23-year-old Tony Cottee joined Everton from West Ham in August 1988 for a then record fee of £2.2 million and on the opening day of the season he scored a hat-trick in a 4-0 win at Goodison Park over Newcastle United. This game marked his first return to the club where he had made his debut as a 17-year-old, going on to score 92 goals in 212 League games for the Hammers.
Under Colin Harvey, Everton had made a disappointing start to the season and were languishing in mid-table before the match, while West Ham were in the relegation zone after having won only two of their opening 14 games. The Blues’ form hadn’t been helped by a series of injuries, with another new signing Pat Nevin (a £925,000 purchase from Chelsea in the close-season) having suffered a knee ligament injury in only his third game and Kevin Sheedy being out with a calf strain. On the plus side, Paul Bracewell was finally back in first-team contention after more than two years struggling to overcome a career-threatening ankle injury following a nasty tackle by Newcastle striker Billy Whitehurst on January 1st, 1986.
In the West Ham ranks were two players with Everton connections – captain Alvin Martin was on the club’s books as a schoolboy before being offered an apprenticeship by the Hammers and this match marked his 327th League appearance for them. Playing his 130th game for the home side was right-winger Mark Ward, rejected by the Toffees as a youngster, he had moved to Northwich Victoria then Oldham before his move south.
In the match itself, Tony Cottee couldn’t grab his 100th League goal but he played his part in the goal which settled it. Hammers defender Julian Dicks completely missed a Kevin Ratcliffe cross driven low across the edge of the box in the 53rd minute and Cottee cleverly flicked it on to Trevor Steven whose shot slithered under the body of ‘keeper Allen McKnight. More bad news for the Hammers was that Mark Ward suffered knee ligament damage which put him out of a much-anticipated League Cup tie with Liverpool just a few days later.
Though struggling in the League, West Ham had been flying in the Littlewoods Cup, including a 5-0 demolition of the team with the best defensive record in Division One at the time, Derby County. The tie against Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool side was a repeat of the 1981 League Cup Final and the Hammers gained revenge for that defeat with an emphatic 4-1 success, thanks to two goals from Paul Ince and one from Tony Gale, plus a Steve Staunton own goal.
In the next round, West Ham were drawn at home to Aston Villa, winning 2-1, but in the semi-final the Hammers came unstuck to the eventual winners Luton Town, losing the tie 5-0 on aggregate.