Watson out to tilt balance of power on Merseyside

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The Independent Football

All Derbies matter, but some matter absolutely. You think of Ruud Gullit gambling and losing everything on dropping Alan Shearer for the storm-soaked encounter with Sunderland. Of Paul Gascoigne's thunderous free-kick past David Seaman which guaranteed Tottenham not only a place in the 1991 FA Cup final but financial salvation. Denis Law's penalty at Maine Road in 1963 which ensured Manchester United would stay up and City would be relegated and the back-heel at Old Trafford 11 years later which repaid his former employers in kind.

This afternoon's Merseyside derby at Goodison might just have the potential to fall into this category. Curiously, given the number of trophies he has brought to Anfield and the traditional patience of the Liverpool board, Gerard Houllier finds himself the bookies' favourite to be the Premiership's first managerial casualty after a stream of uninspired performances matched by some very inspired excuses. This match has already been billed as one he dare not lose.

Everton, with three more points and five more goals, appear an island of calm in Stanley Park, although they have been this way before and quite recently. In April, Everton found themselves ahead of their wealthier neighbours, jostling Liverpool for a place in the Uefa Cup and, just possibly, the Champions' League. They lost 2-1, won once more thereafter and failed to make it into Europe for the first time since being knocked out of the Cup-Winners' Cup by Feyenoord in 1995.

"There was a disappointment about the performance we put in against Liverpool at Goodison," said their defender, Steve Watson, who as a young Newcastle supporter in North Shields, knows only too well what derbies mean. "It was the closest the teams had been in years but the way we conceded the first goal was disappointing and we didn't really respond at all. There were not many games last season where you could look back and say we underperformed, but the Merseyside derby was one of them.

"I grew up as a Newcastle fan, I was a supporter before I was a player and I knew what the feeling was like when you played Sunderland. Two to three weeks before the derby people come up to me in the street and want to talk about it. I know exactly what it means to them. There was a flatness after the last one and we have to try to rectify that."

We spoke before the team travelled to London for the opening fixture of the season, a 2-1 defeat at Highbury, where the failure to overcome an Arsenal side reduced to 10 men appeared significant. Nevertheless, Everton, as they have done repeatedly since David Moyes took the helm, showed considerable powers of recovery. Fulham were beaten at Goodison and Charlton held to a 2-2 draw at The Valley.

Watson, looking for anything wooden to touch, had said that one of his ambitions for the season was "to make it difficult for the manager to leave me out and chip in with one or two goals". Although no longer used as a makeshift striker, a role he was pressed into during the lean years under Walter Smith, Watson, happier by far in the back four, scored in both games.

"Now we've got Wayne Rooney, Thomasz Radzinski, Kevin Campbell, Duncan Ferguson and Nick Chadwick, so something would have to go drastically wrong for me to find myself as a centre-forward again. I did enjoy it; I signed for Newcastle as a striker when I was a kid. I am still the youngest player ever to play for Newcastle. I was 16. It was an awesome experience; surreal really. My debut was against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux in 1990 under Jim Smith and I started my first game at Oldham on New Year's Day on the Astroturf."

Newcastle were in the old Second Division then but any young footballer showing talent by the Tyne is subject to intense scrutiny and Watson can understand the trials Rooney has had to endure. "Although the pressure on me was on a much smaller scale, I can empathise with what Wayne Rooney's going through. The publicity and the coverage Wayne's been getting with people following him around all the time is not something you can prepare a teenager for.

"He's got the right type of personality; nothing fazes him. He's not that bothered by what's in the papers, he's happiest on the pitch or the training ground. If he was a worrier, or a deep person, it would affect him but it's water off a duck's back to Wayne. If you watch him train, even jogging round the pitch kills him because he hasn't got a ball at his feet. If he sees a stray ball at Bellefield, he'll run 20 yards just to whack it. He just loves the whole idea of playing football."

Before Moyes arrived at Goodison, few would have loved the idea of watching Everton play. Yes, there was still the feeling of history about the place, the teams still ran out to the Z-Cars tune, but the glory was covered in dust. Smith once remarked that since leaving Rangers for Everton he had lost the habit of looking at the top half of the table.

Moyes, much more so than Rooney, who despite all the hype started a bare 14 games last season, changed all that. "When he first arrived he seemed very confident in what he can do. He's very honest; as soon as he came in he told us training was going to be very hard. I don't want to say it couldn't have gone better because it could have; we could have qualified for Europe. But it probably went as well as any of the fans could have expected.

"But we can't sit on that, we have to try to go one better. We don't fear going anywhere. I like to think that when we turn up opponents say to themselves: 'Christ we've got to work hard because it's Everton today'. But this time I think we've got to add something more than hard work and closing people down. We have got to get more goals from everywhere - midfield and defenders especially."

When Newcastle lost at Goodison in April, Sir Bobby Robson commented that he didn't think there was a harder-working team in the Premiership than Everton. "We know as players that if you drop below the standards the manager sets you will be out of the team with no ifs or buts," said Watson by way of explanation. "At some other clubs you can say to yourself: 'I'm going to be playing next week, it doesn't really matter'. But not here; if you take it easy, you are out, everybody knows that. There's a fear factor here."

Whatever it was, it took Everton into the top half of the table for the first time in seven years and earned Moyes the title of manager of the year but it also raised expectations faster than the club could raise money; a dangerous combination. "To go further is going to be that much more difficult. We know how hard it is going to be; you've got to look at what's happening at Chelsea to see how the stakes have been raised. People around the country will be thinking that Everton will find it very very hard to emulate what they did last season. That's fine; we're used to pressure. We haven't spent money in the transfer market but we believe in each other.

"Everton's closer-knit that most football clubs, there haven't been many players coming recently and that's helped. You talk about Chelsea and I can't imagine what their dressing-room is like when you bring in six or seven who aren't used to each other and who have language differences. I don't know how long it will take them to settle down. At Goodison, it's the opposite, very tight-knit. We would run through a brick wall for each other."

This afternoon, they will have to run through not a brick wall but a still-formidable Liverpool back four and, if they do, the old balance of power on Merseyside, which has remained unchanged since Howard Kendall quit Everton for the first time, might begin to shift.