Football: Hutchison leaves bad times behind

Football: Liverpool miscreant finds consistency at last after enrolling at the new School of Science across Stanley Park
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The Independent Online
AS LIVERPOOL, post-Vigo, start their latest rebuilding process some fans are finding themselves in the uncommon position of looking wistfully across Stanley Park and pondering what might have been. Six years ago Anfield thrilled to one of the most promising midfield pairings in the game. Now one half of it is playing, and playing well, for the enemy.

It has been a long time coming, but Don Hutchison is finally realising for Everton the potential he showed at Liverpool. Then he operated in tandem with Jamie Redknapp, now he plays with another passing master, John Collins. For once on Merseyside it is the reds who are feeling green.

Hutchison's Liverpool career foundered on his immaturity. In a classic case of too much, too young, he found himself involved with the law, exposed on the front pages of the tabloids wearing nothing more than a beer label in a Cyprus bar, and drummed out of the club. He went to West Ham, where another promising start faded as, according to Harry Redknapp, "he fell in with bad company". Next stop was Sheffield United, where Howard Kendall, no stranger to adverse publicity, revived his career before taking him to Goodison.

Last season he scrapped with the rest of them as Everton struggled to stay up. They did, just, and he has taken the chance to flourish anew as the club, in the wake of the departure of Duncan Ferguson, returns to the principles of the "School of Science". Post-Fergie Everton have taken seven points from three games and hope against Southampton at Goodison Park this afternoon to lift themselves level on points with Liverpool.

The change in Everton's style and fortunes has come at the right time. At 27, Hutchison appears to have grown up. He is to marry Debbie, his girlfriend of three years, in the summer and declares the days of carousing are behind him.

"You've got to grow up," he said this week over nothing stronger than a cup of tea at Everton's Bellefield training ground. "I don't go out much now. On a Saturday night I'm more likely to have a Chinese with a few of the lads, or my fiancee, who has been a big influence. If I went out on a Saturday night now I'd still be recovering on Monday morning.

"I learned the hard way. It's easy to get up to little pranks when you're 19, 20, playing in Liverpool's first team. You go out and think you can do what your mates do but you can't. It was after that the Liverpools and Man Uniteds looked after players like Giggs and Fowler. I thought `why didn't they stick me in cotton wool?', but, never mind, I would not be the person I am now if I hadn't been through all that."

Given his experiences, and Everton's impressive crop of young players, it is surprising the club have not asked him to hand on some advice, but he adds: "The game's changed since I got up to that sort of stuff. Every week there's an article in the News of the World about someone. I think the young 'uns realise they cannot do those things. There's so much money involved in the game, if they've any sense they look after themselves."

Refreshingly, Hutchison seems genuinely astonished how much players can now earn, which is perhaps to be expected of someone who was once fined by Liverpool for risking injury by playing in a pub match. In truth, it was the off-season and he knew most of the opposition, so he was not likely to get "sorted out", but Graeme Souness, unsurprisingly, took a dim view of it.

It was Souness who gave Hutchison his chance at Liverpool in 1992, the Geordie having been signed as a teenager by Kenny Dalglish two years earlier on the strength of 24 matches for Hartlepool. He quickly palled up with Redknapp, who was also living in digs, and was soon invited to Dalglish's house for dinner.

"Jamie knew him because of his dad," recalls Hutchison, "and we were invited round to see games on TV. I just sat there as quiet as mouse, I didn't know what to say. Even when Kenny spoke I couldn't understand him. I just put a fake laugh on or tried to pretend I knew what he was on about. It was brilliant though, he's a nice bloke."

When things went sour at Liverpool, Redknapp recommended Hutchison to his father and he signed for West Ham. Nine goals in 23 games helped keep West Ham up in 1995 but, recalls Harry Redknapp in his recent autobiography, all did not go well. After recounting a dressing-room incident which ended with the manager throwing a plate of sandwiches over the player, Redknapp wrote of Hutchison: "his talent is not in doubt, but the crowd I had at West Ham at the time could be a handful and Don was easily led. He went off the rails a bit."

Hutchison ("I haven't got a bad word for West Ham"), moved on to Sheffield and Kendall of whom he said: "I can't speak highly enough of him, so lively and enthusiastic."

Even so, it is only now he is consistently showing his very best form - he rates sixth in the Premiership in the Carling Opta rankings. Hutchison cannot explain why, though he admits confidence is a factor. A footballer's confidence is a fragile matter and, in a modern twist on the old tale of a player being shattered by getting a four in the Sunday People's marks out of 10, Hutchison said winning Sky's Man of the Match award for the recent televised win over Newcastle was a "big boost".

Though he dismisses the theory, the burden of expectation from being a club-record signing at both West Ham and Sheffield United may not have helped, nor being played out of position. Now, having begun the season wide-right, he has secured his preferred central midfield role.

Glenn Hoddle and Ray Wilkins were his childhood influences and he cites passing as his main strength (and lack of pace his biggest weakness). He also has a bite in the tackle, as too many yellow cards testify ("but none for six matches"), and scores the odd goal. Scotland are not over- supplied with players and Hutchison hopes to revive an international career which, to date, numbers a solitary B international. To do so he will have to convince a coaching hierarchy which places a heavy emphasis on behaviour that he is now a responsible professional.

Playing alongside Collins and under Walter Smith will help, but only by ensuring future headlines are about his football can he do so.

The danger in writing these "reformed bad-boy" pieces is that the subject will make the article look foolish with a relapse. Hutchison appears a genuine convert though the fact that, as you talk to him, you think "he'd be good company over a pint" raises an element of doubt. He adds: "People still remember me for that incident [in Cyprus] than for my football, but it was years ago. So many great players in the past have done things that were out of order. Players should be judged on their football."

It is now up to Hutchison to continue to give his football a chance to be heard.