The importance of delivering victory in a derby will never be lost on Lee Carsley. Three years after the goal that brought Everton a first triumph in five seasons over Liverpool his autograph remains in demand for a photograph that captured the euphoria of the moment and became so iconic at Goodison Park, the manager David Moyes ordered a framed copy for every member of his squad.
Iconic? "I find it ironic, because I'm still asked to sign that picture of my goal celebrations and I'm the only Everton player not on it," reflects the midfielder with the task of containing Steven Gerrard and resurgent local rivals when they meet to devour each other in the 205th Merseyside derby this lunchtime. "That was a great day, people still talk to me about it, but after the goal I fell to the floor, everyone jumped on me and then Tim Cahill piled on top. He is the only one looking into the camera and he's probably signed as many copies of that photograph as I have."
Not that Carsley harbours a grain of resentment towards his photogenic, Antipodean colleague. Breaking the monotony of the big-four monopoly on the Champions' League places that season rates above the winning goal that secured a place in Evertonian affections for Carsley, even though his hopes of participating alongside the elite of Europe were swiftly doused when Moyes' side had the misfortune to meet the then-commanding Villarreal in the qualifying stages. Besides, this is not a midfielder - or a man - who dedicates himself to the pursuit of individual glory.
Life outside the Premiership and the glare of the Merseyside derby is as far removed from the stereotype of the contemporary footballer for the Republic of Ireland international as perhaps it is possible to be, his priorities altered and shaped from the moment his second son, Connor, was born with Down's syndrome eight years ago and engulfed him to an extent 10 jubilant and delirious team-mates never could.
"Until we had Connor we basically lived up in a bubble where everything was rosy. We get paid a lot of money, you don't worry about bills, you are not worried about anything, and then all of a sudden you have something that totally rocks you and it's, 'Bloody hell'," the Birmingham-born midfielder recalls. "Suddenly you realise that no one's untouchable, it could happen to anyone, and you become a lot more aware of other people's problems and what really goes on.
"We've been sat in waiting rooms with people from all walks of life. It doesn't matter how much money you have, everyone is sat there hoping for the same thing and it does bring you back down to earth. Now my lifestyle and my attitude is a lot different to some other players, but I would never knock them for that because they haven't been through or experienced what I have. I know I didn't think about these problems before Connor arrived, but then why would I have done? That's why, if I'm fundraising. I'll never push it with the lads here and I'll never go around preaching that this is what they should all be doing in their spare time. A lot of the lads at Everton are involved in cancer charities because people in their families have been affected by it. But, because it has happened to us, my family are involved in special needs and Down's syndrome."
Quite how heavily involved Carsley and his wife, Louisa, have become over the past eight years is almost impossible to overstate. Though he has admitted to feelings of isolation when Premiership comforts were initially placed into perspective the 32-year-old has devoted himself to the needs of Connor and others with the condition, to the extent that it may ultimately determine his future career outside the professional game.
Carsley the Premiership footballer is not the only title on his curriculum vitae. As vice-president of the Everton Disabled Supporters Association and Patron of the Down's Syndrome Support Group of Solihull his achievements have not been confined to the pitches of the Premiership, with his local group in particular a source of great effort and of pride. Under the patronage of their most recognisable fundraiser, for whom organising coffee mornings and standing outside supermarkets with a collection bucket are not unusual, membership of the Solihull organisation has increased from 10 to almost 100 in recent years. The original incentive that encouraged the Everton midfielder to become involved has also magnified with time.
"What struck me when we had Connor was not so much the lack of facilities available but say, for instance, if you needed extra speech therapy it might take four or five months to get anywhere," Carsley explains. "It was OK for me and my wife because we could afford to pay extra to get things done quicker but there are a lot of people who are not in the same position and I felt it should be available to everyone. Now, purely through the group's fundraising, we supply all the parents of kids with Down's in Solihull with extra speech therapy and physiotherapy. A lot of people are getting a lot from it, and it has become a bigger part of my life over the years.
"Every Tuesday we hire a room at school and pay for a speech therapist to offer individual therapy, we provide entertainers to keep the kids active during the school holidays and now we are raising funds to take the entire group away for a week and to give the parents a rest. We have three kids [eldest son Callum and six-year-old daughter Lois complete the Carsley clan] and I would say 80 per cent of our time is taken up with Connor. I'd guess most parents of children with special needs would say the same. Connor goes to the same school as his brother and sister and has an assistant with him constantly. That is another thing we try to provide through the group, as for people who cannot afford it, or for parents who are at work all day, it can be a struggle."
