Carsley drive keeps AJ on the right road

Warrior midfielder makes up for lost time as his fellow baldie proves striking difference
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The Independent Football

The throng outside the entrance to Everton's Bellefield training ground provides the clearest of indications that the good times are back at Everton. Inside, in the players' car park, one of the more privileged punters is having his picture taken with the shiny-pated striker whose goals have sparked the upsurge.

You need to look twice, though, to identify Andrew Johnson positively, since in Lee Carsley Everton possess a shaven-headed look-alike. Take that hilarious third goal in the rout of Liverpool a couple of weeks ago. Was it really Carsley's repelled shot that Johnson headed in? Carsley is happy to co-operate with this theme. "It was either my shot that AJ headed in or his shot that I headed in," he smiles. "We do get mixed up quite a lot, but I don't think people are mixed up when they see his finishing.

"AJ has made a hell of a difference at this club, just what we were crying out for. Two years ago when we finished fourth Marcus Bent was doing a fantastic job for us on his own up front because no one could handle his pace, and now AJ is doing the same. His pace is phenomenal, and when he gets the chances he is putting them away as well. Definitely worth the money, he was."

Carsley has also turned out to be definitely worth Everton's outlay of £1.9m four and a half years ago. Signed from Coventry City by Walter Smith when Everton were floundering, Carsley's midfield bite and zest have been key elements under David Moyes. Despite missing most of last season following a knee operation, Carsley clocked up his 100th game for Everton in the Carling Cup victory at Peterborough on Tuesday.

He shrugs off comparisons to Chelsea's Claude Makelele. "I'm not sure about that. First of all, I am happy just to be playing, but a lot of times, especially against the bigger teams, I have a role where I may have to mark certain players, so it changes from game to game. But I'm not complaining, I'll do whatever I'm asked." What role will he be fulfilling at Newcastle this afternoon, then? Marking his Ireland colleague Damien Duff, perhaps? "God knows," said Carsley, speaking after training on Friday. "We haven't even spoken about Newcastle yet after that tough game at Peterborough. But it will be another really tough one. They have outstanding individuals in Scott Parker and Damien."

Despite the spectacular eruption of Johnson this season, Everton remain a club who do not specialise in outstanding individuals. "The team ethic is the important thing," said Carsley. "Even when Wayne [Rooney] was here he wasn't viewed as a star by the other lads, he was just as hardworking as anyone else. Obviously he stood out, but one of the things the manager drills into the players is that the team comes first.

"We can't kid ourselves that we are a great footballing side who are going to go out and pass other teams off the park because we are not. We are a hard-working team who are getting better at passing the ball, but we are a long way off thinking we are Man United, Chelsea or Arsenal. We have to outwork 'em, outbattle 'em and then nick a couple of goals." But haven't Everton missed Rooney? "He's missed because he's a good lad, great to have around the dressing room. Wayne was good fun, enthus-iastic in training and that rubs off on people. But he has moved on and we have moved on.

"When we were third in the League Tommy Gravesen left for Real Madrid, and people were saying we wouldn't be able to cope without him, but the manager brings in Mikel Arteta and before you know it no one is talking about Tommy any more, we are talking about what Mikel has brought. There is not one player here who is indispensable."

Though he would never claim it, Carsley rates high on Everton's indispensability list. Having torn a medial ligament after falling awkwardly in the final game of the 2004-05 season, he underwent surgery in August last year and was out until February. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Everton's fortunes slumped in that time.

The 32-year-old from Birmingham, who has collected 29 caps for Ireland because of Irish grandparents, is happy enough to have found himself settled at a club where he has not been what he considers a hoodoo. Signing for Derby straight from school at 15 ("their manager, Arthur Cox, had played for Walsall with my dad, Frank"), Carsley was sold to Blackburn when Derby lost their place in the Premiership, only to see Blackburn go down, too. "When I came to Everton they were struggling but we stayed up. Otherwise, I was on for a hat-trick."

Carsley's contract is up at the end of this season and he admits: "I'm not sure what to do. Though I have an apartment in Liverpool my family is still in Birmingham because my three kids are in school there, so I do a lot of travelling. I've spent more time on the M6 than Eddie Stobart." Then the thought of Everton's excellent start and the possibility of a place in Europe has him musing about a contract extension. Let's hope so. That shiny-pated duo are capable of embarrassing more teams than Liverpool.