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WHILE Liverpool fret and obsess over what value for money, if any, their high-profile signings have brought, the irony that the cut-price striker they overlooked could now add to their problems will not be lost on them.
Nikica Jelavic was offered to Liverpool before the last transfer window as the financial problems at Glasgow Rangers bit hard, though it was Everton who took the bait.
Croatian Jelavic, 26, has been a revelation since moving to Goodison Park in January, plundering five goals in 10 appearances and helping to transform the fortunes of David Moyes' side. His £5million transfer already seems a bargain. In contrast with Andy Carroll's £35m switch to the other side of Stanley Park, Liverpool have cause to wonder what might have been.
"They have definitely found a natural goalscorer," said Slaven Bilic, the Croatia coach and ex-Everton defender.
"I read about £20m-plus transfers and in that respect his price does look a bargain.
"He is at a great age, but his best years are still to come. I'm expecting him to improve even more - he has no limits. He can become one of the most important strikers in the league next season."
Jelavic's seamless adaptation to the Premier League has undoubtedly been helped by his time in Scotland. He has forged a close friendship off the pitch with Tim Cahill but it is the relationships Jelavic has mustered on it that are proving most beneficial.
Bilic believes that Jelavic, christened the ‘Silent Assassin' by Moyes last week, is the perfect fit for Everton.
"I've known him since he was a child almost - we are from the same town, the same club in Hajduk Split," said Bilic.
"I watched Everton a lot even before he came and always imagined he would suit them. They needed a guy who is not only a finisher but also great in the build-up play. He's just perfect for Everton's style of play. You need luck at the start - which he got and scored a couple of goals - and now his confidence is sky high, so it doesn't surprise me how well he's doing.
"On the one hand, he is a model professional and so down-to-earth. But on the other, he is so self-confident that he never has any fear."
But does Bilic feel Jelavic will come out on top at Wembley?
"Liverpool have Luis Suarez, who is a finisher, and I believe Andy Carroll will click because he is a good player," he said.
"There are no favourites because it's a semi-final and also a derby - but Everton are definitely in better form than Liverpool right now."
The Hillsborough anniversary is 24 hours later, and Brad Jones's appearance a few months after the death of his child from leukaemia has added even more emotion into the most sentimental of occasions.
For Gary Ablett's widow, Jacqueline, a special guest of the Football Association at the fixture, the meeting of the clubs her husband represented with such distinction will be particularly touching.
The autobiography chronicling Ablett's career as the only man to win the Cup for both clubs is released on Monday, three months since his death from cancer.
Titled The Game of My Life, it captures perfectly the voice of a man who bonded supporters of both clubs despite twice making the move across Stanley Park, once as a player and then as a coach.
As he was concluding his memoirs, making plans for the future, speaking with such courage about his determination to overcome his illness, Saturday's game was on his mind.
"Gary was saying could you imagine what it would be like if the two teams met at Wembley, especially with the book due to be out this weekend," said Jacqueline, whose charisma and humour during such a difficult time is in itself inspirational.
"We wish it had been the final, but it is like it was meant to be. When Everton reached the semi-final people were saying 'team Ablett' should be leading the teams out. I was saying, 'Please, you need to stop'. We've been invited to the game by the FA, which is nice of them."
The opening and closing pages describing his fight with illness are painfully difficult to read, serving as a reminder of how tragedy and football have a heartbreaking habit of becoming intertwined. As a city, nowhere knows this more than Liverpool.
For Jacqueline, whose children have split blue and red loyalties, even the sight of Liverpool's third-choice goalkeeper will bring a level of empathy as the Jones and Ablett family offered support to each other through their personal tragedies.
"Gary and Brad's partner, Dani, used to tweet each other all the time, when Dani was looking for a bone-marrow transplant for their son, Luca," explained Jacqueline.
"Dani wanted to get Gary involved but obviously he wasn't strong enough as he was fighting his illness. At some point I will meet up with Dani to see what we can do together.
"I know she gives speeches to raise awareness about leukaemia. I would definitely like to get involved and help in some way.
"There is so much support out there from people in football and it is quite overwhelming. I know we are still grieving, but the thought of people thinking about you is just lovely to know.
"There are times you do think you're on your own going through it, but we're not because we've had so much support."
