Stubbs senses hint of desperation in Merseyside hunger for success

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Memo to Merseyside's captains of industry: if the experience of the captain of Everton is anything to go by, it might be best to budget for a significant amount of absenteeism early next week - unless today's derby match against Liverpool at Anfield delivers an honourable draw.

Alan Stubbs is steeped in the effects of local rivalry in two of Britain's greatest footballing conurbations. As a child he stood on the Gwladys Street End at Goodison Park to cheer his idols, particularly Graeme Sharp and Peter Reid, as the Everton side constructed by Howard Kendall challenged Liverpool for supremacy within the city and beyond.

Later he spent six years with Celtic, whose followers, like those of Rangers, developed a ruse for avoiding the ritual humiliation of facing their opposing fans in case they lost the Old Firm fixture. "Lots of people would book the Monday after the game off from work," recalled Stubbs as we sought refuge from the rain at Everton's Bellefield training centre yesterday lunchtime. "They couldn't face going in.

"It was a common thing up there that if the husband's team lost the big game on the Saturday, the wife would often not see him until Monday or Tuesday!"

Stubbs, now 32 and in his third season at Everton, excelled in the bear-pit atmosphere of the battle of the green and the blue. Despite his primary duty having been as a central defender, he scored vital goals in their games at both Parkhead and Ibrox. Yet there were aspects of the Glasgow derby that he is keen to keep out of its Scouse equivalent.

"Some ridiculous things have happened because of the Celtic-Rangers games," he said. "It puts everything into perspective when you hear about people dying with their throats cut [a reference to the murder of a Celtic supporter after a derby during his time in Scotland]. At the end of the day, it is a game of football. No one deserves anything like that when they're walking home from the match."

The religious dimension is, mercifully, largely missing from the Merseyside rivalry. However, the Kirkby-born Stubbs has sensed a certain rancour "creeping back in" since he returned to his native patch. "I would say that 10 to 15 years back, it could be a bit hairy-scary around the ground when Everton and Liverpool played each other.

"It then went quieter and people who supported different sides would sit next to each other at the derby. But recently it has started to get tense again. It's not so much bitterness as a desperation to win. Those thoughts can take over from common sense. We want this game to pass off peacefully, and for us to win 3-0."

When asked what could be done to stop the legendary, some would say mythical, humour of the Merseyside tussle curdling into hostility, Stubbs said: "From an Everton point of view, it would help if we started beating Liverpool more. When you're a Blue, you go to the game with your passions running high. You want to see every player giving 110 per cent and of course to see to your team get a win."

It is not a frivolous point. When Stubbs was a boy, at first being "dragged" to Goodison by his father when all he wanted to do was play football with his pals, he endured a long spell when Everton simply could not beat Liverpool. A famous Andy King goal finally brought catharsis.

Now, results between them are again becoming as one-sided as the Hutton Report. Five years have passed since the Reds were vanquished. In nine meetings, Everton have mustered just three draws.

"It was a bitter pill for Evertonians to swallow when we got turned over 3-0 at home by Liverpool earlier this season and had to watch their supporters celebrating at Goodison," Stubbs said. "They'll go into this game as favourites, and rightly so. I think they have got a stronger squad than us in terms of depth. But we can't let that affect our approach."

How do Everton buck the trend? "We must be hard to beat and take our chances when they come along. It's no use saying we're due a win. That only applies when you deserve it. You have to make it happen. Liverpool thoroughly deserved to beat Newcastle last week. We haven't been playing badly, but things just haven't fallen our way."

Everton's better derby displays of late have come on the other side of Stanley Park. Stubbs has a sound explanation for the anomaly. "We've been expected to win at home, which suits Liverpool's style. They like to soak up pressure and hit teams on the break. The onus has been on us to get at them and everyone knows that's when they're at their best."

The fervour of the fan still burns brightly in Stubbs. He talked of the need to do their best today for his fellow supporters; some, he noted, would spend "an entire week's wages" on tickets. It is a view sincerely held. In an era when players are criticised for caring more about the colour of the money than the colour of the shirt, the elegant defender took a pay cut and passed up the chance to represent Celtic in the Champions' League to fulfil his ambition.

"After what had happened in Glasgow (two bouts of testicular cancer that were treated successfully) I was determined not to miss the one chance I had to play for my boyhood heroes. I couldn't let that one go, and I'm glad I didn't. It has been a thrill a minute to pull on the blue shirt.

"I'm living out the dreams that kids who watch us now fantasise about. I wanted to be Sharp or Reid; nowadays every kid wants to be Wayne Rooney. I was lucky in that Everton were an awesome side when I began watching them. If we can get anywhere near their standards, we'll be on the road to success."

Winning at Anfield would be a start, breaking a derby duck for both the Everton manager, David Moyes, and his captain. Stubbs, ironically, could have been in the home line-up this afternoon had Roy Evans' attempt to sign him from Bolton along with Jason McAteer been successful.

Could he imagine playing for Liverpool? "Do you want me to answer that?" he said, laughing heartily. Looking up to the sky, the only grey area when it comes to Merseyside's own, round-ball religion, Stubbs added: "I could have joined them at one point, but someone up there must have been looking after me."

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