Summer 1988 was a time of intense transfer speculation surrounding the hottest property in the First Division. Since making his professional debut in 1983, Tony Cottee had established himself as one of the deadliest young strikers in the league, amassing 92 goals in 212 games for West Ham United, earning an England debut at 21 and the PFA Young Player of the Year award in 1986. Now the young striker saw his future elsewhere and Everton and Arsenal became embroiled in a race for his signature, a battle which Everton ultimately won – though only after spending a British record transfer fee of £2.3million.
‘Signing for Arsenal would have been easy for me,’ he recalled. ‘But coming up to Merseyside and sampling a new culture was an option for me too. Basically I felt that Everton wanted me more than Arsenal.’ Though he never said so, it was a decision he would surely come to rue: for while Arsenal won the League Championship twice in the next three seasons, Everton set upon a precipitous decline with Cottee central to many fans’ deep-lying frustrations.
With Cottee’s price tag and the acquisitions of Pat Nevin, Stuart McCall and Neil McDonald, expectations for the 1988/89 season were higher than ever as Colin Harvey sought to make his mark as manager. The season’s opener, against Newcastle United, saw what many, including Cottee, believe was his finest performance in an Everton shirt, in which he plundered a hat-trick. ‘I would have thought it was my best performance,’ he said in 1995.
‘And it was probably the best thing and the worst thing that I ever did. Obviously, it was the best thing because of the performance which I put in, but from an expectation point of view, everyone thought that I could get a hat-trick every game and I felt that I put a lot of pressure on myself.’
SHORT, quick and with an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time, Cottee was the archetypal six-yard box predator. Despite his size, he possessed good upper body strength and held his own so long as the ball was played to his feet. His first touch was good, his all-round team play less so.
The following week Cottee scored again, against Coventry City, earning an England recall. In all he made seven appearances for the national team, the first coming in September 1986 against Sweden, the last against Scotland three years later.
YET IT TOOK Cottee a further month to score again for Everton and such inconsistency came to typify his Everton career. Although the pressure of being Britain’s most expensive footballer was onerous, his form was – without question – disappointing. Nevertheless, he still finished the season as top scorer in all competitions with 15 goals, despite failing to contribute any to the team’s FA Cup run.
In summer 1989 Harvey paid £1.1million for Leicester City’s Mike Newell and Cottee spent the early part of the season on the substitutes bench. Within little over a year Britain’s first £2million player had become a mere reserve – this in an era when squad rotation was an unknown concept. When Cottee lost his place a second time in January 1990 he demanded a transfer, but after returning to the side hit top form, finishing top scorer with 13 league goals.
Yet despite wanting to leave Everton, no one came in for the striker. A stomach virus kept him out of action in the early part of the 1990/91 season, and when he did regain fitness he lost his place again after the sacking of Colin Harvey, and flitted in and out of the side for the remainder of the season.
He did, however, hit a personal high point in the famous 4-4 draw with Liverpool in February 1991 when he came on as a late substitute and equalised twice. That game restored some confidence and he asked for his name to be removed from the transfer list. He also managed to hold down a regular place for the last eleven league games, scoring seven times. Despite being in and out of the team, by the season’s end he had scored an impressive 22 goals in 29 starts in all competitions – an achievement that should be caveated by the recollection that three of these goals were against Wrexham in the League Cup and a further seven against lesser opposition in the Zenith Data Systems Trophy. Cottee possessed an infuriating tendency to boost his scoring ratio against lower league opposition in cup competitions while going for long periods without a goal in the league. Graeme Sharp later stated that he would get ‘very angry’ after games in which Everton lost but Cottee scored, for his colleague would consider it ‘job done ... whereas I was more concerned with the final result’.
AGAIN Cottee found himself out of favour in the 1991/92 campaign; after failing to click with new strike partner Peter Beardsley he found himself dropped and, after a poor showing for the reserves, in the A team at Morecambe for whom his window cleaner was playing! Following the signing of Maurice Johnston and a loss of form (he didn’t score at all after the start of December 1991) his time at Everton looked as though it would draw to a disappointing close.
Injury problems curtailed his contribution in the first half of the 1992/93 campaign but the chance to play with Paul Rideout in the latter half of the season saw him finally play alongside the target man he had for so long coveted. With Peter Beardsley’s departure at the end of the season the two were given an extended run in the 1993/94 season. As much as anything Cottee’s 16 goals, including hat-tricks against Sheffield United and Swindon Town, saved Everton from relegation.
YET WITH the influx of fresh investment, Mike Walker considered Cottee expendable and in September 1994 used him as bait to sign David Burrows from West Ham, Cottee’s former club.
Here he prospered briefly but many Hammers fans saw that he was a shadow of the young tyro they had once adored and expensive foreign signings soon meant that his chances were limited. Aged 31, he moved to Malaysia for a year, but in 1997 returned to England with Martin O’Neill’s Leicester City, where as a veteran he enjoyed three productive years, winning the League Cup in 2000: his first honour at the age of 34.
Released by Leicester the following September to join Norwich City for what would be a short spell as player-coach, in 2000/01 Cottee became the first player to play in all four professional divisions in a single season, after a short period as player-manager of Barnet and a couple of appearances for Millwall. On his retirement at the end of that season he turned to media work, and is now a commentator for Sky Sports.