Who are you? We’re Everton

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Breathe deeply if you are anywhere near Everton fans heading for this Sunday’s match and the chances are that you’ll detect an unmistakeable whiff of arrogance. All it took, after so many years of under-achievement, were decent runs this season and last in the Premiership and, lately, back in Europe. Beating us 7-1 did nothing to restrain the swagger, with the result that Salut! Sunderland‘s usual entreaties to away fans fell on deaf Goodison ears. No one bothered so much as to reply from such sites as ToffeeWeb or Vital Everton. So we turned to an Everton exile, Roland Hughes, a colleague in Abu Dhabi who fondly remembers Kevin Kilbane as Zidane, thinks we’ll survive – just – but cockily predicts a comfortable Everton win

This time last year, I considered making Sunderland my second team. There was something about the way they came from nowhere to become promotion favourites that made me look up their results immediately after Everton’s.

There were plenty of times in the early 1990s, when I started following Everton, where I wished for a similar miracle for ourselves after years of underperformance and low expectation. There is no greater satisfaction than doing well when people least expect it.

Sadly, while we continued to underwhelm, with the likes of Marc Hottiger and Gary Ablett on our books, the hoped-for Phoenix-like rise from the ashes never happened. Things are very different now, of course.

That’s why Sunderland’s promotion last season, after they were rooted around the bottom of the table to begin with, was also a victory for teams like Everton, who for years have not attracted the headlines devoted to their richer neighbours. I won’t say it was a victory for the little guys because I’m sure neither of us defines our teams as little.

I grew to like Sunderland too, having lived in Newcastle for a period. To see a team as large as Newcastle get so much support, so many headlines and so much attention – despite achieving so little – made me automatically like their biggest rivals more. But, if I’m being totally honest, there was another reason I was so pleased with the Roy Keane revolution. There was a time in the last few years where we had gained a reputation for being the kind of place where old Man Utd players went to retire or disappear from view completely.

Phil Neville and Tim Howard have, somewhat surprisingly, bucked the trend in recent years. But we shall remain eternally ungrateful for the likes of John O’Kane and Jesper Blomqvist being dumped on our books thanks to Sir Alex’s long-running friendships with our previous managers. Still, having said that, I seem to remember the latter scoring the winning goal for us against Sunderland once.

So, back to the point: thanks, Sunderland. As far as I can count, the Mackems now have at least 463 former Man U players in their squad, essentially turning the club into United reserves.

No longer is Goodison the knackers’ yard for former Reds; instead, Roy Keane is apparently making amends for the manner of his departure from Old Trafford by helping out Sir Alex and snapping up the likes of Phil Bardsley and Jonny Evans.

That trend has continued with the purchase of more ex-Reds, including Paul McShane and, two players I feared may end up at Goodison on bumper pay packets one day, Andy “Andrew” Cole and Kieran “Kevin” Richardson.

Part of me still wanted Sunderland to succeed in the Premiership – in fact, they were my favourites to do best from the three promoted clubs. So, especially given the money they have spent, it is seriously disappointing to see how far down the table they are languishing. Is Keane still in his job because of the season he had last year? Not many managers would still be in their jobs in the Premiership after spending so much money and making so little progress.

So, anyway, my second team is now Hereford.

I have seen Sunderland play only twice, and both games took place this season, once at Goodison where (and please note how long I waited before mentioning this) Sunderland lost 7-1 and once at Old Trafford, where they held out until late on, only to lose to a Louis Saha goal.

All I ask is that Paul McShane be allowed to play again this time around. He was horribly embarrassed by Yakubu and Johnson at Goodison and I was astonished he lasted the whole game without being subbed or sent off. Arteta needed to be able to boss a game for a full 90 minutes, which happens rarely, so the Sunderland game could not have come at a better time.

As for the Old Trafford game back in September, Sunderland did everything a promoted side should do and restricted United to a handful of chances. Sadly, Saha slipped in late on to give United a barely-deserved win.

My abiding memories from that day were Danny Higginbotham throwing himself at everything that came his way, and Kenwyne Jones giving United defenders one of the most difficult 45 minutes they had experienced for some time, on his full debut.

It all looked so promising for Sunderland back then, and there were so many positives to take out of the game even if, after the match, Roy Keane proved to be one of the most awkward people I have ever interviewed.

I am sure Sunderland would not want to be meeting Everton at the moment. We’re in fantastic form and scoring goals for fun, while Yakubu looks like he is starting one of his notorious scoring streaks. The fact we are winning in tricky places like West Ham and Man City does not bode well for Sunderland either.

