Alan Stubbs: 'As a fan I wanted Wayne to stay, but he had to do the best for himself'

Everton's veteran centre-half was Rooney's best friend at Goodison, but a man who has twice beaten cancer is never going to shy away from difficult decisions
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Everton captain and boyhood fan Alan Stubbs is far too sensible to admit that he will be pulling for Chelsea in tonight's second leg of the Champions' League semi-final, but if he remains in his armchair in Formby as Frank Lampard drives forward into the Liverpool penalty area, then he will be the only lifelong Evertonian who does.

The desire of Merseyside's blue half to see disappointment overwhelm the red half is not - or not necessarily - anything to do with the entrenched rivalry between the clubs. It has more to do with the anomaly, still not resolved, concerning the qualification of English clubs for the Champions' League next season. Despite a lacklustre defeat at Fulham on Saturday, Everton are still warm favourites to finish in fourth spot in the Premiership. But if Liverpool beat Chelsea tonight, then go on to defeat Milan or PSV Eindhoven in the final in Istanbul, they will have a claim, as defending champions, to be the fourth English club in the competition, behind Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, who have already qualified.

For Evertonians, the signs are fairly propitious that, should all the above circumstances unfold, their club will get the nod. A spokesman for Uefa has said that the presence of the champions in the following year's competition is desirable but not mandatory. And the blazers at the Football Association, whose decision it would be, have also indicated that they would probably favour blue over red. On the other hand, Liverpool's Spanish manager Rafael Benitez - whom Everton fans have cheerfully nicknamed Rafael Beneath-us - has already been brandishing a precedent from five years ago, when Real Madrid won the European Cup but finished fifth in La Liga. The Spanish FA duly chose Real Madrid to defend their crown and booted fourth-placed Real Zaragoza into the Uefa Cup.

Of course, a quandary that may depend on a stuttering Everton getting four points from the last three games, or on an inconsistent Liverpool beating arguably the two best teams in Europe, should Milan progress to the final, is a quandary that has every chance of fizzling out. But it still seems worth discussing with Stubbs, the more so because of the emotive whiff of history: the last time Everton qualified for Europe's premier club competition, by winning the 1984-85 League Championship when he was a teenager standing on the Gwladys Street terraces, they were denied a place in the European Cup because of the shameful behaviour of Liverpool fans at Heysel. It would surely be unthinkable for Liverpool, albeit in triumph rather than shame, to deny Everton again?

"Yeah, it wouldn't go down too well," says Stubbs, laughing at his own understatement.

"With that [1985] team it's been a case of 'what if', because it was on the brink of greatness. But with the amount of people who lost their lives it was the right decision [to ban English clubs]. Football's a passionate game and we love it ahead of things we maybe shouldn't love it ahead of, but ... people lost lives."

If anyone can be expected to put football in perspective it is Stubbs, who has twice been stricken by cancer, has had a testicle removed, and has survived a 12-hour operation to remove a tumour from the base of his spine during which his bowels had to be taken out and put back in again. It seems faintly ridiculous to ask this man how upset he will be if Everton qualify for the Champions' League but miss out. Or, indeed, if they fail even to qualify, having been in the top four for most of the season. There are more important things to worry about in life.

On the other hand, as Stubbs acknowledges, people who love football can't help but give it disproportionate status in their lives. Moreover, it wasn't as though he treated even cancer as a matter of life or death; he has told me before about his five mates who came up from Kirkby to see him in the Glasgow hospital where he had just had his epic operation. He had only just been sewn up, and the nurse told them sternly not to make him laugh.

"They came in," Stubbs recalls, "and I'm lying there, looking at them out of the sides of my eyes, and there's one of them who's a real joker, and the first thing he says is, 'bloody hell, that's the best I've seen you looking for 10 years.' It was killing me, laughing but trying not to."

So, with all perspectives considered, how will he truly feel about Everton's right to contest the Champions' League next season, should Liverpool go on to win the trophy on 25 May?

"I feel that it's great for the city that one of its teams is doing so well in the Champions' League, but if we finish fourth then we deserve to be in it next year. It's as simple as that. If Liverpool do win it and don't get back in then I would have sympathy for them, but for us to qualify for the Champions' League would be as big an achievement as what that Everton team achieved 20 years ago. Considering our situation, the finances, the things going on, it would be unbelievable. And we really want it. We've already got European football next season but we want the big one. And we're in touching distance of it but we still can't grab hold of it."

