Stubbs has no fear of failure

Guy Hodgson meets the captain who is charged with keeping a level head in defence
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The Independent Online
Push Alan Stubbs into naming the player who has inflicted most damage to his football watching and he has no doubts. With a roll of the eyes and a pained grin, he says two words that have a weighty significance for any Everton fan: Ian Rush.

The Bolton Wanderers central defender spent years on the Goodison Park terraces watching Rush slide a stiletto into his dreams - which is a less than comforting thought when the Liverpool striker will be in direct opposition in the Coca-Cola Cup final tomorrow. Having watched his heroes try and fail, Stubbs now has the job himself.

"It was uncanny how he did it," Stubbs said, "but Rush seemed to score against us in every derby. You couldn't hate him because he was too good to hate, you just dreaded what he might do. People say he's getting on and he's lost this and he's lost that, but he is Ian Rush. When you write him off, he's at his most dangerous. He's come back and answered all his critics.''

Rather than be intimidated by the prospect Stubbs, the Bolton captain, sees it as a milestone in his progress that he is now facing the likes of his nemesis. "It proves I'm progressing myself," he said. "You can only learn by playing against footballers of his calibre.''

Stubbs has been learning fast. At 23, he has an England B cap and a growing list of admirers for his elegant, cultured brand of defending. Liverpool made a bid for him last year and Everton and Manchester United are rumoured to be interested in a player who carries the tag "the next Alan Hansen" with more accomplishment than most.

"I like it," he says of the speculation. "If the papers are talking about me it's because I'm playing well and maybe the bigger clubs are interested in me. I have to be realistic, I love Bolton and would like to get to the top with them, but there could come a time when I have to go.

"Bruce Rioch [the Bolton manager] has been brilliant. Any time I've wanted to talk to anyone he's been there and that's one of the main reasons why I've stayed here. He knows how I feel and I'm sure if the day comes he'll know the right time to let me go.''

Stubbs does not duck the questions about his future and he confronts playing in a similar manner. A converted striker, he is not a central defender who touches the ball like it has contagious disease. His style is to beat opponents with skill rather than force and his passes are often the source of Bolton's goals.

Jimmy Phillips, who plays alongside Stubbs in Bolton's back four and who had Ray Wilkins, Graeme Souness and Trevor Francis as team-mates when he was with Rangers, considers him an outsanding prospect.

"He's one of the most two-footed players I've ever seen," Phillips said. "It took me three months to work out whether he favoured his left or his right and even then I had to ask. How he hits the ball 70 yards with his so-called weaker foot I'll never know.

"He's a very strong lad, and has every attribute that you need to be a top-class centre-half, including the right temperament. He's level-headed so although he's had a lot of publicity he's dealt with it very well. He's 23; he's got 10 years ahead of him in which to achieve trophies.''

The first of those could be the Coca-Cola Cup and Bolton have belied their lower-division status on a dozen occasions over the last two years to defeat Premiership teams in knock-out competitions, including Liverpool in 1993. It was, Stubbs agrees, a turning point for the club.

"It was special night," he said, "although it was personally disappointing because I was coming back from injury and missed the match. Even so I was delighted for the lads. To beat Liverpool at Anfield, which is a fortress, was a fantastic achievement and the club has just gone on from there.

"We've had some great nights - Liverpool, Arsenal - but beating Everton in the FA Cup last season stands out, with being a fan, like. To come back the way we did (from 2-0 down) and to score a goal at Goodison was a very special evening for me. My family were there and they hated me and loved me all at the same time.''

The family will be at Wembley, too, with unequivocal feelings this time. They have been there once before, when Bolton lost to Tranmere Rovers in the play-offs, but Stubbs is confident he will have something to savour this time.

"I've watched captains receive the cup hundreds of times on television," he said "and superimposed my head on theirs. We're very confident, it's no use looking at Liverpool and saying we've got no chance because we're not that kind of a team. We fear no one.

"I have a lot of dreams - I want to play for my country, win trophies - but a big one among them would be to collect the cup for Bolton.''