Signed from Sheffield United for £1.2 million as Gary Speed’s replacement amidst the dark days of winter 1998, Don Hutchison’s arrival at Everton raised some eyebrows amongst Evertonians and seemed to be another symbol of a club in decline. In the early-1990s Hutchison had been a promising midfielder at Liverpool, but had seen his Anfield career fade in the midst of drink fuelled disciplinary problems. Subsequent spells at West Ham, then Sheffield United hinted at a waning career.
Yet Hutchison, who pleaded that his bad boy days were behind him, confounded this initial scepticism, putting in some sound performances as Everton squeaked away from the relegation mire. A combative and physical midfielder with a good eye for a pass and a willingness to join attacks, he added some much needed robustness to Everton’s midfield.
When fresh investment came over the following summer, Hutchison was expected to make way for such big money signings as John Collins and Olivier Dacourt, but the adopted-Scot easily overshadowed their contributions through the 1998/99 season. Indeed, Walter Smith was so impressed with Hutchison’s contribution to the Everton midfield and as an auxiliary centre forward that he awarded him the captaincy in Dave Watson’s absence. Never did he shirk these responsibilities, although sometimes it was reckoned he took them too far – as witness the punch he aimed at Richard Gough in an extraordinary on-the-pitch confrontation in October 1999.
By now Hutchison was one of Everton’s most consistent performers. With his contract due for renewal at the end of 2000/01, the club were keen to start negotiations lest he move on a lucrative free transfer under the Bosman ruling. Yet on Hutchison’s basic salary of £9,000 per week, Everton were only prepared to offer him an increase of £750.
In February 2000, Hutchison misguidedly described the offer as ‘a disgrace’. Smith was furious, transfer listing and dropping him. But this proved self-defeating and without Hutchison, Everton embarked on a dismal run that extinguished vague hopes of European qualification. Although his comments were viewed with distaste, many supporters saw the manager’s response as self-destructive. This sense was heightened when the injured Kevin Campbell was ruled out for the remainder of the season and rather than use Hutchison as an auxiliary centre forward, Smith signed the veteran Mark Hughes on wages said to be twice Hutchison’s.
Before Smith could rid Everton of Hutchison, the player was embroiled in one final controversy. Recalled for the Good Friday derby meeting with Liverpool, the match was the usual tight tense affair, and seemed to be heading for its customary stalemate. Then, 90 seconds into the two minutes of allocated stoppage time, Sander Westerveld took a free kick quickly, it hit Hutchison in the back as he was walking away, and flew over the Liverpool goalkeeper’s head and into the back of his net. ‘GOAL!’ Screamed 35,000 Evertonians. But the referee, Graham Poll, saw it differently, claiming that he had already blown for full time. ‘The players got excited and confused as they do in derby matches but it was clear in my mind,’ Poll told reporters after the match. ‘Strange, then,’ noted The Times, ‘that his hands should have been down by his sides as Westerveld took the kick.’ Walter Smith was similarly bemused: ‘The fourth official put up two minutes on the board, but the ball crossed the line 15 seconds short of that. We have a computer that measures it. I feel the referee has taken the easy way out.’ The decision bore echoes of the Clive Thomas controversy 23 years earlier and Poll later admitted he’d got it wrong.
In summer 2000, came Hutchison’s inevitable transfer, to Sunderland, who paid £2.5 million. After a solitary season, he returned to West Ham in a £5 million deal, but was beset by injuries. Given a free transfer in 2005, he played out his career in the lower leagues, with Millwall, Coventry City and Luton Town, calling time on his playing career in 2008.