Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, the Russian left-winger most Evertonians prefer to call "Billy" but whose surname the Goodison Park receptionist can proudly rattle off without drawing breath, knew there would be some acclimatising to do when he swapped Moscow for Merseyside. "I haven't drunk tea yet," he told a Russian journalist recently. "Naturally they have their own traditions and habits but people are the same everywhere."
Phil Neville being the honourable exception. It was Neville who called Bilyaletdinov, shortly before the Everton team were due to meet up at the Attica restaurant in Manchester for a recent team bonding evening, to inform him that there was a smart dress code. The Neville tone would probably have given the game away to those more learned in his ways. "He was talking in a really serious voice and said, 'Don't forget to put on your team suit,'" Bilyaletdinov recalls. "My first feeling was 'oh no!' I had already dressed to get ready – jeans, T-shirt, trainers. My shirt was washed but not ironed. I was in a state of panic." His girlfriend, Maria, set to work with a steam iron, Bilyaletdinov changed ... "and then I got to the restaurant and saw everyone in their jeans. Everyone found it very funny. Phil Neville, he's a funny man. Nice joke."
They give as good as they get in Moscow, of course, a city where the pace of life makes Merseyside seem comparatively sedate. "I reciprocated the joke," says Bilyaletdinov, his good grasp of English making the translator beside him in the Everton boardroom slightly redundant. "When he wasn't looking I put my food in the inside pocket of his coat. I have got a sense of humour too."
Gentle knockabout and certainly nothing like the drama accompanying the most famous Russian to join Everton, Andrei Kanchelskis, sold to the club by Manchester United in 1995 after his agent told the then United chairman Martin Edwards, "If you don't sell him now you won't be around for much longer." But Bilyaletdinov, 24, certainly needs that sense of humour. When Guus Hiddink, his national coach, helped broker the £10m move to Everton this summer that was initially planned as a loan last January, he told him that David Moyes' side was one of the best he had encountered as Chelsea's temporary manager. "He said it would be good for the development of my career and that Everton were a team, first and foremost, who wanted to play good football and get results," the player recalls. Instead, that team have plummeted to within four points of the relegation zone with one win in 10. Tomorrow, after a week in which Everton's new stadium plan was rejected and the side lost at Hull City, it is the Merseyside derby at Goodison, against a Liverpool stung by Champions League elimination.
Bilyaletdinov has not had much taste of febrile derbies. CSKA v Spartak is Moscow's equivalent, but he played for Lokomotiv, though Moscow is as obsessed with English football as anywhere else, which is why he saw Dan Gosling doing the business in February's FA Cup tie against Liverpool.
The pace of the English game is certainly taking some adjusting to and if Patrice Evra's difficult debut in the Manchester derby nearly four years ago was anything to go by, tomorrow will not be easy. Evra has described that match as "terrible – like being caught up in a washing machine" and Bilyaletdinov thinks he knows what the Frenchman means. "The mileage [in English football] is probably the same, but the speed is different. And there is more of this," he continues, tapping his head. "You need more concentration and attention. Every game is a hard game. It's fast. Not exactly like being in a washing machine, but something along those lines."
Bilyaletdinov is not short on advice. His father, Rinat, played for Lokomotiv and coached "Billy" for a year in the club's academy before the young man moved on through the ranks. He also talks to Tottenham Hotspur's Roman Pavlyuchenko and Chelsea's Yuri Zhirkov although, for reasons which are not altogether clear, not Andrei Arshavin. "No. He's not my friend and I didn't speak to him," he says firmly. Arsenal, in fact, do not seem to delight him at all. "I always favoured Arsenal because of the way they used to play but in recent years, no, I think Arsenal have lost something in the way they play," he says.
There is certainly something for Bilyaletdinov to prove tomorrow. It was fair to assume that when Moyes intoned darkly after Everton had lost three games in six days last month that "I'm like an elephant, I don't forget. I don't forget if people don't perform and let me down," the Russian was probably in his thoughts, and just when the player looked to be coming into his own, with goals in successive league games against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa, he was sent off for a high tackle on Villa's Stiliyan Petrov. This will be his first league game back.
The Everton fans who have approached him in the past week have made him quite aware of what is expected at Goodison. "There are fans who come to watch us train and they tell me," he says. "In Moscow nobody spoke about the game in the weeks before whereas here they are talking about this game the whole year around." So time to deliver and restore some much needed joie de vivre to the ranks before his next Neville initiation ceremony: singing at the club Christmas party. "I'm not sure what to do yet," he says. "I have never sung before in my life, so it will be my first time. But if it's a tradition for new players I will have to do it, no problem. That's how it should be."
My other life
I'm still adjusting to a new life, new city. Moscow is faster. More people. Most of the restaurants are open to 5am or 7am when the last client leaves but I can adapt to that.
I was in Manchester recently in a traffic jam and said "Oh my God, I wish I was in Liverpool sooner."
I do have a problem sometimes with the Liverpool accent when I'm out shopping, which I am often. Outside of football my passion is car design. I graduated with a degree in engineering, specifically in the design of cars. I have always liked cars and had an interest in what goes into them, what makes them run fast.