The Ablett family is in the process of establishing a foundation in Gary's memory. His daughter, Scarlet, is setting up an agency to enable wives and girlfriends of footballers to donate all their finest, barely worn clothes to charity.
"The foundation is in its early stages," Jacqueline explained.
"We still don't know where we'll go with it or what charities we're going to support, but it will be based in Liverpool. The emblem for it is a purple heart, mixing the colours red and blue.
"It's been sink or swim and we decided swim and we want to do the things Gary would have wanted.
"Reece's letter at the funeral to his dad was I am never going to let anyone forget you.
"Scarlet has put her project in place for her dad. Four weeks before he became ill he had this strange idea he wanted to open a dress agency for the wives and girlfriends of the players to donate all their second-hand clothes for charity.
"Scarlet was studying fashion at college and the seed was planted to go on and develop. That's what she has done and is getting an amazing response with the support of the League Managers Association."
There will be banners at both ends of Wembley in tribute to Gary Ablett. In death, as much as life, he is the perfect ambassador for all that is to be admired about the unique, Merseyside rivalry.
Gary Ablett: "The Game of My Life" is released on Monday, published by Trinity Sport Media.
Followers of Everton and Liverpool face a transport nightmare to reach Wembley in time for their FA Cup semi-final at 12.30pm on Saturday.
However, it is not only the kick-off times (with Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur at 6pm on Sunday) stirring up ill feeling.
Although Liverpool and Everton have sold out their allocations, tickets were available on Thursday from agencies at substantial markups and £40 special delivery fees in some cases.
A face-value £30 ticket behind the goal in the Everton end was on offer for £350. As expected, space in the Club Wembley section was up for sale with seats for £425. Some £50 face-value tickets in the Spurs end for Sunday's semi-final are being traded for £300. Plenty of seats were on offer in the Club Wembley areas for Sunday.
It is the kick-off times that have angered many on Merseyside. A mixture of television demands and police concerns means that the Football Association decided on Saturday's lunchtime slot for Liverpool versus Everton.
Those fans driving south on the M6 will pass within 10 miles of Old Trafford and one mile of Villa Park, two traditional semi-final venues.
The situation has been complicated by the FA's need to play the Cup semis at Wembley to help pay for the huge debts brought on by the £757 million reconstruction.
The FA is under a financial imperative to milk as much revenue as it can from Wembley but more thought should have been given to supporters, either with a 3pm kick-off or some form of reduced price on the ticket to acknowledge the cost required to get to Wembley.
The FA has a deal with National Express but even the cheapest return was £43, leaving Liverpool at 5am for the four-hour journey.
"I feel for the supporters,'' said Moyes. "Of course, we will get a full house at Wembley but it's a difficult time for supporters. You are making it as really awkward as you can to get there.
"To get to London for 12.30 on a Saturday isn't an easy thing, without maybe going and staying overnight or getting away really early in the morning. That has been a little bit unfair on both clubs from up here."
Moyes understood the danger that fans could eventually say enough is enough, particularly in a recession.
"I would have thought there might have been some supporters who said: ‘Maybe I won't make the trip, maybe I will wait, because the Grand National is on in the city, I might go to that instead of making the trip'.
"We have to watch that we are not making football too awkward for the supporter who has to go to his job."
Moyes added that he found the 6pm kick-off for Chelsea versus Spurs "as not a normal kick-off time in this country".
ICE-MAN Nikica Jelavic has got the cool to fire Everton to an FA Cup final, says Phil Neville.
The 26-year-old Croatian striker has made a big impact for the Toffees since his £5.5m January arrival, and reminds skipper Neville of some of the Premier League’s great goal-scorers.
Neville, who is backing Jelavic to prove a handful for Liverpool’s defence in tomorrow’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, said: “He’s got ice running through his veins and nothing bothers him.
“He missed a sitter against Swansea and scored the next one. He missed one at Sunderland, then he slotted. He doesn’t throw his hands around and get upset. It’s just like he’s playing with his kids in the park.
“He isn’t bothered about interviews, he just wants to play football and go home.
“He’s got the mentality of a Van Nistelrooy or an Alan Shearer – an out and out selfish striker. He wants to score and thinks ‘It doesn’t matter if I miss 10, I’ll score the 11th’.”
Neville hailed the impact that tough-man Jelavic has in bolstering Everton’s attacking play, but also credits Denis Stracqualursi earlier in the run.
