Football: Collins brings blue-chip quality

Calum Philip talks to the men who could bring back good times to Goodison
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IN GLASGOW, John Collins and Walter Smith could not even have shared a word together, much less a cup of tea. Instead, it took a five- star hotel in Monaco to test the water on their compatibility: the result is the Goodison blend. The one-time Old Firm adversaries had to walk different sides of the street back home, but it took little time for Collins to warm to his prospective manager when they met three weeks ago on the Riviera.

So Everton have a blue-chip acquisition and one half of Merseyside an infusion of hope. "I didn't really know Walter that well," said the former Celtic player. "But he really impressed me when he came to meet me in Monaco. I know he is the kind of man I want to play for." It is perhaps unsurprising that Smith should make Collins the centrepiece signing of the latest new dawn at Goodison. As Rangers manager, he had plenty of cause to rue the midfielder as Collins scored a series of derby goals.

The Scotland international was the one quality player even Ibrox's money could not buy, given his Parkhead pedigree. Yet 250 miles down the road Smith is free from such prejudice and it came as little surprise that he sought out his country's best player from the World Cup finals to help turn Everton around. Just as Alan Shearer's move to Blackburn brought credibility to Ewood Park, so the decision of the 30-year-old Scot to leave the climate of the Cote d'Azur and the banking of Monte Carlo's tax-free system for a pounds 2.5m transfer which allowed Smith to break the vicious cycle of rejection which dogged his predecessor, Howard Kendall. Smith said: "I think you always feel comfortable with players you know when you go into a job, and John is someone whose ability I have admired for a long time. I actually had him when he was in the Scotland youth side and I was an assistant coach in the national set-up when Jock Stein was in charge in the early Eighties.

"Since moving to Monaco, he has become a player who has really started to influence games. He's reached his peak as a player. In talking to him, I discovered someone who was desperate to make his mark in England."

That is something many Scots have done, including Smith's great friend Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Yet, the travails of his erstwhile managerial partner at Ibrox, Graeme Souness, prevent too much of a gung- ho attitude. Souness's failure at Liverpool as a manager, after sweeping all before him in Scottish football, diluted his legendary Anfield status.

Smith knows Everton's loyal support are in need of hope, but he is cautious because any misplaced optimism could put a noose round his neck. However, radical surgery on possibly the most expensive set of under-achievers in the English game is a certainty. Slaven Bilic will have to display his France 98 vintage rather than his Premiership plonk if he is to withstand Smith's wrath. Oliver Dacourt, a Frenchman of promise, has arrived from Strasbourg, as a result of catching Smith's eye in a Uefa Cup encounter with Rangers last season. "He also played terrifically against Liverpool," the manager added, "and he's seen a lot of other Frenchmen come here and enhance their careers."

So too does the Italian defender Marco Materazzi, signed from Perugia, and others may follow. A pre-season tour of Holland and Belgium gave Smith a chance to assess the huge cast at his disposal. "I really need a few more weeks to see all the players before I decide where I need to strengthen things." Everton's fans would claim that attack is one deficient area that needs to be addressed, though no one wants to see the talismanic Duncan Ferguson sacrificed for any new face. Smith, the man who sold the controversial striker to Goodison three years ago, is swift to soothe those fears. "People forget that I was the also the man who signed Duncan, when I paid pounds 4m for him to bring him from Dundee United to Rangers. I had confidence in his ability then, and I still have."

English football has lacked the tartan touch since Dalglish, Souness and Hansen ruled the roost a decade ago. If Smith, Collins and Ferguson elevate Everton to anywhere near those standards, the Scotia Nostra may be back in business.