Football: Royle puts his shoulder to the wheel

The Everton manager talks to Glenn Moore about the weight of expectatio n at Goodison ahead of tomorrow's Merseyside derby
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He is a big man, an inch over six foot, with shoulders to match. At the moment, Joe Royle feels he needs those shoulders to protect his back.

Strange, you might think, given Royle's achievements as Everton manager. In less than two years he has saved them from relegation, won the FA Cup, and, last season, taken them within a whisker of a Uefa Cup place.

Yet he goes to Anfield tomorrow in need of a performance and a point if he is to silence the men he calls "backstabbers".

As so often, it is a question of perspective. When Royle began his second Everton career - the managerial one - the club was bottom with eight points from 14 matches. The spectre of relegation, for the first time in more than 40 years, beckoned.

"I think it has gone very well," he said this week. "When I came here, the club were on schedule for 24 points over the season - we finished with 50. The season prior to that we only escaped relegation on the last day. So survival was the aim, winning the Cup a bonus. Finishing sixth last year was progress, so there has been two years of progress.

"The problem now is with expectations. They have risen steeply - people no longer worry about relegation. On Saturday [against West Ham] we did not play well but we won, yet people were still not happy."

Everton are one of those clubs blessed - or cursed - with a football heritage. They are the "school of science" and are expected to win stylishly. Supporters weaned on Harry Catterick's 1970 champions, and Howard Kendall's 1985 and 1987 winners, are unconvinced about the Royle vintage.

No one complained at first. Royle's opening game as Everton manager, in November 1994, was another Merseyside derby. On a night of high excitement at Goodison Park, Everton defeated Liverpool 2-0.

That win was achieved by the men Royle christened his "dogs of war", midfield scrappers like Barry Horne, Joe Parkinson and John Ebbrell. Royle came to regret the phrase. It is constantly used, only now it is offered as evidence of limitation, rather than spirit. The supporters want fluid passing movements. Who, they ask, is the Colin Harvey, the Paul Bracewell, the Cliff Britton of the modern side?

"People get carried away with ideals about total football," Royle said. "We all want to play entertaining football, but we do have a duty to win games, that is where this club was going wrong. Successful teams are aggressive. Look at [Paul] Ince and [Roy] Keane, they were part of Manchester United's best team in recent years. You have to be strong.

"It is a fine balance. You want to entertain, and you do that with entertaining players like Andrei Kanchelskis and Duncan Ferguson. But sometimes you are only as entertaining as your best players. We are still not near the finished product, but I don't think we will have any relegation worries."

The one potential heir to Everton's passing tradition, the gifted but lightweight Tony Grant, has struggled to establish himself. "He is a great talent," Royle said, "an old- fashioned link player who can go past people and score goals. But he has taken time to get going. He may need more time, he may need a run in the first team, but he has to justify his place."

Royle has tried to integrate Grant. After a vibrant start - Newcastle beaten, Manchester United held at Old Trafford - he drafted Grant in. He played fairly well in a draw at Spurs, but then results went awry. Royle soon reverted to the tried and trusted but, before results improved, Everton had lost in the Coca-Cola Cup at York and the pressure was building.

"York was a disaster, I would not argue with that. But then the whole media machine gets into action. There is no other business like this where perceptions can change overnight. We had a great start. Six games later we had not won and I had become an under-pressure manager.

"I don't find criticism difficult to deal with, but I find it hard to understand. There are very few journalists now, just a lot of quote collectors and back- stabbers; hitmen waiting for something to happen. I see the knives are out for Glenn Hoddle already."

Royle has fallen out with some of the local press. They argue they are merely articulating supporters' views, he feels negative coverage does not help a team when it is suffering from low confidence.

"When you get in a tailspin it is very hard to get out of it - think of Norwich a couple of years ago. Every game becomes vital, it is built up to such extremes by local and national media.

"The last thing you want is to be somebody pleading for patience all the time, but it is not even two years yet. Avoiding relegation that season was the best thing I have done as a manager. We now find ourselves - after a "crisis" - four points off a European place and I think we'll improve on that.

"It took Manchester United seven years to win the title after Alex Ferguson arrived and I inherited players who were used to a relegation fight rather than chasing things. We are gradually changing that round. There are 11 players gone since I came here and five or six come in. We have young players coming through, but it does not change overnight - clubs do not want to sell their best players and you have to be very careful in the foreign market."

Royle has two great assets in his quest. One is an apparently supportive board, the other is his own history. We met at Everton's Bellefield training ground in an office which had barely changed since Royle first entered it more than 30 years ago. He now sits behind - rather than stands in front of - Catterick's unusual desk, which has a football pitch painted on it. One new addition is pinned to the noticeboard, an old and unframed black-and-white photograph of Royle heading an Everton goal.

At 16, Royle was Everton's youngest debutant, having graduated - like the current starlet Michael Branch - from the terraces. He is described, in Ian Ross and Gordon Smailes' Everton - The Complete Record, as being widely acknowledged as Everton's finest post-war centre-forward.

More of a Ferguson than a Branch, he scored 119 goals in 275 games, 23 of them in the 1970 championship season. Now 47, he carries a grim legacy of his efforts with Everton, England, Manchester City, Bristol City and Norwich. He has arthritis in his hips and knees and Willie Donachie does the physical work on the training ground.

He remains a Goodison hero. On Saturday, after the laboured win over West Ham, a video was showing in the Winslow Arms opposite Goodison. As I entered, Royle was shown scoring a goal. He describes his return to Everton, after a dozen years as manager of Oldham, as "a calling".

The season Royle began playing, Everton won the FA Cup. It was four more years before Catterick landed the title. Kendall, having taken over a struggling team, needed four years to build his champions, during which crowds plummeted and supporters called for his dismissal. The board were rewarded for backing him just as Manchester United's have been for standing by Alex Ferguson.

It is thus premature to judge Royle, even if life in the Premiership demands instant verdicts. Liverpool's current success, and their beautiful football, does not make it any easier. "It does not make a difference to me personally, but it does to supporters," he said. "The fans feel it."

Victory tomorrow would lighten their mood. Everton have injury problems, but Royle is confident. "Since my first game, we have no fear of the occasion."