Old man Martyn inspires the Everton mean machine

The former England goalkeeper tells Sam Wallace how glory at Goodison has replaced limbo at Leeds as he prepares to face Liverpool at Anfield tomorrow
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The Independent Football

Nigel Martyn was not watching when Liverpool drew with Blackburn on Wednesday and Merseyside's gripping private battle for the fourth Champions' League place took another turn. It was not that he was uninterested but that, like most busy 38-year-old fathers, he had an important school concert to attend. Come tomorrow afternoon, he will do what most 38-year-old fathers could scarcely comprehend: play in goal for Everton in the most crucial Merseyside derby for 16 years.

Martyn's career began two years before the last Merseyside FA Cup final of 1989 and it has covered a great swathe of English football history since then. He has played in an FA Cup final, a European Cup semi-final, European Championships and World Cup qualifiers - an astonishing longevity that prompts the Everton goalkeeper to joke that he has "fillings older than some of my team-mates". But what has endured in Martyn over all that time is a prodigious talent which has proved immune to age. It has helped take Everton to the brink of Champions' League qualification and even earned him an invitation to Euro 2004 from Sven Goran Eriksson.

More than 800 matches have passed since Martyn made his debut at Bristol Rovers in 1987 but, in terms of importance, there will be only a handful that compare to tomorrow's game at Anfield. Seven points separate Everton from their neighbours in fifth place, and a win will move the stupendous achievement of a Champions' League spot even closer to their grasp. Nowhere in the extraordinary team that David Moyes has built does the flame of professionalism burn brighter than his veteran goalkeeper.

When you can boast 10 clean sheets in a season, age ceases to be an issue. But Martyn has always retained a humility and sense of perspective that would mark him out from any other old embittered pro even before you consider his most recent successes. He does not mind a joke about his age - "I told one of the lads when I made my debut the other day and he said, 'Oh I turned six that year'." But most of all he is thankful for the spectacular Indian summer that Moyes and Everton have given to his career.

Martyn admits to a real fondness for Bellefield, Everton's training ground, that, tucked away between suburban houses in the city's West Derby district, some would describe as modest. He calls it "refreshing". "At Leeds we had this great old training ground and when we got a new one it was like you were almost spoilt. I think Bellefield is what it should be like. Not getting pampered, just having what you need." And it is that spartan spirit which has embodied Everton's resurrection under Moyes, Martyn says. The ability to coax great feats out of a small squad to whom no one outside Goodison gave a chance.

The Everton goalkeeper was not surprised to hear that Moyes and his assistant, Alan Irvine, were at Anfield, sizing up Liverpool on Wednesday night. His manager, Martyn says, leaves "no stone unturned" in his preparation for games. "I would imagine most of his afternoons are spent watching videos, going through the ProZone and really searching for weaknesses in teams," he says. But, he adds, the image of Moyes as an authoritarian, unyielding young manager is not accurate.

"He came to us this season and said that it would be long and hard and asked us if there was anything different we wanted to do," Martyn says. "He doesn't want it to be a long drag. The lads had a golf day. He offered to take us away for a break. He does pay attention to what we say and I think that's important. He doesn't want to flog people mentally and physically with the same training very week. He is open to change and you can go and talk to him.

"In the end, he is the manager. What he says goes. It's not like he lets his players run the show, that's not the case. But if there was something that you had come up with that would be good, he would be prepared to listen."

There is only three years' age difference between Martyn and Moyes, and the goalkeeper is thankful for his rescue from Leeds in September 2003 when, after a season without playing a game, he was given the chance to come to Goodison Park. His Leeds exile had began after a dispute with Terry Venables the previous summer when Martyn, just returned from the 2002 World Cup, refused to join a summer tour to Australia and the Far East. He wanted time to recover and yet the decision cost him his place at the club, whose fans recently voted him Elland Road's sixth-greatest player of all time.

With another year on his contract, the summers are precious resting time for Martyn and it was with that in mind that he turned down a last-minute call from Eriksson in May last year to join up with England for Euro 2004. He has 23 England caps, although he has not started for the national team since a World Cup warm-up against Cameroon in May 2002, but by last summer it was Everton, and the debt he owed to Moyes, that was the priority for Martyn, "If England rang tomorrow and said, 'We are absolutely desperate, can you play?' - of course I would because I love my country," Martyn says. "Realistically, I know that time has gone. I did get a phone call before the Euros asking whether I be prepared to go. It was just to sit on the bench because they wanted to play David James and that's fair enough. But that's what I did in 2002 and then you get zero time off and then you are away on a pre-season tour when you are physically exhausted.

