Unsworth the worthy

Simon O'Hagan says Wembley will be the ideal stage for Everton's classy defender
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The Independent Online
IT WAS midway through the second half at Portman Road last Tuesday, and Everton were hanging on grimly to a 1-0 lead over Ipswich Town. Victory could - and as it turned out, did - ensure their survival in the Premiership but, even against relegated opponents, the going was ferociously tough.

Then, another assault on Everton's battered ranks, this time down the left, where a huge space had opened up for Claus Thomsen, Ipswich's Danish international, to run into before collecting a pass from Ian Marshall. The crowd roared him on. It was almost, but not quite, a clear run to goal. Thomsen describes what happened next: "I could see there was only one defender who could possibly get to me, but he had to come a long way, from around the middle of the penalty area. I gathered the ball and knocked it forward, deliberately hitting it far enough for him to think he might just be able to reach it.

"My idea was to chip it over him at the last moment, and even if I couldn't do that I thought that maybe I could get a penalty. I wanted him to commit himself. As we both went for the ball I could see he was very determined."

Even amid the din created by the home supporters, the shuddering impact of boot on leather that followed was clearly audible. Thomsen staggered slightly, dropped to one knee and looked back upfield as his challenger drew imperiously away, the ball at his feet.

If Match of the Day ran a Tackle of the Season competition, then this one would surely be a contender. The man who made it was David Unsworth - at 21, arguably the best central defensive prospect in the Premiership and destined to become the youngest player to appear in that position in an FA Cup final since another Everton man, Derek Mountfield, in 1984.

The game's tyros tend to play elsewhere - up front, on the wing, or perhaps at full-back, where the roles are more clear-cut. But central defenders - the backbone of the team - need the character and know-how that only comes with age. But as Thomsen says of Unsworth, "He looks like he's been playing for 10 years already."

When Mike Walker, Joe Royle's predecessor as Everton manager, arrived at Goodison last season, he could see that Unsworth, then a left-back in the reserves with only five first-team appearances behind him, had the potential to be moved inside. "He was very mature for his age," Walker recalls. "I threw him into the deep end when we were fighting to avoid relegation and he just thrived on it." This season - still, in his No 26 shirt, apparently one of the non-elite - Unsworth has missed a mere five of Everton's 48 games. Only Neville Southall and Dave Watson, his partner in defence, have started more.

Pace, presence, and a degree of comfort on the ball not associated with big men at the back were what stood out. But while Unsworth is strong, at 5ft 11in he is no giant, and Walker thinks his heading ability remains somewhat limited. But he goes a long way to making up for that by his tremendous spring.

In spite of his inexperience, Unsworth was chosen as standby for the England Under-21 squad that went to the Toulon tournament last summer before Dave Sexton gave him his debut against Portugal in September. He has since played four more times for the Under-21s, and after the game against Austria in October, for which Kevin Keegan was in charge, the Newcastle manager made a point of ringing Walker to tell him Unsworth had been "magnificent". Not just his football but the assurance with which he had conducted himself generally.

Unsworth then made it into the England B squad to play the Republic of Ireland in December, and a full cap must only be a matter of time. Indeed, with Tony Adams and Gary Pallister both approaching 30, Unsworth is already being pencilled into putative England line-ups for the 1998 World Cup campaign, if not before.

"He can command the ball and distribute it very well," Sexton says, "and that's a specially good quality at international level where the opposition tend to drop off when you've got possession at the back. If you haven't got defenders who are happy bringing the ball out, then it's embarrassing. Centre-backs might take umbrage, but full-backs tend to be more composed, and David brought that to his new position. He's very calm. But if you're as good as he is you can afford to be.

"It was simply a question of whether he would adjust. I saw him against Blackburn earlier in the season and he struggled a bit against Sutton and Shearer, but now he seems to have come to terms with the hurly-burly." If the FA Cup semi-final was anything to go by, when the grip Watson and Unsworth kept on Jrgen Klinsmann and Teddy Sheringham was crucial to Everton's win over Tottenham, then he evidently has more of a taste for the big occasion than a fear of it.

To Everton supporters, Unsworth is the long-awaited heir to Kevin Ratcliffe, the defensive stylist who was at the heart of the club's successes in the mid-Eighties. So, in a way, he should be - for Ratcliffe coached Unsworth when, as a 15-year-old schoolboy, he came down from his native Preston to train at what has so far been his only club. "I suppose he modelled himself on me, really," Ratcliffe says, and in that Unsworth had the advantage of being, like Ratcliffe, left-footed.

As Walker says, left-footedness often seems to bestow a touch of class on a player - and with his untucked shirt and an air of cool that borders on arrogance, that is exactly what Unsworth has got.