David Moyes: The art of sticking two fingers up at people from a great height

The Everton manager's approach to physical and mental fitness has brought European ambition to a side who seemed classic relegation material before the season started
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Evertonians all know it and David Moyes keeps saying it. That what matters is not where a team lies in the Premiership by Bonfire Night, but where they are at the end of the season. And yet the 41-year-old Everton manager - sitting in his office at the club's training ground, Bellefield, on Friday afternoon - can no longer deny that his third-placed team seem on course to finish closer to the top than the bottom. Perhaps even closer to the top than the middle.

Evertonians all know it and David Moyes keeps saying it. That what matters is not where a team lies in the Premiership by Bonfire Night, but where they are at the end of the season. And yet the 41-year-old Everton manager - sitting in his office at the club's training ground, Bellefield, on Friday afternoon - can no longer deny that his third-placed team seem on course to finish closer to the top than the bottom. Perhaps even closer to the top than the middle.

"I think it's realistic now for us to stay in a European spot," he says softly. "I don't want to set an unrealistic target, I can't turn round and say we're going to win the championship, but nor do I want to talk about something that we're able to achieve easily. If you talk about it still being our priority to avoid relegation, with the points we've got that might become an easy target. We've a chance of finishing in the top six." He fixes me in the beam of those fierce blue eyes. "But it will be a hell of an achievement if we even get close to it."

It will, too. Before the season began, even the most diehard Everton fans - myself among them - were wondering how much longer they could celebrate the club's status as the longest-term resident of English football's top tier. The sale of Wayne Rooney to Manchester United had destroyed the remnants of the illusion that this was still a top club, and because the United coffers had been opened too late for Moyes to spend, the squad was thinner than any in the Premiership. Fifteen players had left, and only two - Tim Cahill and Marcus Bent - had arrived. Unrest at boardroom level, where the chairman Bill Kenwright was engaged in a power struggle with director Paul Gregg, revealed Everton to be chaos-stricken, as well as debt-laden. Moyes could have been forgiven for wanting to leave. But did he?

"I never thought I could leave here and get a better club," he says, rather nutmegging the question. "But every day my players were getting linked with other clubs. There was board infighting. It did get to the stage where I thought maybe this was a runaway train and I could do nothing to stop it. For all kinds of reasons it was the worst summer period I've had in football, but mainly because we'd finished the [2003-04] season so badly [being hammered 5-1 by Manchester City]."

Moyes, who'd had unyielding faith in his own ability as a coach ever since he first started yelling directions at the players of Preston North End, spent the summer not only lamenting the behaviour of others but also, for the first time, seriously questioning himself.

"I realised I'd done everything near enough the same as I had when we nearly made Europe the year before, the same as I had when I was at Preston and we nearly got into the Premiership. And yet we'd finished 17th. We were safe by about Easter with five games to go, but didn't win one of those last five, and I thought to myself, 'is this the thing with Everton, just to get safe from relegation?' I decided that I maybe needed to change the mindset of some people, and maybe my own, too."

It is one things to get players physically fitter, and no manager works harder than Moyes at doing so, but to get them mentally fitter is a much taller order. Shortly before the start of the season he took the first-team squad to the United States. And it was there that Moyes and his back-room staff set about rebuilding the spirit of a decimated squad. Hey, maybe that trip to the States will one day assume the same fabled status as the Kevin Brock back-pass, which enabled Adrian Heath to score in a long-ago League Cup fixture against Oxford United, and is, rightly or wrongly, said to have represented the start of the mid-1980s glory years under Howard Kendall. Or maybe I'm getting carried away.

"But you know, people talk about back to basics, and even the off-the-field things here had to get back to basics," Moyes says. "In America we had the odd night out when we all had a few beers and a singsong, and it was a bit old school, the sort of thing they did in the Seventies and isn't allowed now because it's not supposed to be good for you. The new members of the squad each had to do a turn, the manager had to sing as well, and it was a way of feeling comfortable with each other."

Rooney was conspicuously absent from that trip, sitting at home waiting for his foot to heal and his new life as a United player to begin. I ask Moyes how hard he fought to keep the youngster at Goodison.

"I sat with him and his adviser [Paul Stretford] and told them that the best thing for him was to stay here. But what they wanted was European football and although I hoped we would get a chance to give him that, it was the one thing I couldn't guarantee."

He vigorously denies the reports that he and Rooney, by the end, were at daggers drawn. But he does not deny that the constant speculation about the prodigy's future, which reached fever pitch after Euro 2004, was hugely disruptive.

"Every day [it was reported that] he was going somewhere else. And there were things going on that made me very angry. I was angry with the media, because they seemed to have made their minds up that he was too good for Everton, forgetting that the reason he got in the England team was because he played for Everton, because we'd nurtured him and didn't play him too much. I even sent him away for a week's holiday before the end of the season so he could recharge his batteries and have a good summer. But that wasn't the stuff people wanted to talk about. I felt a bit betrayed."

