Football: Gough still playing it for old-timers' sake

Nick Townsend talks to a veteran recruit as Goodison ship is rocked
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The Independent Online
OH, THE indignities that longevity in football brings. With the combined ages of the newcomer from Rangers via Kansas, San Jose and Nottingham Forest and Everton's new head coach and centre-back totalling 74, it was perhaps inevitable that the country's most popular Sunday tabloid, with its typically understated sense of humour, should request that Richard Gough and David Watson don long beards for a photo-shoot.

It may have been homage of sorts to two of the most durable defenders in the business, but hardly the image that Walter Smith ideally would desire to project as his team strive to impress the Goodison faithful who have spent their summer enviously eyeing the scene across Stanley Park where a veritable array of foreign talent has been installed. Or as Gough himself put it succinctly: "Walter's had to sell three or four players that he could get money for, and in return he got me from San Jose Clash. Meanwhile, across at Anfield, they've spent pounds 25 million..."

Today, Everton start their Premiership programme at home to Manchester United. After that it scarcely becomes less daunting, with visits to Aston Villa and Tottenham. "A lot of games are played in the head, especially in my position," says Gough, 37. "But I'm not going to let myself be embarrassed. If I find people getting away from me, I'll just walk away from it all.

"David and I certainly seem to have set a Premiership record for the aggregate age for a central defensive partnership. While that photo stunt was going on I could imagine Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole picking up the paper and having a right good laugh and thinking what they can do to us. But it's a great challenge and I'm looking forward to it."

You can accept the former statement, but there must be some doubts regarding the latter. Quite why the former Rangers captain and winner of 61 Scottish caps should wish to end his British playing days in such circumstances is the intriguing question. Last season, Smith's men were somewhat fortunate to survive. Having discarded a further pounds 13.5m worth of players, for which the acquisition of Kevin Campbell for pounds 3m is only partial compensation, even their most ardent supporters can only foresee another season of tribulation.

Indeed, their plight has hardly been helped by the revelation that the teenage prodigy Francis Jeffers has demanded a transfer after Everton refused him a substantial increase in his salary. Gough, who has recently emphasised his belief that "young players are getting too much, too soon", said he was "surprised and disappointed" by the news.

Gough's own motivation is that he is still in demand in the Premiership, and not just by Everton. Just as pertinent is that he is wanted by Smith, with whom he began his playing career at Dundee 21 years ago. Since then he has remained as closely identified to Smith as that chap Wesson. The fact is that there's life in many an old dog, and they don't come much more loyal to their former Ibrox master than the Scot.

Somehow every time he attempts to retire from the British game, another opportunity presents itself. Having discarded the blue shirt of Rangers, pulling on the similar hue of Everton's was far from what Gough and his family had in mind when they decided to establish a new life in America two years ago. "It seemed like a good time to go. I'd just turned 35 and we'd just won our ninth championship in a row."

He signed for Kansas City but, because of injuries at Ibrox, Smith was on the phone and Gough returned to play an extra 30 games for the club, although Rangers lost the title on the last day of the season.

Earlier this year he had a job lined up with the US Soccer Federation as a coach working with young players. "I had two months to kill before starting, so I decided to play in Britain again," recalled Gough. "So, I looked at the bottom of the Premiership and the top of the First Division. Ron Atkinson was my first phone call. I told him, `Whatever they're paying you to keep them up, I'll have that as well'. He replied, `I'm the joker here!' It was supposed to be two months, but my wife said, `Go there and get Britain out of your system once and for all'."

Which he's still doing, before returning for good to Naples, Florida, where "I've bought a wee plot of land". Gough continued: "It was a tough one at Forest, but I did well enough for a couple of people to ring me from the Premiership, including West Ham. I phoned a few people who I trusted, Walter included, and he said: `If you're thinking of staying, stay with us'. I'm not sure how many games I'm going to get. Who knows? I may not even get one."

It has been suggested that with Watson, in his 13th year at Goodison, as head coach and Gough, an ex-Rangers captain under Smith, there could be a source of potential conflict. "I know some have said that my arrival would put David's nose out of joint. But I've come here with the attitude that I'm a squad player. Hopefully, I will get into the team. If I'm not, I'm not going to be banging on the manager's door. In fact I'd like to think that David and I will play alongside each other. At our peak, we'd definitely have done so."

He added: "The media have said that the manager's got a lot to prove, but the fact is that he's just had to sell pounds 15m-worth of players and he's had to put up with a lot. It's a shame to see a once big club like Everton looking the poor relations in this way, but that's what happens when a club has gone through a period of mismanagement.

"As far as I'm concerned, he's doing the job with his hands tied behind his back, especially if you compare the situation with what he had at Rangers. But Everton supporters are realistic and understanding. If we can finish mid-table, it would be a good achievement for us."

That, in Gough's view, is not out of the question. "Compared with last year, we're better up front with Kevin Campbell, who impressed me a lot and young Jeffers, who's got a lot to learn, but could be a really excellent player. Those two are going to trouble defenders. So, that's a plus for us."

Everton will need a few more to realise Gough's ambition. Two old-timers at the back, mounting the kind of resistance movement they achieved in their pomp, would do quite nicely.