked up and the Park End was down. All I remember is seeing kids and people swinging in the trees, because it was a sell out and people were desperate for any vantage point whatsoever.”

Stuart had never taken a penalty before for Everton. He sent the ball low and to Segers’s right. Segers dived left. 

The second half began in a thunderous manner. Stuart was played into space on the edge of the area, jinked past a man, before firing in a shot at Segers’s near post, which the Dutchman shielded down. The ball bounced agonisingly towards the goal line before being cleared away. 

But Wimbledon came back. Far away at the other end of the ground, through the low sun, I could just about see Holdsworth having a header chested off the line by Stuart. Then from the resulting corner, Ebbrell headed away at the back post with an unmarked Holdsworth bearing down on him. The crowd were becoming restless, the game drifting.

On 67 minutes, Vinnie Jones lost control of a long clearance on the edge of the centre circle. Everton’s previously unheralded Welsh midfielder Barry Horne powered through and, after controlling the ball with his thigh, the ball bounced up kindly. With his unfavoured right foot, he unleashed a searing half volley from 35 yards. The trajectory of the swerving shot was coming straight for my face until it was stopped by the goal net. 

An explosion of noise. Delirium. A chaos of overlapping limbs, and there I was drowning under a sea of bodies, the roar of the crowd alternating with the thud of human flesh upon human flesh. An elbow dug into my kidneys. A flash of blue sky and the sound of 32,000 Evertonians screaming ecstatically. A tumble, a thud; somebody standing on my face. A burbling half-deafness, as if underwater. A whack to my thigh, and a taste of gravel in my mouth. Near silence. Darkness. What was this touching my face? Grass? More cheers as the bodies thinned. The weight bearing down on me lessened and light returned. A definite unwavering roar of ecstasy and then blue skies above me, the arm of an overwhelmed steward grabbing me by the scruff of my neck and shoving me back into the Gwladys Street. I had drowned and now I was saved. “Get back in there before the bizzies come,” he snarled.

With 30 or 40 others I had tumbled down the concourse, hugging and swaying and tripping over each other in a melange of limbs, before some of us found our way onto the forbidden territory of the pitch. It was probably terrifying and dangerous, but all I could think of was that I’d finally made contact with the hallowed turf, how lucky I was to do that and how Barry Horne, who hadn’t scored since his Everton debut 21 months earlier, had scored the goal of a lifetime and brought salvation.

“I didn’t have the best of starts to my Everton career,” Horne remembered years later. “In fact it was grim at times, but I was getting stronger and stronger throughout the season. I actually felt I played well and I was playing well, and I was really, really confident, and when you’re confident you just do things. 

“12 months earlier I would have struggled to get that ball under control and pass to a teammate. But on this occasion the ball came to me and it just sat up, I just controlled it and my first thought was get there before Vinnie Jones. As it came to me I realised, ‘I’ve got this now, so what’s next?’ I felt I was playing well, I was full of confidence, so it just happened.”

Barely had I returned to my seat, out of breath, adrenalin coursing through my veins, than he almost repeated the trick. Jones headed clear a Limpar corner and Ebbrell knocked it into the path of the Welshman. He seemed to have all the time in the world as he took aim with his right foot again. But the bending curling shot went narrowly over the crossbar and into the Gwladys Street.

There were no smartphones then and no one with a radio in proximity to me – not that they could have heard anything above the noise – to tell me that mathematically Everton were still going down at that stage. A draw wasn’t enough. Ipswich Town were drawing at Blackburn and Sheffield United were about to take the lead at Chelsea, leaving the Blues adrift in the relegation places. 

Everton still they needed that crucial winner. Walker brought Stuart Barlow on for Ebbrell with 10 minutes remaining. Barlow, who had been signed as an amateur while working on the butcher’s counter at a local supermarket, was a whippet-like striker whose finishing was notoriously erratic. But with his first intervention he won a header on the edge of the Wimbledon area from Southall’s long punt. The ball was played out to the Limpar on the left wing. He squared it to Stuart 35 yards out, who played a wall pass to Cottee, who touched it back to Stuart. From the edge of the area, Stuart hit a tame shot that squeezed past Segers to make it 3-2. 

Goodison seemed to shake as people celebrated. Scores of people ran onto the pitch, chased by forlorn stewards. Mike Walker appeared pitchside urging spectators off the field of play. I remained in my seat this time, hugging strangers. There were still nine minutes to play.

“It was more of a 50-50 challenge, and I got a contact on it, that’s about as much as I can say, contact,” said Stuart of the most important goal of his life. “The rest is history: it bobbles over Hans Segers’s arm and nestles in the back of the net eventually. I’ve always said it’s the best goal I’ve scored and the worst goal I’ve scored all in one. Nobody cared, nobody really cared one little jot. I remember the whole euphoria of the place; you don’t even know what to do. I just got up off the floor and just started running.”

The final stages were played out to a cacophony of whistles from the three sides of the stadium. I don’t remember anything of any consequence happening. By that stage the Wimbledon players just wanted to get out of Goodison, Las Vegas trip or not.   