Having said that, I’m sure Everton don’t fancy the trip up to Wearside much either, since Sunderland boast a surprisingly good home record.

……..all of which leaves Roland with the small matter of the Salut! Sunderland questionnaire

What did you think of our respective clubs’ prospects before the season started?

Because of our good season/bad season rule, I expected us to finish mid-table after our great season last year, so have been more than pleasantly surprised by our progress in 2007/08. As for Sunderland, you cannot help but be disappointed by how much they are struggling given the money they spent. Still, if they were to stay up, I would fancy them to do quite well next season.


When did you last see a SAFC v Everton game home or away, and what happened?

Someone won 7-1. A fat man scored lots of goals, and given the run he is on again, I would not bet against him scoring again this weekend.

Had you expected anything like 7-1?

We had been threatening to thump someone for some time before that, but I hadn’t expected anything like seven goals. It wasn’t that Sunderland, on the whole, were that bad. Anyone who played us that day would have been thumped, and it created one of the best atmospheres I have ever seen at Goodison.

How do you rationalise Everton’s excellent performance so far this season?

Everton under Moyes have tended to have one good season then one bad, so I was not looking forward to this season, having qualified for Europe last year. We’ve finally turned a corner though, and haven’t looked this threatening in a long time. Everyone, down to the least-used subs, is ready to fight to the end when they are on the pitch, but we are playing with a creativity and energy not associated with Everton for a long, long time. It would still be nice for the so-called experts to stop sounding so surprised though. We deserve to be where we are.

What about the signings each club made in the transfer window?

I have always liked Andy Reid, but if the 4m figure is correct, that is an awful lot of money. It seems if you are Irish and once had a decent reputation, you will end up at Sunderland. We brought in only Manuel Fernandes on loan and Dan Gosling, a kid from Plymouth. Gosling is one for the future, but Fernandes will now hopefully sign for us permanently, making up for us missing out on him last summer.

People often say we are, or were, similar clubs, even down to the stadiums (Goodison and our old one Roker Park) looking a little alike. Any thoughts?

I never visited RokerPark, but from what I have seen, I can only agree. Goodison, on a good day, has an unbeatable atmosphere that feels unchanged from the 1930s; witness the wooden stands few other Premiership teams would tolerate. We also regularly fill the stadium, like Sunderland, regardless of our current form.


Who, for you, are the most memorable players or managers to play for both Sunderland and Everton?

The most obvious link has to be Peter Reid, who was a dynamo for the Blues in the years before I started to follow them. Sad to see him now reduced to commentating on football on Middle Eastern TV. Others that come to mind include Kevin Kilbane, for some reason reviled by Sunderland fans, but rechristened Zinedine Kilbane, because of his workrate, by Evertonians. Paul Bracewell and Kevin Richardson were also carted off to the North East after starting to run out of gas in the Everton midfield.

Your predictions for both clubs for rest of season?

I fear Liverpool will take fourth from us at the last minute, but I really fancy our chances in the Uefa Cup, as long as Bayern get knocked out soon. Sunderland will be OK, just, as there is always one team that slips down the table during the second half of the season and gets relegated – Newcastle anyone?

Do you regard Liverpool with hatred, envy or disdain? Or are you more grown-up about such things?

Liverpool and Everton fans can quite happily occupy the same house, but there is still a resentment among Evertonians about Liverpool’s supposed God-given right to win everything, summed up the scandalous way they were allowed back into the Champions League despite finishing fifth, and us fourth, a few seasons ago. On the whole, though, we are fairly grown-up in our dealings with Reds.

Club vs country. Who wins for you?

This debate is summed up in two words – Ryan Giggs. I am Welsh and for years never saw my country’s best player turning out in friendlies because of a succession of apparent injuries. There should not even be a debate about this – as long as there is not a requirement on players to turn out for a raft of meaningless games, a la Eriksson?

Who will win on Sunday? Score? And how will you follow the game from your great distance?

Everton, 2-0. Yakubu brace. We are grinding out fantastic results away from home and playing wonderfully, especially now Pienaar is back. There will be a little corner of Abu Dhabi, somewhere, where I can catch the game – although I have not met a single Evertonian here yet, so am worried about being besieged by Mackems.

* Roland Hughes on Roland Hughes: my family and friends were all Liverpool fans, so I naturally decided to follow Everton. I missed his first Goodison goal because I was queuing for a pie, which wasn’t even that good. According to the BBC league predictor I used, Everton will be pipped to fourth place by Liverpool by only a point.

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