Speaking of betrayal, I tell Moyes that when Rooney scored a hat-trick on his Champions' League debut for United, I had exactly the same gut-wrenching feeling as I once did seeing an ex-girlfriend in the arms of another man. He smiles. "I was at another game that night. It made no difference to me. Hopefully, I will have an opportunity to say I worked with one of the greatest players in the world when that time comes, but I've moved on."

He bites into a toasted ham and tomato bagel with, it seems to me, some ferocity. I know this interview is about him, I say, but I have one more Rooney question. The one all Evertonians are asking. Has the youngster's departure somehow had a galvanising effect on the players left behind? "That's a hard one to answer. There's no doubt we would be a better team and squad with Wayne Rooney, but maybe we're now were concentrating more on the team than on one individual. The media certainly is. And maybe there was a feeling from the first day of pre-season that we wanted to stick two fingers up at a lot of people."

He scarcely expected to be sticking two fingers up at people from such a height. But Moyes will have another use for those digits soon: fingering the Rooney transfer money. Is he satisfied with the amount that Kenwright has made available to him to buy more players? The club, after all, still has substantial debts to address.

Another bite of bagel, less ferocious this time. "Bill has always tried to make as much money available as possible. We are in need of extra bodies, but January is not always the best time to make signings. The players we want are more likely to be available in the close season. I'll certainly be able to spend a decent amount, if maybe short of the figures people are talking about. I have money for two or three players."

The players he bought with the limited funds available in the summer have played a notable part in Everton's success so far, indeed Cahill was involved in Bent's equaliser against Aston Villa on Saturday. Yet it is less to astute signings that Moyes owes his burgeoning reputation, than to his hard graft on the training pitch.

It all began with his dad, a teacher who also ran one of the teams at Drumchapel Amateurs, the Glasgow club which produced, among others, John Wark, Asa Hartford and John Robertson. "I'd start getting excited on a Friday night at the thought of going with my dad to see his team," Moyes recalls. "So I was brought up in a football environment." Even as a young player at Celtic he had a strong interest in coaching methods, which intensified when he left to play for a succession of lower-league teams - Cambridge United, Bristol City, Shrewsbury Town - in England. He was only 22 when he qualified as a coach. "But it wasn't so much that I wanted to coach, more that I thought it would make me a better player."

When he was 30 he joined the playing staff at Preston. Four years later he was manager, and lifted the proud old club from the depths of the Second Division to the First Division play-offs. In 1999 he received a call from Sir Alex Ferguson, as he then wasn't quite. The Manchester United manager wanted an assistant, and told Moyes he had a shortlist of two. Moyes went to Ferguson's home to discuss the idea. He did most of the listening. In the event, Ferguson chose the other man on his shortlist, Steve McClaren.

"And they went on to win the Champions' League that year, so maybe he got it right. What it maybe does show [with Everton third and McClaren-managed Middlesbrough fifth] is that Fergie's not a bad judge of up-and-coming coaches. At the time I would have taken any chance to work with Fergie with both hands, but maybe it's a blessing that it didn't happen. I did ask his advice after that, when I was offered a couple of jobs. Sheffield Wednesday was one. He said no."

Wednesday's loss was Everton's decided gain. "I still think if I had stayed at Preston I would have got them into the Premiership. It's a little bit of a regret that I didn't see that through. But once Everton wanted me..."

He trails off. At Preston he had derived huge pleasure from the club's distinguished past, from seeing Sir Tom Finney about the place, and at Everton it was the same. "I want to be at a football club which can tell you a story,' he says. "And I believe that our greatest story's still to come."

It's a cracking soundbite, I say, but is it the truth?

"Well, I do think we're through the worst. Clubs go in cycles and maybe a period is due when Everton can have a bit of success. I have my own personal goals too, you know. I wanted to be a manager and I got the chance at Preston. I wanted to be successful there, and I was. I wanted to manage in the Premiership and I got that chance. Now I need to achieve something in the Premiership. What I do know is that this division is better for having a strong Everton Football Club."

I want to stand on my chair and applaud. Instead I ask him whether he thinks he is a lucky manager as well as a good manager. After all, it is often said you need to be both.

The gimlet eyes are smiling. "I'm organised, disciplined, prepared. If that's where luck comes from, I'll be lucky. Maybe some people would say I've already been unbelievably lucky. To walk in here and find a schoolboy like Wayne Rooney; how lucky's that? To let 15 players go and bring in only two, yet find ourselves where we are; how lucky's that?" Mmm.

And to have David Moyes as manager; how lucky's that?