ONE figure who often tends to get overlooked when we think of Alan Durban’s team that won promotion back to the top flight in 1978/79 is Howard Kendall. You seldom see his name included in any all-time XI teams compiled by Stoke supporters, nor hear tales of his exploits in a Stoke City side he was an integral and influential part of for two whole seasons.
Howard Kendall enjoyed an illustrious playing career, most notably at Everton where he was one third of the “Holy Trinity” midfield alongside Alan Ball and Colin Harvey, and won a Championship in 1970. He was also a member of the Preston team that reached the FA Cup Final in 1964.
He was noted as an elegant and industrious player, who gave a lot to the team and was also often remarked on as being the best midfielder NEVER to play for England.
After he left Everton in 1974 he spent three years at Birmingham City and it was from St. Andrews that Stoke picked him up for £40,000 in the summer of 1977, following our relegation from the top division. As a manager it is probably true that George Eastham didn’t make as many good decisions as any of us would have liked. However, bringing an ageing veteran like Kendall to the club for that sort of money, to lead the engine room of the team, was a stroke of genius.
Even though things didn’t go particularly well for Stoke in that first back down in the Second Division Howard Kendall was one of the players who stood head and shoulders above any criticism from the supporters and press alike.
He was a class act in midfield and could be relied on to work at both ends of the pitch. He could break up opposing attacks, set up attacking moves of our own and also be in the right place at the right time to finish off a move, with a good eye for goal.
Kendall was part of the Stoke City side that was infamously beaten by Blyth Spartans in the 1977/78 FA Cup, though it was that defeat which was to herald a dramatic change in fortune for Stoke City and the beginning of a new career path for him.
Following on from that harrowing cup shocker, the Stoke board appointed Alan Durban as the new manager, and one of Durban’s first acts was to make Howard Kendall a player-coach. Any worries that the extra workload might have a detrimental impact on the player’s game were unfounded. Kendall was well-suited to the role and combined it effectively with his playing duties.
Once Alan Durban had steadied the Stoke ship, and finished the 1977/78 season on a high, he set about putting together the team that would see Stoke back into the top flight after a two-year absence.
Durban knew a good thing when he saw it and he had no hesitation in building his midfield around Howard Kendall and it was a smart move.
Kendall continued where he’d left off the season before and, if anything, the 32 year-old’s performances were even better than they had been the year before. In a team that kept it ultra-tight and denied the opposition time and space to play their own games, Kendall’s organisational skills and work-rate proved to be real attributes to the team.
And Stoke fans were in no doubt about what Kendall brought to the side. Having seen the likes of Hudson, Dobing, Eastham and Mahoney in action in the previous few years they knew a good midfielder when they saw one and they were always appreciative of his efforts and what he brought to the team.
When Stoke won promotion back to the top flight there was a genuine disappointment and concern that Howard Kendall decided against staying with us. Stoke fans were confident that he had plenty to contribute back in the top flight. As far as he was concerned though his 33 year-old body wasn’t up to life at the highest level.
Consequently, Kendall found himself dropping down two divisions to become the player-manager at Blackburn and he guided them to promotion before being snapped up by Everton and reaching the pinnacle of his managerial career.
His time at Stoke may have been restricted to just two seasons and 79 first team appearances, and his name may forever be synonymous with his Everton connection, but as far as the Victoria Ground faithful were concerned Howard Kendall was a true Stoke City hero.
This article first appeared in Issue 429 of The Oatcake.