Early developer is fast regaining ground

Guy Hodgson on why Paul Rideout is relishing his return ticket to Wembley
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The Independent Online
There will be an inner smile to match the outer one on Paul Rideout's face today if Everton win the FA Cup thanks to a goal scored by him. Maybe just a hint of "I told you so" aimed at his former manager, Mike Walker, too.

Just a hint? Rideout would be inclined to shout it from the rooftops if he could. To put it succinctly, there was probably no Everton player more sanguine when Walker was given the sack last November. No crocodile tears, no counterfeit words of regret. Just a sense of relief.

"You could say there was not much love lost between us," he said. "I tried my hardest for Mike but we just didn't see eye to eye. I got the message when I was dropped after scoring four goals in the first six games this season."

The message was rammed home even harder when Walker spent more than pounds 3m on Daniel Amokachi and pounds 4m on Duncan Ferguson. There was more chance then of Rideout playing for the reserves at Rotherham in the Pontins League than there was of him getting to Wembley.

Which would rather have summed up the 30-year-old striker's career. Wembley first brought Rideout to the fore when he scored a hat-trick for England Schoolboys 15 years ago, but had spurned him since with the vengeance of an aggrieved lover. No finals, no internationals, a career with the most promising of beginnings did not quite deliver what was expected.

Respected, feared even, Rideout fell short of the top rank when most expected him to assume it with a swagger. The biggest fee for him, pounds 500,000, when Everton bought him from Rangers less than three years ago perhaps summed him up: good but not great.

"There was a lot of expectation," he said, "but a lot of schoolboy football is down to size and I was as big at 15 as I am now [5ft 11in]. It wasn't me getting worse, it was a case of other players developing later and catching me up."

Rideout had been caught up and overtaken at Everton until Joe Royle arrived and discovered that a lot of players who had been described to him as inadequate merely needed redirecting and given confidence, Rideout probably more than anyone.

"I'd handed in a transfer request," Rideout said, "and even served my three months' notice to quit on the house I rented in Southport. I honestly thought the match at Southampton would be my last for Everton."

But events move quickly in football. Mike Walker left, the new manager came in and in his first game Rideout came on as substitute and scored. That was the turning point.

"The manager was a striker, he knows how strikers feel, and he gave us the right situation in which we can prosper. Andy Hinchcliffe was restored to the side and he is deadly accurate with his free-kicks and corners, and Anders Limpar was pushed up to get the crosses in. He has done wonders for my self- belief."

In this new environment Rideout has prospered to the tune of 15 goals this season at a rate of more than one every other game. He has not been so prolific since his 14 strikes in 29 League matches for Aston Villa led to him being transferred to the Italian club, Bari, 10 years ago.

Royle has helped but so has an unlikely partnership with Ferguson, the player most presumed had been bought to replace him. An intelligent player if not over-robust, Rideout has revelled in a role slightly withdrawn from the focus of the attack, ousting the crowd's favourite, Amokachi, from the team and earning himself a three-year contract which he will sign after the final.

"Duncan can be a little bit lazy at times," Rideout said of his partner, "but he is forgiven for that for the other things he does for you. For a big lad he's got a very good touch and he's very quick on the run.

"He also takes the battering from defenders - centre-halves seem to be more bothered about him than me - and it has released me a little bit. That's why I've got a lot of my goals. Having said that, our best performance of the season was against Spurs in the semi-final, so if Duncan isn't fit for Wembley it won't be the end of our chances."

Everton's prospects have fluctuated like the weather. A month ago when they were giving Blackburn a hard time and defeating Tottenham and Newcastle, they appeared to be favourites, particularly as United could barely scrape a win at the time. Since then the Merseysiders have struggled to score, while their opponents today have regathered themselves and came within a goal of taking their third successive championship.

"Sometimes being the underdogs works for you," Rideout said, "but I don't think last Sunday helped us. United are the holders and they'll want to retain the Cup, particularly as they couldn't hold on to the League. They are a quality side, very quick, good in the air and brilliant going forward.

"They have got players missing, though, and that's a big boost for us. They're without Andy Cole and Eric Cantona and these players make a difference. Cantona destroyed Chelsea last year with his two goals."

Having been neglected when it has come to the big occasion, Rideout intends to drink in to the full this late opportunity. "You do get to an age where you think this could be your last chance," he said, "so I intend to savour every minute.

"I will enjoy it win, lose or draw; it's one of those dream days you have been looking forward to all your career. I can't wait for the day to come."

The day has arrived. Rideout has been embraced by Wembley before and maybe, 15 years on, his time has come again.