Of course, it's easier to grab hold of things when you have money; you have a much longer reach. Chelsea are the ultimate example, although Stubbs dismisses the idea that their wonderful season has effectively been bought by Roman Abramovich.

"To do what they've done is fantastic," he says. "The manager obviously has the total, total respect of his players. But it's still true that there's a bottomless pit of money. Whereas here, money's still really tight. People keep saying there's going to be more available, but things seem to have gone really quiet behind the scenes with investment. But the club have got to invest in the team if we're going to do ourselves justice in Europe.

"I think they've got to bring in at least six players, and that's hoping that out-of-contract players sign as well. It's going to be an interesting summer, another massive transitional period. But at the moment, as players, that's not our worry. We have an amazing bunch of lads here. And everyone respects everyone."

The Everton spirit, which I saw in trainingbefore sitting down with Stubbs in the portable building that acts as an interview room, was emphatically not there a year ago. That it has burgeoned has much to do with the frank talks held last summer between manager, David Moyes, and his senior professionals, Stubbs foremost among them.

"Last season was bad for lots of reasons, on and off the pitch, and training was very, very intense. It's still tough, don't get me wrong, but last season there was no release valve. Some things were said between me and the manager that were very frank, about training, about the way we approached games, about individuals. But it was amicable and professional, and then we went to America (for a pre-season tour) and that lifted the gloom."

The departure of Wayne Rooney is said, paradoxically, to be another other factor in Everton's unexpected success this season. Stubbs was Rooney's closest friend at the club and they are still good mates, so I am interested in his response to the theory that his departure benefited the rest of the team.

"I think if you ask the players, they would all prefer Wayne to still be here. We weren't bothered by the attention he got, because it was deserved. But we knew it was inevitable he would leave no matter how hard Everton tried to keep him. Some of the players thought he'd stay another season, but Wayne came back from the Euros and felt the time was right to move. Obviously there were a lot of disgruntled fans, but just think if he'd stayed and broke a leg, or done a cruciate ligament. Or if we'd got a Champions' League place and then he'd left. What would the fans have said then?

"As a fan myself I wanted him to stay, but I know how quickly things change in football. I told him he had to do what was best for himself. And the club got an unbelievable amount of money for him. Whatever anyone says, £27m or whatever was fantastic business and it just goes to show how much debt the club was in that Wayne's transfer fee hasn't wiped the slate clean."

What does Stubbs, Evertonian to the core, think when he sees the "Die Rooney!" graffiti daubed on walls near Goodison Park?

"Well, a lot of fans are sensible about it. He's gone, he's made us a lot of money, let's look forward. But that 'Die Rooney' stuff is unacceptable. My little lad was the mascot at the Man United game the other week, and Wayne patted him on the head. My little lad was made up, and up in the stand he asked me 'why's everyone booing Wayne? I thought you don't boo good players?' And that's right, we should just be in awe of how good Wayne's becoming, and be proud that we nurtured him and that someone that good played for Everton Football Club. I've looked at it from all points of view - as a fan, as a player, as a man in the street - and I can't find any anger towards Wayne from any angle.'

And what, I ask Stubbs, of Rooney's feelings towards Everton. Can love, in football as in life, turn to hate?

"No, deep down he's still a Blue. It never leaves you. If Wayne could go to Goodison and watch a game without any hassle he'd be the first one there. I spoke to him before the derby and said 'where are you going to watch it?' He said, 'probably in my house or the pub'. But I knew he wanted to be there. To be fair, nothing bothers him. He's mentally very tough. He got a lot of stick here and was one of the outstanding players on the pitch."

So, as someone who knows Rooney as well as anyone in football, and Martin O'Neill better than most from his time at Celtic, how might O'Neill, should he succeed Sir Alex Ferguson, deal with the boy wonder?

"He would get on fantastic with Wayne. He's a lovely fella and a complete one-off, and he can be very intense but he also knows when not to be intense. That clicked with me. He would do a great job at United, and he's primed for it. Saying that, Wayne has nothing but admiration for Alex Ferguson. He knows when the time is right to put an arm round Wayne and give him a little bit of love. And we all need that."

I don't know how much love Stubbs gets from Moyes, but maybe, at 33, the veteran central defender needs other things more. A one-year contract has been offered to him, but he has not yet signed. Surely, I say, the idea of representing his beloved club in the Champions' League is irresistibly attractive to him?

"It's a big attraction," he says. A small smile accompanies another dose of perspective. "But my family's a bigger attraction."