“The turning point for us was Denis,” says the defender. “He came in against Fulham in the FA Cup and he started running the channels and defending from the front.
“Then Nikica has come in, and I think what he has done is occupy the two central defenders. He’s a great physical presence. You can knock balls up there which are maybe 60/40 in favour of the defender and he will win them.”
Neville believes the Toffees form in recent weeks, when they have lost just two of their last 17 games, is partly thanks to the experience of David Moyes’ squad.
He said: “There’s good Premier League experience in our group. We went down to Swansea a couple of weeks ago and they haven’t got that experience.
“It shines through.
“It’s that core which helped us handle what we went through earlier in the season, and you just hope this is our time now.
“This group of players has been through a lot together.
“You just hope that these moments, like going to Wembley, is when that experience shines through.”
EVERTON FC legend Derek Temple today spoke of his joy at returning to Wembley 46 years after he scored a winning FA Cup final goal.
The ex-Goodison forward, who will travel to London with members of the Everton Former Players Foundation, said he hoped David Moyes charges can repeat some of the magic which was on show in the 1966 FA Cup final.
Everton were 2-0 down to Sheffield Wednesday but clawed their way back after goals from Toffees hero Mike Trebilcock.
Temple went on to rifle the ball in for the winner following a slip from Wednesday’s Gerry Young.
Temple said: “I am really looking forward to the game. This is the new Wembley and it has changed a bit since I played there but it still holds great memories for me.
“When we won in 1966, the game itself did not mean anything until the following day because during the game my concentration was so high.
“It was only when the ball went out for a throw-in or there was an injury that I realised how great the atmosphere was.
“We were 2-0 down and a lot of our lads thought we would have to come back the following year to win. But Mike Trebilcock was tremendous and made it 2-2
“Then Gerry Young made a mistake and I capitalised on it. For me, the FA Cup is the premier cup competition and a lot of countries would love to have it.
“I am excited about the semi and hope Everton can experience the happiness I had in 1966. It will be a tight game.
“David Moyes has done a brilliant job with the chairman and I hope Moyes wins the cup in his 10th year.”
Temple will be part of a delegation of former Blues players travelling on a coach to Wembley.
Also in the contingent will be John Hurst, John Sutherland, Gerry Glover, Tony McNamara, Mark Higgins, Wayne Clark, Jimmy Harris, George Telfer, Alan Whittle, Jim Pearson, Dave Thomas and John Bailey.
The event was organised by club chaplain Reverend Harry Ross and his son Philip.
Mr Ross Snr said: “The ex-players are looking forward to Wembley. The club are great with the foundation and when Bill Kenwright is around, he always throws his arms around them. I hope we will all be doing that after the final whistle on Saturday.”
FOR HALF the city at least, an Everton triumph at Wembley tomorrow would prompt a few celebratory drinks – but the winning skipper would simply toast it with a chocolate bar.
It’s a Neville family routine, that wife Julie sneaks a treat into her sweet-toothed husband’s bag before away games, and the FA Cup semi-final will be no different.
For the Blues captain, victory against Liverpool would simply be another stepping stone towards the ultimate goal of his time at Goodison.
“It’s like when we beat Man U in 2009, I didn’t see it as a party time,” says Neville, as he prepares for an ice-bath after a light training session at Finch Farm.
“Yes you want the fans to go out and drink the town dry, but as players hopefully we’ll get our turn at the end of May. May 5 is the time to celebrate if we’ve won the FA Cup.
“We got to the final last time after beating Macclesfield, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, and then Manchester United. The final was one game too many.
“I keep thinking, ‘Yes it’s a big game on Saturday, but hopefully the bigger game is still to come, and that’s the final, that’s winning’.
“If you lose the final it all doesn’t mean a thing. It doesn’t really matter who we’re playing on Saturday – that’s the mentality we should adopt. We could be playing a team from Timbuktu – we just want to win it and reach that final.
“You could easily get lulled into thinking it’s the final tomorrow because it’s a derby. But the gaffer said to us after Sunderland – maybe it felt like a big occasion and reaching the semi was big – but there’s two other big games. He gave us some perspective.”
While David Moyes has insisted that his focus has not wavered from the Premier League in recent weeks, Neville admits that he has had tomorrow’s game on his mind since the draw.
Not least, because it will be a revival of the Merseyside derby games he marvelled at from the other end of the M62 in his youth.