"I had just been given another chance by Everton and I was playing. If an England manager had rung and said, 'I want you to play in this tournament' then I would have gone because it is worth it. But if you talk to all the players who went there, did all the work and the travelling, but didn't feature at all - they will have found it hard. I have been given a second chance at Everton and I didn't want to waste that.

"I don't think you ever get as many caps as you want. During my time I was fairly consistent in the Premiership, but so was David Seaman. For England he never let us down and always played well. I felt I had a decent game against Greece [in October 2001]. I remember the manager saying, 'Well done, you did well' because there were a couple of times at 2-1 down when I made saves when, at 3-1, we were out of it.

"You are on top of the world. David had that shoulder injury at the time and I thought, 'I've got a chance here'. But deep down you know that the manager has his favourite XI and I knew I wasn't in that XI, which is unfortunate."

Eriksson will be at Anfield tomorrow and he will have a good opportunity to learn how one of the Premiership's meanest, and oldest, defensive cores operates. Martyn and his two central defenders Alan Stubbs and David Weir boast a combined age of 105. They are Merseyside's modest answer to the grizzled defensive Goliaths at Milan and they have been vital to the success of the Moyes project.

"It is experience," Martyn says. "We have played a lot of games between the three of us. First and foremost they are very good defenders and they tend not to get pulled out of position too much. By their own admission, they are probably not the quickest and I can imagine opposition managers telling players to run them but they do not get themselves into positions where you can do that. Lee Carsley protects them and they are experienced enough not to get on the wrong side of players."

At 34 and 33, Weir and Stubbs are relative juniors to the man in the gloves behind them. Competition for his place will increase next season when John Ruddy arrives from Cambridge, but it is remarkable to hear Martyn say that when he left Crystal Palace for Leeds in July 1996 he considered, at 29, that this was his last chance of Premiership football. He is not teetotal - "I have never been a night-clubber though. And that probably makes me sound a boring old git" - but when it comes to training he is puritanical about his regime.

"Every day I go into training to work hard as I can," he says. "If you think, 'I feel a bit tired, I am going to try to get off with an easy day' that's the time when you will start feeling it. We've got Wrighty [Richard Wright] and [Iain] Turner. They are a lot younger than me and there is no way I wouldn't want to do exactly what they do. It's a case of just trying to keep yourself equally fit with them and that's the only way I know how to do it."

The well-planned training, the simple facilities and a bright young manager who is prepared to listen are a few of the reasons why Martyn believes Everton have been transformed this season, but he also points to the early wins that followed their first-day defeat to Arsenal. They helped the side "hit the ground running". Then there is, the question of their style. Everton have been accused of leaving any notions of artistic merit in the changing-rooms this season. Is that an issue that causes them concern?

"Not at all," Martyn says. "There is no choice between playing this way and being fourth or trying to play a different way and being further down the League. It is about success and where you finish and winning games. And doing what you have to do with the players that you have. I think the manager has come up with a formula for the players he has. What we have got is a small squad of around 16 players."

No analysis of Everton this season would be complete without consideration of the Wayne Rooney conundrum. Everton's players have been asked time and again this season to explain just how they have improved despite losing the single greatest English goalscoring talent of his generation. At two decades senior to the England striker, Martyn is well qualified to answer.

"If you have Wayne, you have a better team - you don't have to be Einstein to work it out," he says. "He wanted to go and probably at that time he needed to go. Once it was out the way it was, 'Right, we can move on now', but while it was still happening these things do have a detrimental effect on clubs. You ask how does it affect the way you play? Well, it just does sometimes. From our point of view he could take it [the attention] all because it takes the pressure off everyone else."

As it is a Champions' League place that is at stake tomorrow, it would hardly be right not to allow one of the few Everton players who have played in the competition to reflect on his glorious run to the semi-finals in 2001. Martyn can remember a kit-man running out on to the Leeds training ground one autumn morning to deliver some important news. "We had drawn AC Milan and Barcelona in the group stages and for a moment you could see everyone thinking 'My God'," he says. "But we got real excitement and a real buzz off that."

Martyn remembers a season of "treading on the toes" of Europe's best and he suspects that, as outsiders, Everton would have a chance to upset the football establishment in the same way. "I am looking forward to next season because I know I can cope with it easily enough," he says. But Martyn is doing rather more than coping, he is excelling at 38 in a young man's game and, after tomorrow, the best may still be to come.