Gravesen draws strength from sting of the doubters

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The Independent Football

If the Footballer of the Year votes were cast tonight there is a chance the award would go to yet another imported player. Thierry Henry is still scoring for Arsenal and a few Chelsea stars are shining, but possibly the most influential player to date has been the Danish midfielder who has driven Everton into an early-season Champions' League position - Thomas Gravesen.

If the Footballer of the Year votes were cast tonight there is a chance the award would go to yet another imported player. Thierry Henry is still scoring for Arsenal and a few Chelsea stars are shining, but possibly the most influential player to date has been the Danish midfielder who has driven Everton into an early-season Champions' League position - Thomas Gravesen.

"Tommy, Tommy, Tommy Gravesen" is the chant that has replaced "Roooooney" among Everton fans still coming to terms with their rise from relegation favourites to potential glory guys. Those long-suffering Evertonians could even be cheering their team into second place in the table with a win at Newcastle today in manager David Moyes' 100th Premiership game in charge of "The People's Club".

Gravesen, 28, has played in most of those matches and has always been an inspirational, if slightly irrational figure. Raised in the wilderness of a Danish pig farm, the £2.5m recruit in the summer of 2000 from Hamburg - where he was regularly voted one of the best foreign players in Germany - goes under a series of nicknames ranging from "The Grave Digger" to "Mad Dog".

Shaven-headed and almost square in shape, he looks intimidating - with reason. According to some observers at the club, he is a rare example of a "psycho" footballer who, in London Tube terms, really is one stop short of East Ham. Gravesen, who rarely gives his views publicly on the game, is a player whose bite is worse than his bark.

"He's always been an excellent player," Moyes said. "He's got his mad moments, but he's matured a lot, is taking more responsibility and even settling down a little bit. He's a handful to say the least, but he's a fiery character with great technical ability. You always know he's there, put it that way."

Today Gravesen and Everton sit pretty in third spot with 29 points from 14 games and since losing at home to Arsenal on the opening day they have a better Premiership record than the champions.

"I feel sharp like the rest of the squad - we're buzzing," the Dane said yesterday. "It didn't look good after all the [financial and boardroom] rumours about the club in pre-season. Then we lost 4-1 to Arsenal and it seemed like it would be downhill all season. But the guys and people around the club managed to turn it around - and look where we are now."

Gravesen insists the players felt they had nothing to prove after wonder boy Wayne Rooney's £25m departure to Manchester United. The teenage striker was hardly a regular performer in the Everton side anyway, though as a result of Moyes's protectionist policy. The sting, Gravesen insists, came in the criticism aimed at the entire Everton squad.

He added: "It hurt us when everyone said, 'You're no good. You don't belong in the League' and 'You will be relegated'. You want to prove them wrong and I think that's in every man's nature. I don't think it's because of one person [Rooney] leaving. When you corner a guy he will do anything to get out of that and I think the whole squad have shown that a cornered person is stronger than a free one."

It is a sentiment that Moyes shares. The Scot said: "First we want to be safe, but I have greater ambitions for this club and I don't see why we can't stay up there. Maybe it's down to the fact we've only had 18 or 19 players to pick from. It's meant we've had stability. It may work against us in time and we have the ability to add a few players in January, but at the moment the size of the squad has been to our benefit."

Moyes' next task is to keep that squad together, including Gravesen, who is still stalling on renewing his contract. He is relatively confident of keeping his star man happy, just as Arsène Wenger was when Real Madrid asked Patrick Vieira out to play last summer, and added: "We have a good relationship. What the outcome will be I don't know yet. Tommy wants to play in Europe and we're not in a bad position to help him get it.

"He's really well liked here and from that point of view it's not always the best thing to do to move. He wants to see that we're going to make progress as well and hopefully we'll be able to show that in the coming months. We think this is going to be a good club to be at in the future."

It sounds as if the Grave Digger might agree. He concluded: "Rumours are there because of the game and we can't comment on every rumour. At the moment everybody is focused so hard on the job for Everton. The rumours are OK for the game, but not for our club."

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