“We’ve been playing it down the last couple of weeks, saying that we’ve been focusing on the league. But to be honest with you, from the moment the draw was made I think every Everton player and supporter will probably admit both eyes have been on the cup.
“It’ll just be one of those magical days for the city. We’re looking forward to it, and we’re positive. We just need to make sure we perform. It’s about us – not about Liverpool, or the derby etc. That’s our only focus.
“You couldn’t ask for better form or confidence going into the game, and everyone’s fit. But then they’ll probably take confidence from the fact they’ve beaten us twice this season. It’s easily poised and nicely balanced.
“If you were a neutral you probably couldn’t call the result.
“I’m from Manchester so I’ve looked at this fixture from the outside for a long time and I think it’s a nice history. I’ve always thought that in the 1986 and 1989 final it was intense rivalry but magical too.
“You get games between Liverpool and Man U, or Man U and Leeds and they’re not magical because there’s so much bitterness. But because it’s one city – it is special.”
The magic of the occasion does not mean Neville will lack any of his trademark intensity on the day.
“We’re fully aware the prize on offer is the chance of silverware,” he says. “Liverpool have already qualified for Europe. We haven’t and we want to win a trophy. It’s the only thing left for both teams to play for and the stakes are high.
“There’s massive pressure and I just hope it’s that magical occasion everyone wants.”
Driving the 35-year-old on is a fear of being left in the shadows in the national stadium again, as another dressing room celebrates.
“I’ve experienced it before and Wembley is not a place for losers,” he says. “It’s the most beautiful stadium, everything is perfect but if you lose it’s not worth remembering.
“The last time the family stayed over at the Grosvenor hotel and had a nice evening, but I just wanted to go home.
“For me, you might as well go out in the third round. You don’t get anything for coming second. The prize is a trophy that this club’s fans are demanding. The manager expects. This is just an obstacle in front of us.”
Although Everton have not always excelled in cup competitions in the last decade, Neville insists he believed they would return, even after the disappointment of three years ago.
“Sometimes when you’re in your early 30s and you get to Wembley as a player maybe you think it’s your last chance,” he says.
“But my abiding memory of 2009 was that I thought ‘This team has still got another FA Cup final in it’.
“I felt it should be the norm for this club; getting to major finals and beating top teams. I still think there is more to come. We’re collecting confidence and belief but we need to show it on Saturday in our biggest game in a while.”
Neville’s own place in the side tomorrow is not 100% guaranteed, with Tony Hibbert vying for the right-back slot alongside him, and the skipper admits that his manager faces some big decisions.
“There’s so many posers,” he says. “The rotation has given us all a chance. Two right-backs fighting for a place, three outstanding central defenders, two right midfielders, two or three on the left.
“That’s what’s been driving us on. I know the manager got criticism for his derby rotation but it sent the message that he trusts us all.
“I grew up in a club where rotation was the norm. You knew you would only play a few games and then have a rest. It meant you knew you were never too fatigued and that when you came back in, you had to perform to stay in the team. It’s helped with our current run of form.”
Moyes received some criticism for resting players before the last time Everton faced their rivals last month, but Neville maintains that it masked the real problem on a miserable night at Anfield.
“To be brutally honest I totally understand the manager’s decision but the problem with that night was that we were at fault for all three goals,” he says.
“We lost the ball in key areas and got punished by a world class player. It’ll be no different on Saturday. If you give the ball away against the best players in the world they’ll hurt you.
“You can’t afford mistakes in the big games and that was my disappointment, people focused on resting players but we didn’t do the basics well enough.”
HIS penalty earned Everton a return ticket to Wembley, now three years later Phil Jagielka desperately wants to make the belated journey back. As he coolly struck the winning spot-kick past Ben Foster to send the blue half of the national stadium into ecstasy, he could never have known his wait would be so long.
Jagielka was denied his rightful place in the team which faced Chelsea after a cruciate knee injury ended his season in the weeks before.
Now it seems a peculiarly cruel twist of fate, that there is doubt whether the England international will make the team for tomorrow’s return against Liverpool.
The 29-year-old is trying to remain philosophical about his battle for a starting place with the in-form John Heitinga and Sylvain Distin, but admits it will be tough to take if he misses out.
“I was a very hot spectator in 2009,” he says as he reflects on that time, when David Moyes got agonisingly close to his first trophy.
