When, in January 1982, Everton signed a striker just shy of his 21st birthday for a club record fee of £700,000, many supporters expected Adrian Heath to immediately turn around the ailing club’s fortunes. Such weighty expectations were almost impossible for the diminutive youngster, invariably dubbed ‘Inchy’, to realise. But almost exactly two years after his arrival Heath was to score the goal that would lift Everton, after years of mediocrity, to greatness.
Signed as a teenager by his local club, Stoke City, Heath first appeared as an 18 year-old alongside Howard Kendall, then in the veteran stage of his playing career. For the next two decades, the two men’s careers would be closely linked. Indeed Kendall paid close attention to Heath even at such an early stage in his career. When, after becoming Everton manager in 1981, a club record attempt to buy West Bromwich Albion’s Bryan Robson failed in Autumn 1981, Kendall instead spent his transfer pot on the youngster.
Heath made his debut against Southampton and spent much of the remainder of the season flitting between a midfield and attacking role, scoring six times in twenty two appearances, but failing to significantly impress sections of the expectant Goodison faithful. Eventually he found a niche for himself alongside Graeme Sharp, scoring ten times during the 1982/83 season.
But it was during the 1983/84 season, that Heath really came into his own, finishing top goalscorer. Two of those goals, in particular, still stand out -- even years later.
On 18 January, 1984 Everton met Oxford United at the Manor Ground in a League Cup tie. The game came on the back of a disastrous run that had seen Everton win just one game in the previous seven and score only fourteen times in the first five months of the season. Kendall was under increasing pressure from the supporters, dissatisfied with a series of bad buys and form. The pitch that day was covered in frost, ideal for minnows looking for a scalp. When Bobby McDonald gave Oxford an early lead it looked as though Everton’s cup aspirations – and perhaps Kendall’s managerial career - were coming to an end.
The pivotal moment came nine minutes from full time. Andy Gray, who was cup-tied, remembered it vividly: ‘We were sitting on the bench and there’s nothing we can do and nothing that Howard could do. Then Kevin Brock, God bless him, made a fatal error in judgement in trying a back pass which little Inchy read brilliantly.’ Heath took the ball around the goalkeeper, and, from a narrow angle, slotted home the equaliser. Everton and Kendall were saved.
Heath’s second vital goal came at Highbury in April, against Southampton in the FA Cup semi final. Deep into extra time, the game was deadlocked at 0-0 when Graeme Sharp flicked on Peter Reid’s free kick and Heath stole in to score the only goal of the game and send Everton to Wembley. A month later Heath pocketed his first ever medal after a 2-0 FA Cup final victory over Watford.
These crucial goals inspired the best form of Heath’s career and he started the 1984/85 season in mesmerising fashion: 11 goals in the first fifteen league games and further strikes in the League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup leading to talk of an England call-up. Before this could happen fate cruelly conspired against Heath: a late tackle by Sheffield Wednesday’s Brian Marwood in the league match at the start of December caused a serious knee injury. Heath missed the remainder of the season, including the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup finals. Yet his early season contribution ultimately proved vital towards Everton’s eventual league title triumph.
Heath returned for the 1985/86 season, but found his chances limited by the arrival of Gary Lineker. But the England forward’s departure to Barcelona in July 1986 gave Heath a path back into the Everton team. Through the 1986/87 season he missed just one league game and his 11 goals again proved a valuable contribution to Everton’s second Championship in three years.
In October 1988, following the British record signing of Tony Cottee, Heath was sold to Barcelona’s second club, Espanyol. After 12 months he returned to England with Aston Villa, but played just nine games before being reunited with Howard Kendall, now manager of Manchester City.
The joke at the time at Maine Road was that City were to change their kit from sky blue to royal blue, for Heath joined not just Kendall, but an entire contingent of former-Everton players: Neil Pointon, Gary Megson, Alan Harper, Peter Reid, Mark Ward and Wayne Clarke. It was perhaps fitting that when Everton and City met in September 1990 it was Heath who scored the winner against his old club.
In 1991 Heath returned for a brief spell at Stoke City, before joining Burnley. In 1995 he was reunited with Kendall yet again, this time as a player coach at Sheffield United, where Kendall was in charge. He left the following spring to take over as player manager at Burnley, a position he held for 15 months, before the call came from Kendall once more. This time he was appointed Everton assistant manager for Kendall’s ill-fated third spell in charge.
After Kendall’s dismissal, Heath returned to Sheffield United for a brief spell as manager in 1999. He later hooked up with his old team-mate, Peter Reid, working in his backroom staff at Sunderland, Leeds United and Coventry City, where he was twice caretaker manager. In February 2008, Heath was appointed manager of the newly inaugurated American club, Austin Aztex, subsequently moving with the franchise when it relocated to Orlando and was rebranded Orlando City S.C..