Tony Hibbert: True blue
The defender has been at Everton so long he was in David Moyes' first starting XI. He tells Simon Hart how he's seen the club grow, Wayne Rooney come and go and why Ross Barkley will be a star
Friday 28 October 2011
"Part of the brickwork" is how David Moyes once described Tony Hibbert, the only survivor of the Scot's first starting XI as Everton manager 10 years ago this coming March.
Moyes's words were meant as a compliment though Hibbert offers a wry response when he is reminded of them. "I think it sums it up, brickwork – that is how it feels sometimes, they forget about me."
Hibbert is the least starry type imaginable and he says this with a smile. He may still be waiting for his first senior goal after 280 appearances dating back to his debut in 2001 under Walter Smith – "Hibbert scores, we riot" was the memorable banner paraded at the 2009 FA Cup final – but his reliability at right-back this term means that when we meet he is fresh from receiving the Everton Player of the Month award for September at a lunch for club sponsors and partners.
He does not dwell on his own efforts, which provide no consolation for Everton's disappointing early-season form. Nor can he offer a satisfactory explanation for their fifth successive slow start to a Premier League campaign – "I wish I knew" – yet there is plenty else he can shed light on, starting with Ross Barkley, the latest gem unearthed by the Everton academy.
Manchester United are in town tomorrow and the return of Wayne Rooney to L4 does not just stir memories of the erstwhile Evertonian's brilliant baby steps in a blue shirt, but also begs the question whether Barkley might warrant some measure of comparison with the England forward. Hibbert does not hesitate to suggest that, in potential at least, the 17-year-old midfielder "is up there with Wayne", and he should know, having witnessed the development of both at first hand.
He has fond memories of Rooney's first season in 2002/03, his own breakthrough campaign as a first-team regular. "He looked up to me and Duncan Ferguson and Alan Stubbs because we were all Scousers. I know Duncan Ferguson is Scottish but deep down he's a Scouser – he's more Scouse than half the people I know around here. Fergie was a big influence and Alan Stubbs too and I think they still keep in touch."
"You knew straight away he had something," he adds of Rooney. "The way he was, he was just a kid off the street and I think he is still like that. He's dead down to earth. Nothing fazed him. Even training with him, you'd think 'what the hell are you trying to do here?'. Nine times out of 10 he'd mess it up but he'd try it again next time and it would come off."
Hibbert senses a similar fearlessness in Barkley, yet a different temperament. "Wayne was a jack the lad. You could go out on the street with him and get him on the park and he'd be the same – he'd be diving everywhere, going in goal, it'd be madness. Ross is a bit more level-headed. He's also bigger. Potential-wise I think he is up there with Wayne."
Barkley has been likened by some to Steven Gerrard but Hibbert, who played with Liverpool's captain as a schoolboy in Huyton, says: "I don't know if he's a central midfielder or if he is like a No 10 off the forward or on the wing. He has got the feet, the dribbles. With Steven you knew he was a central midfielder. With Ross I think you could develop a team around him really, he's that good."
Whether Everton have that luxury remains to be seen. Barkley, with five senior appearances to date, is expected to sign an improved long-term contract in December when he turns 18, though his every appearance is already being watched by covetous clubs. Hibbert adds: "Really we need to keep hold of Ross. Obviously how the club is with the money situation [may be a factor] but I think he is the next big thing."
Hibbert's own emergence was rather less heralded; like Leon Osman, he was relatively late in stepping up from the Blues' FA Youth Cup-winning side of 1998. "We had some players – Danny Cadamarteri, Richard Dunne, Michael Ball. Franny Jeffers was there as well." For Hibbert that crop is further evidence that in one area at least Everton's old Latin motto of "Nil Satis Nisi Optimum" – Nothing but the best is good enough – still holds true. "The academy at Everton is unbelievable, the amount of players that have come through and were sold or have been there. Jags [Phil Jagielka] and [Leighton] Bainesy were at Everton when they were kids," he continues, throwing in two current names.
The defender, who joined Everton at "10 or 11", hails the atmosphere of a "great family club" as a key ingredient in making young players feel at home. "It's a great dressing room to be in and that's how it's been since I grew up here." Moyes himself was responsible for moving the academy on to the same site as the first team at Finch Farm, the club's training base since 2007 – not the only change Hibbert has witnessed during the Scot's productive reign. "When he first came he was quite new and he wasn't scared to say that. He said from day one he was still learning the game and fair dues to him he has changed the club around. The club is now totally different, from the training ground to the staff to how we are. It is miles away from what it was when I broke into the first team or even before then. The academy now is a million miles away from the academy I was at."
The one thing that has not altered, however, is Goodison Park. Our interview takes place at the Hilton Hotel, a stone's throw from the Liverpool waterfront where, had history taken a different turn, Everton would now be playing at chairman Bill Kenwright's proposed stadium at Kings Dock – now the site of the Echo Arena. Instead they are still at Goodison, and without a penny in the pot on the evidence of recent transfer windows.
A boyhood blue, Hibbert needs no telling about Evertonians' frustrations yet offers a measured response. "I can see where they are coming from but also the club has got to survive, it has to be here 100, 200 years later. They have got to manage the books and if it's got to be the way we are now then it's got to be and the lads have got to pull their sleeves up and have a go for the club and they are doing that at the moment."
Hibbert maintains that Everton's much-publicised failure to sign players has not damaged the spirit in the camp – "I don't think it has done. What I said about the team spirit, that is a big factor with Everton" – though he does admit that Moyes's men are still adjusting to the loss of midfielders Steven Pienaar and Mikel Arteta. "The type of player Steven was, he was world class and for him to not be in our starting lineup again is noticeable. Like with Mikel you will notice it and it takes time to adjust because they offer something different that we haven't got [now]."
It is only 20 months since Everton earned back-to-back home wins over Chelsea and United, during a run of two defeats in 24 league games that left David Moyes with Champions League ambitions entering 2010/11. By contrast, they face a wounded United tomorrow on the back of Wednesday's extra-time Carling Cup loss to Chelsea – their fourth defeat in five.
While Moyes's own recently downbeat tone suggests a weariness with trying to bridge the gap with the big-spending elite, Hibbert remains stubbornly optimistic. When the keen angler says he likes nothing better than "catching big fish", he could be talking about the pitch as well as the pond. "The teams around us are spending money but it makes you even hungrier to go and show them exactly what we are capable of and what we can do on a budget. We did that when we reached the Champions League. I don't know why we can't do it again."
He picks out positives, noting how Jack Rodwell, another of the homegrown brigade, "has pushed on" this season, and the impact of the "livewire" on-loan Dutchman, Royston Drenthe. And the message is that Everton's campaign will soon be up and running. "It will change and it has changed before – it just flips, like a light switch."
My other life: Fishing
I've gone fishing since I was a kid and I just like the whole thing – it gets me away from the intensity and pressure of being a footballer, it gets me peace and quiet, hiding on a lake behind the bushes.
Last summer I was in Gran Canaria, but normally when I have a day off, I'm up at my local pond. It's different from football but there's still that little fight to outdo the fish. You're with nature and I like the challenge of catching big fish.
That's what I enjoy most about it – but I put them straight back in.
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