Replacing a legendary goalkeeper can be a manager's greatest burden. Just ask Walter Smith, who has seen his club spend more than £5.1m on three shot-stoppers in the last five years but is yet to be convinced he has found a suitable successor to Neville Southall.
Everton are not alone in their lonely search. Liverpool have never truly filled the boots of Bruce Grobbelaar, while Manchester United, even allowing for the purchase of the world's most garlanded keeper, Fabien Barthez, still cannot match the memory of their great Dane, Peter Schmeichel. At least the two red clubs have won more often than not without their talismen. Not so the Blues, although the feeling is growing that Steve Simonsen could be the long-awaited answer to the club's keeping frailties.
Stepping out of Southall's imposing shadow remains a daunting task, but recent signs are encouraging. Two clean sheets suggest that the wonder kid is finally ready to make a proper start to his Premiership career. Simonsen is the first to admit that his much-publicised and oft-questioned move to Everton had a negative effect on his game. The £3.3m transfer from Peter Johnson's then Nationwide First Division club, Tranmere Rovers, to his "other" Merseyside outlet made Simonsen the most expensive teenage keeper of all time. It also raised expectations to unhealthy levels, including the misplaced suggestion that the 19-year-old would become the youngest-ever England keeper.
As it happens, it took three seasons for the Sunderland lad to get his opportunity at club, let alone international, level. "I've waited a long time to get my break," Simonsen says in his North-east accent, "so, yeah, I'm overjoyed. There were times when I thought the call would never come, but people at the club told me to bide my time and keep working hard. Now it's happened and I'm determined to grab this chance with both hands."
Simonsen's ability has never been in doubt, but the mental side of his game did suffer because of the pressures of his high-profile transfer. "There always seemed to be another side to the story and that was hard to cope with at times," he explains. "It affected me because every other person was asking me to justify the ins and outs when I knew nothing about the deal. I don't know exactly how much money changed hands, but I must admit I was surprised about the transfer. One minute I was doing OK at Tranmere and the next I was moving to Everton. It all happened very quickly. Too quickly, perhaps. I've always had the confidence in my own ability, but the fact is that you don't see many young keepers playing at the highest level."
Simonsen never expected to walk straight into the first team, but there were times when he was left wondering whether his future lay elsewhere. "I remember once when Paul Gerrard got injured and Thomas Myhre was recalled from a loan spell at Tranmere to play ahead of me," he says. "That didn't fill me with confidence, but I just kept my head down and waited for my day."
That day arrived after Simonsen had achieved the not-so-glamorous record of making more than 100 non-playing substitute appearances for the club. Since being given the nod against Bolton just under a month ago, Simonsen has barely put a foot – or hand – wrong. "Steve's not had much to do during these last three matches, but he's made crucial saves at important times and you can't ask any more of your keeper," says Smith, who was scouting the teenage Simonsen when he was manager of Rangers. "He's been patient and played consistently well for the reserves, so we [Smith, his assistant, Archie Knox, and the goalkeeping coach, Chris Woods] decided he deserved his chance. Changing your goalkeeper is never easy and Paul [Gerrard] has acquitted himself well, but I just felt it needed a change."
He may not want to admit it publicly, but you suspect that Simonsen is quietly grateful he has been given time to prepare his Premiership career. "My transfer put a lot more weight on my shoulders, because everyone was obviously expecting a great deal of me," he says. "There were plenty of people just waiting for me to mess things up, so I guess it was right to allow me to settle down before chucking me into the pit."
The long wait on the sidelines has only hardened Simonsen's resolve. "I broke into the Tranmere team at just 18," he says, "and even then a lot of people were questioning whether it was a good idea to put me in goal at that age. I've come to realise that whatever I'll ever do, there will always be pressure on me to do well."
Experience has taught Simonsen to dismiss any talk of an international future as premature, but, should he be overlooked by Sven Goran Eriksson, he could follow in the footsteps of the best keeper of the last 10 years. Like Schmeichel, Simonsen has inherited Danish blood from his father, Preden, and remains eligible for both England and Denmark until he plays a full international for either country. "Obviously, my first love is for England," he says, "but if I wasn't going to be given a chance here then I'd certainly consider representing Denmark."
Wisely, Simonsen has never tried to emulate one particular keeper, although his famous club predecessor, Southall, was always someone he looked up to. "He was a massive hero at Everton and spent many years as the number one," he says, "so it's understandable that someone hasn't just come along and erased his memory overnight. It will take time for me to prove that I'm my own man, but hopefully one day I can be liked as much as him."
Not the easiest of challenges, but at least Simonsen has already proved he is prepared to wait for success.Reuse content