Football: Jeffers may face hostile reception

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SIR ALEX Ferguson said yesterday that he sympathised with the plight of his old friend the Everton manager, Walter Smith. His fellow Scotsman Smith, whose side face the Treble- winners Manchester United in their first game of the season at Goodison Park today, has had a turbulent summer since steering the club away from relegation danger in May.

Ferguson feels Smith, who assisted him when he was Scotland coach in 1986, has done well given all the problems he has had to contend with. "I think Walter has had a difficult time," he said. "He has had to sell players because of the financial situation and that's very unfortunate for a club of Everton's size. Walter has done very well in stabilising the club and avoiding relegation."

Little money was made available to Smith, and Mark Pembridge and Richard Gough look inferior replacements for the departed Olivier Dacourt and Marco Materazzi, while the exciting prospect Francis Jeffers has stunned the club by asking for a transfer on the eve of the new campaign.

The 18-year-old Jeffers made his name during last season's run-in, when his goals helped to ensure Everton's Premiership survival. His transfer request is a serious blow to the cash-strapped club, who are having to rely on their successful youth team squad rather than on foreign riches. "I don't want to talk about this, but it has certainly come at a bad time," Smith said.

Jeffers is still likely to play up front with Kevin Campbell - Everton's pounds 3m capture from Trabzonspor - and will no doubt face a backlash from the fans. Smith's only other realistic option would be to relegate Jeffers to the bench and play Don Hutchison alongside Campbell in attack, while promoting his recruit from Benfica, Pembridge, to a starting midfield role.

United won 4-1 at Goodison last year and Sir Alex said that meetings between the two sides were always great spectacles. "It's a local derby and we have a good relationship with Everton. It's always a meaty type of game and will be played at 100 miles per hour. But then the first game of the season is like that."

Ferguson's biggest problem is deciding on his team for the trip to Merseyside. It may be the first game of the new campaign, but the treatment room is already full. Of particular concern to him will be the shortage of defenders. Indeed, Ronny Johnsen (knee), Wes Brown (cruciate ligaments), Gary Neville (hip) and David May (medial ligaments) are all out of contention.

Jaap Stam has an ankle problem and United are anxious that he recovers to partner Henning Berg in the heart of the defence. Roy Keane should return in midfield after coming through 90 minutes at Omagh in midweek, while Nicky Butt will have a fitness check after he took a knock on his ribs. Jordi Cruyff should also start on the left because Ryan Giggs is not expected to recover from his hamstring injury until the midweek game with Sheffield Wednesday.