Support from the wider football community has not been in short supply. The Football Association, the former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson and a host of clubs throughout the divisions have all been actively involved in raising awareness and money for the Down's Syndrome Association, while in Solihull preparations are under way for the annual ball - the next on 16 June - that provides as their biggest fundraiser of the year.
At last year's event the coffers were swelled when a cramped mini-bus pulled off the M6 straight from a Premiership game at Goodison and out stepped Cahill, James Beattie, Kevin Kilbane, David Weir and several of the club's staff who later attempted to out-bid each other in a charity auction. It was a gesture that reveals the regard for which Carsley and his work are held. "I get a lot of memorabilia from players to go into an auction. It's not just the lads at Everton who like to help out, but players throughout the game are very keen to get involved. Wayne [Rooney] donates a lot of stuff, Stevie Finnan, Chris Kirkland, Frankie Dettori put one of his saddles in, all kinds. Plus we've had a lot of help from the Everton fans as well, they've been fantastic with donations, match-day collections and when we got into Europe the club released a wristband with all the proceeds going to the group."
The rewards of the involvement have naturally exceeded the charitable donations for Carsley - "I value everything it has brought us now. It was a major thing when we had Connor and everyone in our family who has anything to do with Connor is a better person for it. He's a good lad, a bit boisterous, a bit rough, but a good lad" - and it has encouraged the former Derby County, Blackburn Rovers and Coventry City player to pursue a different career path when his playing days come to an end.
In tandem with his team-mate and now class-mate Alan Stubbs, the Irish international passed the first part of his Uefa "A" coaching licence last month and, though he intends to put the qualification to full use, it will not be in a capacity usually associated with senior professionals. Carsley has been known on many occasions to turn up unannounced for training with the Everton Disabled Supporters Association.
"They are a fantastic group, unbelievably organised and with some good players," he says, and the feedback on Merseyside and from sports' days in Solihull has had a profound influence on his next career choice. "My plan is to coach kids in the future, not necessarily at a professional level but just in general. I think you get a lot more out of coaching kids. You only have to look around at places like our Academy here to see how difficult it is to bring a kid through to the first team, sometimes you'll only get one if that, but you get more out of coaching kids who aren't the best. I'd also like to coach kids with special needs but that's a different kind of coaching altogether, that is more about exercise and enjoying football as opposed to developing football skills."
Today, however, the demand will be exclusively on Carsley's skills as an experienced, combative midfielder as Everton seek to interrupt their rivals' re-emergence into the title picture at Anfield, a ground where his side last tasted victory in the year Connor Carsley was born, 1999. Deprived of a leading goalscorer, Andrew Johnson through injury, although whispers were abound on Merseyside last night that the England international may make a miraculous recovery from an ankle problem to a place on the bench this afternoon, and James McFadden courtesy of a metatarsal broken while playing a game of head tennis after training, the visitors' threat appears blunted.
Yet, for the man holding the side together, qualification for the Uefa Cup should remain a realistic target for Everton this season. "So far I'd say we've had an average season but then you look at the table and we're seventh," says Carsley. "I'd like to think we haven't peaked yet, we are still to come into form and win four or five games on the bounce. This is the most talented team Everton have had for years now and in many ways we have underperformed this season. We've got to finish the season strong and there's no reason why we cannot finish in the top six. The players in the team are all of a good age and you'd expect the best of AJ, Beats, Tim Cahill, Joleon Lescott, Phil Neville and others is still to come."
Despite his moment in the spotlight against Liverpool in 2003 (albeit an obstructed one) the contribution made by Carsley can often be overlooked at Everton even though, under Moyes, his availability has coincided neatly with an improvement in fortunes. The inevitable price a holding midfielder pays for his occupation, perhaps. Almost ever-present when Everton finished fourth in 2004 he missed the following season's misery - when the club managed to exit three competitions (the Champions' League, Uefa Cup and Carling Cup) by October - with a cruciate knee ligament injury.
Now recovered he has missed only 37 minutes of League and cup football in 28 appearances this season and yet, with his contract due to expire this summer, there is doubt surrounding his Goodison future. "I'm not sure what will happen. I'm not fretting and neither is the club. We'll sit down in the summer and talk about my future then," the midfielder says. "I'm not about to join LA Galaxy yet." Unlike other patrons of the Home Depot Center, Carsley's work here in England is far from complete.
For more information on the Down's Syndrome Support Group of Solihull, or to make a donation, telephone (0121) 744 1385.Reuse content