With the final whistle the crowd surged onto the pitch as the players raced to the dressing room. Barlow emerged on the shoulders of one group of fans, an unlikely hero as the rest escaped down the tunnel. I watched from an empty Gwladys Street as the Tannoy confirmed that other results had gone Everton’s way – Ipswich had held out at Blackburn to survive, but Sheffield United’s lead was overturned by two late Mark Stein goals sending them down – and that Everton were, indeed safe. I don’t think that it occurred to anybody inside Goodison that that might not be the case.

“As I said,” Southall reflected all those years later in Kent, “there was never any doubt at all that we’d be saved and we were.”

Eighty miles east in Sheffield, Everton’s reserve team were playing against Sheffield United’s reserve team at Bramall Lane that same afternoon. It was, recalled the midfielder Tony Grant, “a nothing game” but tempers soon frayed. 

“The match itself was quite nasty, because their first team could go down, and they actually did,” said Joe Parkinson, a midfielder Walker had signed from Wigan on transfer deadline day. “It was a nasty game, and we all came off in the tunnel [at half time] and it was close to even a bit of fighting because they were all taking a bit of mickey out of us because we were down, and they were up.”

“They’re thinking about their first team; we’re thinking about our first team,” said Grant. “I don’t even know what score it was, but I know as soon as the game finished everyone ran off the pitch and was in the tunnel. There was a small radio on the floor and we had the results coming in, and that day Sheffield United went down.”

“We couldn’t believe what we’d heard,” said Andy Hinchcliffe, who also played for Everton Reserves that afternoon. “We couldn’t believe when we got back on the coach what had transpired.”

At Goodison, although players and fans celebratedStuart recalled the biggest emotion, as one of “relief”. “We’d dodged a bullet,” he said.

Everybody was just physically and mentally drained,” said Dave Watson. “It was unbelievable. Bloody hell. I could eventually sleep that night because I’d had a few drinks but your mind was racing.”

Yet joy soon gave way to self-reflection and disgust. “You've won the Cup final. I went along with that, because it's the relief,” said Unsworth. “But if I was there now there's no euphoria at that. You can't be celebrating failure. But it was just champagne everywhere, like we'd won the cup.”

Tony Cottee concurred with defender. “We come in after the game and I remember there were a few people cracking open champagne because we stayed up, and I was sat in the corner thinking, ‘Why are we celebrating staying up?’ It’s not really good enough for Everton Football Club.”

After the game,” reflected Southall, “There was lots of talk of never letting Everton fall into such a perilous position again, about fresh starts. It was a complete and utter disgrace that a club like ours were ever in such a situation. But I didn’t hear many people taking the blame for it. Who was to blame for the mess? The players, because we were shit. But then it didn’t help that we had Walker in charge either, because he was clueless.”

Within a few weeks of the Wimbledon game it was confirmed that Peter Johnson had won the battle with Bill Kenwright to buy Everton from the Moores family. Kenwright had told Moores’s daughter the day before the Wimbledon game of his intention to step aside on account of Johnson’s deeper pockets.

Talking to me about the takeover struggle a quarter of a century later, Kenwright told me how he had agonised during those final months of the 1993-94 season, feeling, as he put it, “responsible for every corner kick we lost, every throw-in.”

The day after the Wimbledon match, he went walking on Hampstead Heath with his partner, the actress Jenny Seagrove. “My body was covered in psoriasis because of the stress,” Kenwright told me. “I got there and just broke down and cried; sobbed and sobbed and sobbed because of the relief of the previous day; because of maybe the relief that at least something had happened for the club.  And I vowed to Jen that I would never put her – because everyone around me for that six months was ill with my illness – through that again.”

Johnson initially invested serious money into Everton, breaking the club’s transfer record three times in four months to bring in players like Daniel Amokachi and Duncan Ferguson. Yet it wasn’t enough to arrest the decline under Mike Walker, whom the players never warmed to. In November 1994, after the worst start to a season in the club’s history and with another relegation battle in the offing, Johnson lost patience and sacked Walker, bringing in Joe Royle in his place. 

“I think a lot of the players had totally and utterly lost any kind of faith with Mike,” recalled Graham Stuart. “I don’t mean that disrespectfully to the man, but I think that’s just the reality. He wasn’t getting a tune out of the players. It was a case of something’s going to have to happen to change the direction of the football club and the dynamic of the football club, because it was blatantly obvious that it wasn’t working.”

It had been a traumatic 11 months since Howard Kendall resigned. Walker’s replacement, Joe Royle, finally brought some stability. Although he was loath to be stinging of Walker on the record, in private Kendall would wonder how a team he had left in the anonymity of eleventh place had sunk so quickly. Nine of the players that later started the successful 1995 FA Cup final against Manchester United had been part of Kendall’s squad at the time of his departure.

By then more fundamental questions were being asked about the nature of Everton’s victory over Wimbledon. In November 1994, the Southampton goalkeeper, Bruce Grobbelaar, was accused by a Sun newspaper sting of accepting money to fix matches. It would transpire over five court cases spanning seven years that Grobbelaar was the victim of an elaborate and vicious revenge plot from an embittered former business partner, who was also a convicted con artist. But at the time the story was a tabloid sensation and Hampshire police began investigating Grobbelaar and looking for links to other potential co-conspirators.

