Scarcely in Everton’s history has there been a player more befitting of his nickname than Graham ‘Diamond’ Stuart. Stuart’s debut season was drawing to its miserable conclusion in May 1994, with Everton staring down their noses at relegation. Losing 2-0 to Wimbledon, in the season’s make-or-break fixture on the final day of the campaign, Everton were handed a lifeline from the penalty spot shortly before halftime.
Goodison was a cauldron simmering with anxiety, and there were senior players who clearly baulked at the task in hand. But Stuart, an unassuming 23 year-old, who had had a mixed debut season on Merseyside and had never taken a spot kick for the club before, took possession of the ball and smartly despatched it into the back of the Wimbledon net. Everton’s revival was set in motion, and nine minutes from the end Stuart completed the turnaround, with a scuffed shot from the edge of the penalty area that bobbled past Hans Segers and brought a 3-2 win and safety.
Stuart, a former England under-21 international and graduate of the FA School of Excellence, had signed from Chelsea the previous summer for £850,000. Nominally a right winger he would, over his four-year long Goodison career, fit into a variety of roles across the Everton midfield, also as a forward and wing back. A good dribbler and fine and accurate passer of the ball, always eager and willing, Stuart had nevertheless been slow to adapt to life at Goodison. Prior to the Wimbledon game he had often flattered to deceive and had scored just once as Everton neared the abyss.
That crazy afternoon changed everything, however, as Stuart entered Goodison lore. Stuart later recalled it as ‘one of the best and worst days of my life.’ ‘I have seen people celebrate Cup wins less passionately,’ he told the Liverpool Echo in 2009. ‘It rattles me a little bit. The whole thing does. I hate the fact that we were even in that position to start with because it tells me that we must have been pretty woeful for the whole of the season.’
Things, nevertheless, improved with the arrival of Joe Royle later that year. Stuart was greatly valued by the new manager, who often used him in his favoured role as a deep-lying forward. It was here that he started the 1995 FA Cup Final, and it was his shot against the crossbar that set up Paul Rideout’s decisive goal. Royle persevered with him as a forward throughout much of the 1995/96 season, talking him up as a possible England contender. Stuart proved a more reliable alternative to the enigmatic Duncan Ferguson and finished second top scorer. But he lacked the pace and ruthlessness in front of goal that would have marked him out as a top marksman. His versatility worked against him too, and he lacked the sort of lengthy run in a single position that might have seen him excel.
Still, he was a valued and respected member of the Everton squad, and his departure to Sheffield United as a makeweight in the deal that saw Carl Tier and Mitch Ward arrive in November 1997 was widely mourned. He subsequently returned to the Premier League with Charlton Athletic, whom he captained at the start of the century, later playing out his career with Norwich City.
On retirement he returned to Merseyside, which the effusive Londoner came to regard as his home. ‘The days I spent at Goodison were the happiest of my career,’ he said in 2009. ‘Don’t get me wrong; I had a great time at Chelsea and had a magnificent upbringing there. But Everton is just a special club; it’s a still place, it gets to you. Once you‘ve played here, you don’t forget it.’