Stubbs defiant as loss of Gravesen casts shadow

Everton captain insists a stunning season will not be undermined by the great Dane's farewell
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The Independent Football

"Bigger loss than Rooney''... "Their one and only chance of Europe''... "Sink like a stone without him''... The epitaphs on Everton's season darted around like mischievous sprites before hitching a ride on the biting north-westerly that howled out of the Bellefield car park on Friday, snapping at the heels of Thomas Gravesen, who had been whisked off to Real Madrid earlier that lunchtime.

"Bigger loss than Rooney''... "Their one and only chance of Europe''... "Sink like a stone without him''... The epitaphs on Everton's season darted around like mischievous sprites before hitching a ride on the biting north-westerly that howled out of the Bellefield car park on Friday, snapping at the heels of Thomas Gravesen, who had been whisked off to Real Madrid earlier that lunchtime.

Even David Moyes, newfound convert of all things bright and breezy, seemed struck down by the gloom suddenly pervading Everton's training ground as he confessed that, yes, perhaps Gravesen had been more influential than a certain departee last summer. "But what can you do when Real come knocking?'' he asked, not really expecting an answer.

In the teeth of this Force Nine of pessimism, however, one man stood firm. "Just another day in the life of a professional football club,'' says Alan Stubbs. "Good luck to Tommy. And we get on with it. It's as simple as that.'' You would expect nothing different from a 33-year-old who has twice fought off cancer and who is prone to admit that "at times football can seem pretty trivial'' when he looks at the big picture, the one that his redoubtable figure could so easily be absent from.

Not that Stubbs isn't prepared to go "all life-and-deathish'' for today's trip to the Riverside to face their fellow Champions' League wannabes. "On one hand Middlesbrough's just another game,'' says the centre-half. "But on the other it would be a great statement to make to everyone after losing Tommy.''

As the captain of the Premiership's fourth-placed team, who continue to defy all reasonable forecasts, Stubbs is well used to issuing statements that Roman Abramovich's bank manager would blush at, and sees no reason why anything will change now. "Don't tell me, this is when the bubble bursts,'' he says with a grin. "Yep, when it all comes crashing down. But why should it? Tommy's one player, a big player admittedly. But I'd like to think that Wayne was a bigger loss to us than Tommy's going to be. And we've done OK without him.''

"Done OK'' must be the understatement of this or any other season. Everton have "done'' everything apart from that. They've "done'' the sublime - Everton 1 Liverpool 0. More recently they've "done'' the ridiculous - Spurs 5 Everton 2 ("just a blip,'' assures Stubbs). "OK'' has not been in the script, or even on a crumpled piece of paper anywhere near the scriptwriters' bin. In the light of such improbability, then, perhaps the doomsayers of last summer should be excused their far-from-flighty predictions? Not a bit of it, not where Stubbs is concerned. He accepts that last summer's hotchpotch of indifference might have been reason enough for a degree of scepticism, but insists the seventh-place finish of the previous campaign, not to mention a squad list "that still had quality written all over it'', should have encouraged a tad more faith.

Indeed, nowhere more so, he maintains, than in the boardroom, where the prevarication in extending contracts at the end of last term has already proved horribly expensive. Imagine how much Real would have had to pay for Gravesen if the Dane had, say, four years left on his contract rather than four months. Stubbs himself will see his present deal expire in the summer, and although he remains confident "something will be worked out'', he foresees tears elsewhere, and not necessarily from the crocodiles otherwise known as agents.

"In a way you can see why the board waited last summer. We'd had a bad season and they wanted to see if we could rise to the challenge. But, although how we responded has been brilliant, now it could backfire on them,'' he says. "There are quite a number of us whose contracts run out in the summer, and it's reached a stage where the balance of power has shifted towards the players somewhat.

"A few of the lads who have been offered new deals might opt to wait a little longer to see what happens, but that's a problem the board will have to face for leaving it so late. And if the new contracts aren't acceptable? Well...''

How the directors will wish they were all like Stubbs, an Evertonian not so much dyed in the wool as dyed in the DNA, as he proved when taking a pay cut to leave the two-trophies-a-year environs of Celtic Park in 2000 to play for the club who had broken his heart when rejecting him as a schoolboy. "Being captain of Everton is one thing. But being captain when we're doing so well is another thing. Whether it continues is obviously another thing as well, but at the moment there don't seem to be any reasons to doubt why this dream should be stopping soon.''

Gravesen's perfection will inevitably lead many to their reason to doubt - like who will create all the goals now? - but they would be hard-pressed to find much evidence against in the minus column. White Hart Lane aside, the back four have been ironclad recently. "Why have we been so difficult to break down? Well, with me and Davie [Weir] in the middle there's been a lot of experience; not a lot of pace maybe, but I'd like to say we're two very clever players. Hibbo [Tony Hibbert] to me is just like Denis Irwin, never has a bad game, while Alessandro [Pistone] has at last had a decent injury-free run and has done really well. But Lee Carsley's in front of us and we are a more-than-decent unit.''

The glut of 1-0 wins backs this up, but also lends credence to the theory that Stubbs finds more than faintly damning in its praise. "What really gets us down is when people go on and on about Everton being a 'hard-working team' and that's why we're up there. That's a bit patronising and although we know they mean it nicely, it's disappointing when players aren't being given credit for their ability on the ball. You don't get to be fourth in the Premiership merely by working your socks off for 90 minutes.''

Or even for 38 games, for that matter, an eventuality that most in the football intelligentsia still refuse to take at all seriously. "Don't ask me what it will take to convince them. I can see it now: there's one week to go, we're eight points clear of the team in fifth place and the headlines will say: 'Everton target place in Eur-ope'. They'd have to start believing then.''

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