Football: Gemmill in search of redemption

Phil Shaw talks to the Everton midfielder who knows that a good display against Manchester United on Sunday could revitalise his Scotland career
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MEETINGS WITH Manchester United tend to be either milestones or millstones in Scot Gemmill's career. Take the first time he played at Old Trafford, at a critical stage in the championship run-in seven years ago. After scoring Nottingham Forest's winner, he was amazed to receive letters from Leeds fans containing pounds 5 notes and the exortation to "buy yourself a drink".

Alternatively, consider his most recent encounter with Alex Ferguson's team, early this year. Forest finished on the wrong end of what even their most stoical follower would have struggled to call a nine-goal thriller. Gemmill was substituted and spent the closing stages of an 8-1 home humiliation "with my head in my hands".

While United's season simply kept getting better, Gemmill's could not have deteriorated further. Nor did it: a move to Everton kept him in the Premiership and helped do the same for his new club. Now, instead of facing derbies with Tranmere or wet Wednesdays at Walsall, the Scottish international has an opportunity for redemption as the treble winners launch a fresh campaign at Goodison Park on Sunday.

"United are a fantastic side but I'm glad we've got them first. The opening day is a one-off spectacle, like a cup final, and that might give us a better chance than on a Saturday in November," recalls Gemmill, who took particular pleasure in Teddy Sheringham's impact on the FA and European Cup finals.

"He was a good team-mate at Forest. When he and Nigel Clough were up front, I scored 14 from midfield. Brian Clough instilled in his forwards the need to hold the ball and if you played the ball up to Teddy you usually got it back.

"I also played alongside Roy Keane, who's someone you'd rather have with you than against you. He always had great potential but so do hundreds of players. Only a few fulfil it. He should have been Footballer of the Year but he may have kicked a few too many to get the votes!"

Gemmill stayed in the East Midlands rather longer than the Irishman, but when Walter Smith paid pounds 250,000 for a player who would shortly be available free under the Bosman ruling it looked as if the 28-year-old midfielder had merely swapped the frying pan for the fire.

After his home debut - April's defeat by Sheffield Wednesday - Everton were rooted in the relegation zone with just six games remaining.

That they won four of those fixtures to finish 14th was due largely to nine goals in eight games by another Trentside refugee now plying his trade by the Mersey, Kevin Campbell.

"If we hadn't had a top-class finisher to convert the chances we were making, we'd have gone down," admits Gemmill. "And for that to happen to Everton would be 100 times worse than for Forest."

Campbell's pounds 3m rescue from Turkish football became a summer imperative for Smith. Gemmill's contribution, which included a goal in the crucial win at Newcastle, was less dramatic but vital to the upturn in Everton's fortunes. "It was a nice feeling to be winning again. When you haven't won for 20 games you start to wonder whether you're as good as you thought."

This time last year, Gemmill was ominously candid about Forest's prospects - or the lack of them - in the Premiership. Like Pierre van Hoooijdonk, he was concerned about the sale of Campbell and what he saw as inadequate funding for new blood. Unlike the Dutchman - "a very outspoken person" - he did not go on strike, though he was also in dispute with the club.

"They took offence because I wasn't satisfied with certain aspects of the contract they offered me. It's often said that players have all the power now that we've got freedom of contract, but what happened to me proved that the clubs wield a different sort of power. In my case it was to deny me the chance to play. When I didn't sign, they said: `Right, then we won't pick you'. Then, after we lost the first game at Arsenal they came back saying they had withdrawn the contract offer, so technically I wasn't in breach. That shows how clubs can mess players around.

"In the end I was relieved to leave. I'll always be grateful to Forest for giving me my chance, but I knew it was time to go. I'd been there too long."

Can he be any more positive about Everton's chances? After all, Olivier Dacourt, Marco Materazzi and Ibrahima Bakayoko have gone, with the apparent aim of reducing the wage bill and the overdraft.

"Yes," asserts Gemmill, "because I look round the dressing-room and see a better squad than we had at Forest and greater strength in depth. If you compare the players here with clubs in the higher reaches, there's no difference. We can do just as well if not better than them."

As at Forest, he finds himself playing against a backdrop of boardroom takeover talk. He maintains that it does not affect the players on a day- to-day basis, yet adds: "Where it does influence things is that you report back for pre-season and three good players have left. But it shouldn't be used as an excuse."

On the credit side, another City Ground colleague, Richard Gough, has arrived, reuniting with Smith, his former manager at Rangers. The ex-Scotland centre-back and captain is in his 38th year, but Gemmill says: "He's one of the fittest guys I've ever seen. With his quality and experience, he's an excellent signing."

Whereas Gough's international career is almost certainly over, Gemmill is concerned that his seems to have stalled. After going to both Euro '96 and France '98 without seeing action, he is not counting any chickens in the event of the Scots reaching Euro 2000.

"People say: `Aren't you fed up when you don't get a game?' and of course I am. At the same time, I'd never jeopardise the chance to represent my country by throwing tantrums. When we played Brazil in Paris I was there, in my boots, a yard away from the biggest game of my life. Anyone who loves football could understand how frustrating that was."

Gemmill stayed on the bench again throughout Scotland's last match, in the Czech Republic, despite having started, if not finished, the 1-0 win over Germany. "It was pleasing to play in Bremen because I want to see whether I can play at that level. But after being taken off, I had to reassure myself that I did well and it was only to give other people a chance."

Having shared in one stunning victory over one set of European champions, he is now aiming for another against United. Fivers through the post are all very well, but Scot Gemmill has more pressing personal and professional reasons for wanting Everton to open on a high note.