The following March arrest warrants were put out for Grobbelaar, plus the former Wimbledon forward John Fashanu, the Wimbledon goalkeeper Hans Segers and a Malaysian businessman, Han Seung Lim (known as Richard Lim). 

The case against them was “fantastical”, Grobbelaar told me. But just how fantastical it was – and the case against Segers in particular – I didn’t fully appreciate until I carried out an in-depth review of papers pertaining to the subsequent trials ahead of publication of Grobbelaar’s 2018 autobiography, Life in a Jungle.

Grobbelaar and Fashanu were the two most prominent footballers from an African background in England in the mid-1990s, but little other than that connected them. The pair had briefly discussed a charity match for victims of the 1993 Zambia national team flight disaster and other business dealings, but none of it came to fruition. Lim helped Grobbelaar source kit from Malaysian manufacturers for the Zimbabwe national team – a more arduous task in the pre-internet era than it is today – and occasionally paid him for betting tips on football (Grobbelaar had a similar arrangement with the Norwegian newspaper, Dagbladet, neither of which were proscribed by the FA so long as it didn’t involve his own club). Segers and Fashanu were Wimbledon teammates and managed some rental properties in their spare time. Yet other than that the links between the four men were tenuous. 

The police had evidence of large sums of money transferred from the Far East to bank accounts controlled by Fashanu and Lim. They also had a dossier of taped evidence relating to the Sun’s entrapment of Grobbelaar. What they tried to do in a vast harvesting exercise was to join up the dots and show that the Far East money was used for the purposes of match-fixing. Yet the money transfers paid to Lim and Fashanu had nothing to do with Grobbelaar or Segers; nothing, as far as anyone could tell, to do with football. 

“Poor old Hans had nothing to do with anything,” Grobbelaar told me. “He was devastated, he was truly distraught. I honestly don’t know what the rationale behind his arrest was, other than that he’d played for Wimbledon in that game at Everton.

“I’m guessing that the police or CPS looked at that match, and thought ‘high profile game, a huge amount resting on its outcome, a dramatic late win for Everton’.”

The evidence seemed to be Stuart’s late bobbling winner. On Match of the Day, even the commentator Barry Davies acknowledged, “Hans Segers, to tell the truth, made a bit of a mess of that.” But the notion that the game was fixed was nonsense. How could any player – or players – have ever concocted such a dramatic encounter? The 2-0 Wimbledon lead, the Barry Horne wonder goal?  

“To have gotten to that stage in a cauldron of noise and intimidation and succeeded to throw a result would have required a huge and elaborate effort,” said Grobbelaar. “And if Fashanu was his master co-conspirator, how was he co-ordinating things from his position in the Goodison stands as he wasn’t playing?”

Ian Snodin said that you only had to see how pumped up the Wimbledon players were beforehand to see that nothing dubious had gone on. “You only had to be in the tunnel before that game at ten to three to realise that it wasn’t [a fix],” he said.

“I spoke to Hans about it a few times and I know what he’s like,” added Southall. “He’s not one of those players that is going to chuck a ball into the net for you. He’s just not that sort of person. In any case, it’s harder than you’d think just to let goals in.”   

In June 1997, more than three years after the Wimbledon game, Segers was cleared by a jury of all charges relating to match-fixing. By then, his top-flight career was at an end. Wimbledon had released him in 1996 and he spent some time as an understudy at Wolves and Tottenham, making just a solitary appearance before his retirement as a player in 2001.

A year after the Wimbledon game, I graduated from the Gwladys Street terrace to the Main Stand becoming, at the age of 16, the fifth generation of my family to hold an Everton season ticket. It was an unbroken tradition that extended for an entire century. The friends who left me that afternoon in search of tickets didn’t find a way into Goodison and instead made their way into the city centre, where they huddled around a newspaper vendor with a transistor radio to follow the match. Within an hour of the final whistle, the same vendor would have been selling copies of the Football Echo bearing the one-word headline, “Safe”. 

Over the next few years, we parted for university and work, as school friends do, but I always kept the season ticket, always kept the connection to Goodison, even when I lived far away from Liverpool. I had lots of  reasons for doing so – family, tradition, professional, a genuine love for the club and what it stands for – but I wondered what would have happened had I not consummated my relationship with the club in the rough and tumble of the Gwladys Street that May afternoon. Would I have felt the same if I’d have been turned away at the box office or the Gwladys Street gates? Would I have been the same as my mates – the departed – now middle-aged and distant watchers of our club? Would I have loved Everton less if I hadn’t been in that joyous and terrifying tangle of suffocating limbs, when I drowned and then lived and never felt so much alive? Probably not.

25 years after the Wimbledon match, my son also made it onto the Goodison pitch. Unlike me he was invited, the sixth generation of Goodison season ticket holders, trotting out as a mascot. As he left the pitch that day and joined me in the Main Stand I wondered if he too would experience such terrifying highs and lows on his Everton journey.