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IT’S September 1996. The Spice Girls are number one with Wannabe, Will Smith is squishing aliens on the big screen in Independence Day – and an Everton left-back is trying to succeed a Three Lions legend in Stuart Pearce.
Fast forward 16 years and little has changed.
For the Spice Girls read Stooshe. Noomi Rapace is the space age explorer fighting for the future of the human race in Prometheus – and Leighton Baines is the Everton left-back trying to ensure that Ashley Cole’s 98th England cap is his last.
Andy Hinchcliffe, the Everton defender who made his England debut in Moldova in 1996, believes Baines should already be a fixture in the England set-up.
And unlike his own short-lived international experience, he believes the Scouser should be an enduring presence in Roy Hodgson’s side.
“In my opinion he should be England’s first choice left-back now,” said Hinchcliffe. “On merit rather than as a result of any perceived misdemeanours by Ashley Cole.
“Both are brilliant defenders, but for me Leighton Baines offers more and has done for the last two years.
“His delivery is outstanding, and the way the Everton team is set up takes advantage of that.
Chelsea play a different way to Everton, which often sees Cole pushing inside and linking up with Mata and Hazard.
“But Everton encourage Baines to get wide and get crosses in which he does brilliantly.
“It was what happened when I was at Everton and Joe Royle became manager. It made sense to him to use my delivery from the left and that’s exactly what David Moyes is doing with Baines.
“Maybe it’s an Everton thing!
“Then there’s his set piece expertise. He is so dangerous from free-kicks and corners, while you wouldn’t expect to see Ashley Cole standing over too many free-kicks around the penalty area.
“The game has become really narrow in recent years with many of the top teams playing with no natural width.
“As a result the role of the full-back has become even more important. They are the men who supply the crosses for forwards now and Leighton Baines is one of the most productive full-backs around.”
It was the same when Hinchcliffe was providing the ammunition for Everton’s RAF strikeforce of Rideout and Ferguson.
The full-back’s corner-kicking in particular was a potent threat for Joe Royle’s side.
In the build-up to the 1995 FA Cup final, the now defunct Today newspaper asked Hinchcliffe, an affable and always engaging individual, to see if he could cross a ball directly from the corner flag into an unguarded goal for charity.
He managed the trick nine times out of 10.
Baines, too, has the ability to deliver a wickedly curving cross – but the links between full-backs old and new are not limited to a similarity in styles.
Both arrived for sizeable fees, both took time to settle at Goodison – and both were omitted from England World Cup squads after appearing to have broken into the international set-up.
Hinchcliffe had won seven caps and helped England reach the finals in France in 1998, when he was left out of Glenn Hoddle’s World Cup 22 in favour of Chelsea’s Graeme Le Saux.
Baines had featured in five full international squads, making two successive starts, when he was bizarrely overlooked in favour of Aston Villa’s Stephen Warnock.
And while Baines undeniably looks a better player with the telepathic presence of Steven Pienaar ahead of him, Hinchcliffe explains that he always performed better with the reassuring presence of his club captain in front of him.
“Gary Speed was really important to me,” he explained. “He was such a hard working player that knew if I chased forward to try and get a cross in he would be tucking in protecting me, and Baines seems to have the same trust in Steven Pienaar.
“They are the best left-flank partnership in the Premier League at present and that’s why David Moyes was so keen to get him back to Goodison this summer.
“While Pienaar is clearly a very good player, it was also about getting the best out of Leighton Baines – which Everton certainly are.”
With Ashley Cole charged with misconduct by the FA yesterday and Kieran Gibbs having to withdraw from the England squad with a thigh injury, Baines must be favourite to win his 12th cap against San Marino on Friday.
Hinchcliffe believes he should keep his place for the subsequent trip to Poland next Tuesday.
“It can be difficult settling into the international set-up,” he explained.
“I certainly found it tough, but Baines appears to have cracked it now and in my opinion should be England’s first choice left-back.”
IAN SNODIN: I’M beginning to sound like the record is stuck whenever I talk about Leighton Baines, but that’s because his performance level remains exactly the same.
And that performance level is, consistently outstanding.
He has been playing fantastically well for a couple of seasons now and to my mind has been Everton’s best player throughout that time.
Every week we seem to be raving about how good he has been, how many crosses he has delivered, how many assists he has supplied and how many superb set-pieces he has hit.
I’m biased, of course, but for me he is a better full-back now than Ashley Cole.
After what Cole has been up to recently with his Twitter account, I don’t think too many England fans would be disappointed to see the Chelsea player replaced by Everton’s left-back.