“It was a strange time for me. I was gutted for the lads after the final, and beforehand in a conflicted place myself. I’ve played in quite a few semis, and I’d finally managed to get to a final and the knee let me down.
“Still, it was a proud time watching the boys, but at the same time it was horrible not to be able to do anything. Mikel (Arteta) was injured at the same time, so me and him went down and met the lads in the hotel. We were part of the squad so to speak, without ever being in contention. So that was nice but it was really hard.”
“I laughed and joked throughout this season saying I’ll just turn up for the final after not being able to play in the earlier rounds,” he says.
“It’s part of football. If you told me I’d get moments like beating Man U at Wembley and scoring the winning penalty, I’d rather take them than not. I try not to look at what could have been.
“It would have been nice if it was the final and I’d won us the cup but there’s not much point thinking like that.
“There was nothing I could do about my cruciate. It wasn’t like it was a twisted ankle that kept me out for six weeks and I was a week or two shy of the final. Ten months it cost me. It was a big enough operation for me to get over the fact I couldn’t play in the final. Maybe it would be worse having a chance and then breaking down a few days before it.
“I remember the scan straight after the Man City game and it was six months minimum. Unless Chelsea wanted to play the final in December I had no chance.”
That bittersweet experience has fuelled Jagielka’s desire to make it back to Wembley, but misfortune meant another knee problem ruled him out of the majority of this season’s FA Cup run.
“This time around it’s hard,” says the man signed for £4.5m from Sheffield United in 2007. “Our defence has been great. Sylvain and Johnny have done well. Phil’s done well. Hibbo’s done well.
“The manager doesn’t normally get these headaches. He only normally has to choose four from five whereas now he’s got four from seven. He’s probably enjoying having the selection problem.
“And it’s only fair, if I was in Sylvain or Johnny’s position and had played the Tamworths and the Fulhams and been solid, it’s be heart wrenching for them to be pulled out of the semi.
“For me it’s circumstances again, hurting my other knee has meant I couldn’t put down a marker in the competition and get in the team for the early rounds.
“I’ll be ready to be called upon, but if my role is to help from the bench – or keep the others fresh until the semi, it’s unfortunate for me. But it’s about Everton getting close to winning a cup, not me.
“I won’t lie, I’d be gutted if I missed out. I wouldn’t sit there and relish being on the bench. Someone has to though, it’s part of football.”
Whatever happens, Moyes faces a tough selection call on his central defence. Jagielka’s recent from has been exceptional, and he admits he has been propelled by a desire to run out against Liverpool.
“I feel like I’m playing okay, I feel sharp and there’s definitely an incentive,” he says. “I enjoyed the Swansea game, and enjoyed West Brom. But whether I’ve done enough between now and then to get in the starting 11, I don’t know.
“I’m not going to get myself too het up about it because the season is about more than just two weeks. The manager will do what he has to, and whatever happens I’ll deal with it.”
Jagielka knows whoever is selected will face a stern test in coping with a man he has played alongside in the Three Lions shirt, Steven Gerrard.
“You’ve got to commend his passion and attitude, not just in derby games but throughout the season,” he says. “But when it comes to derbies he can find another level. When the ball gets back to him he’s so composed in such a frantic atmosphere, where a lot of others would tense, he slips into another gear. Last time he managed to slot three past us!
“But we’ve got some decent players coming into form as well. We can hope maybe he has a quiet day – and our good players do better.”
Whatever happens, Jagielka agrees that tomorrow will be Everton’s biggest game in the last decade, but an occasion Everton have earned through a tough cup run.
“It was always a tough draw,” he says. “We had the replay coming up and the semi-final derby was what everyone wanted; not just the city of Liverpool but probably the nation.
“Just getting past Sunderland was a big test but we settled well and took the game to them. You could tell by the celebrations afterwards we were happy to be there.
“We knew we’d got a massive game, derbies always are, but to take it to Wembley is huge and the only way it could be bigger was if it was a final.
“In a way, semi-finals are a bit more nervy than a final because you’re that one step away and you’re not quite there. It’ll be very interesting. They’re not going through the best of times results-wise at the moment, but they’ve already won a cup.
“They know how to get over the line.
“We haven’t won anything for a while so they have a bit more experience in that respect. Hopefully if we can keep this form going that we have been in, we’ll go there with out strongest 11 and a bit more confidence than we did at Anfield.”