The FA would certainly have no fears about controversies, because Leighton Baines is just as impressive a person as he is a footballer.
He conducts himself well at all times, and that is reflected in his attitude on the pitch which is impeccable. His only disappointment on Saturday was a booking for a challenge which barely warranted a free-kick. But even then his reaction spoke volumes. He politely queried the decision, was given a barely plausible explanation by the referee, but got on with the game. A class act.
IAN SNODIN: SYLVAIN DISTIN got the reward for his patience and his professionalism at half-time on Saturday, when he was reintroduced to the Blues first team in place of the toiling Johnny Heitinga.
Distin’s response to being dropped for the matches against Swansea and Southampton has been impeccable.
Being dropped is one of the worst feelings a footballer can endure.
Even in the modern age of squad rotation it’s difficult to train all week and then find yourself on the sidelines at the weekend.
That was the position Sylvain found himself in, but he accepted he made an error against Newcastle, got his head down in training and waited for his chance to come again.
And when it did, in the second half at Wigan on Saturday, he took it.
Distin’s introduction effectively nullified the threat of Arouna Kone, who had been a real nuisance throughout the first half. And he will be hoping to keep his place now.
Sylvain is one of the fittest lads at Finch Farm and will feel he still has several years ahead of him in the Everton first team.
His performances, on and off the pitch, mean I certainly wouldn’t disagree with him.
He is a model pro and it was good to see him back.
IAN SNODIN: MAROUANE FELLAINI was involved in an elbowing controversy on Saturday – an incident in which the player was incorrectly and unfairly accused of elbowing Maynor Figueroa.
Ultimately referee Kevin Friend made the right call in not showing a red card that the Wigan players were demanding.
But the incident simply proved to me how much Fellaini has progressed since he first came into the Premier League.
Because it’s the first time we’ve seen the big Belgian involved an incident like that for a long time.
If you cast your mind back, Fellaini appeared to be a marked man in match officials’ eyes when he first arrived from Belgium, after a string of similar incidents.
He was being booked week after week – and one particular montage of clips screened on Match of the Day 2 saw Everton ban the BBC cameras from Finch Farm for a spell because they feared a witch-hunt against the player.
For me, that was all part and parcel of Fellaini adjusting to the frantic pace of the Premier League.
He was being booked because he was late getting to balls as he adjusted to the pace of the game.
As soon as he caught up, the bookings became less frequent and he started attracting headlines for the quality of his play.
Now Fellaini is a marked man not by match officials, but by opposition defenders – and that’s a tribute to his influence.
It’s quite laughable sometimes to see the way Fellaini is targeted at set pieces by defences. Because they recognise how dangerous he can be, he is tugged, pushed, has players standing on his toes and all manner of other illegal tactics which referees don’t seem to punish nowadays.
More often than not defenders don’t even bother trying to watch the flight of the ball, they just watch the movement of Fellaini and try to impede him.
It’s something Fellaini will have to learn to live with, but the good news is that he doesn’t seem to be letting it get to him.
He still has a fiery temperament, which you never want to see leave him. Without that edge I think you would see a 20 or 30 per cent reduction to his game.
But he is channelling his aggression in the right areas.
That incident on Saturday wasn’t an elbow. Fellaini jumped legitimately for the ball, using his arms for leverage as you have to, and the flat of his hand brushed Figueroa’s face.
There’s no doubt the Wigan players tried to get Fellaini sent off, but they failed and even Roberto Martinez admitted afterwards the referee had made the right call.
David Moyes was right to say it is Fellaini who needs more protection from referees, not his opponents.
EVERTON FC’s official charity is hoping to raise extra funds through the ECHO’s Wish campaign.
Everton In The Community was one of more than 200 community organisations to sign up for the campaign – which will see £25,000 shared between the groups.
Wish tokens can be collected from the ECHO every day until November 17 and the more each group collects, the bigger the share of cash they will be awarded.
Everton In The Community’s Carena Duffy said they were hoping to raise cash for young people’s projects.
She said: “With the massive success of the London 2012 Games, we will offer opportunities to children and young people in the disadvantaged areas of our community a chance to develop their skills in a wide range of sports.”
The charity’s work includes education, training and employment schemes, health and fitness programmes at Goodison Park, holiday sports camps and after-school sports clubs, equality and diversity schemes, specialist disability activities and volunteering opportunities.
Carena said: “We provide routes into education, training and employment, steering young people away from crime and anti-social behaviour and engaging children and adults, regardless of ability, in physical activity.”
She said she hoped Wish could help the organisation develop.
She added: “We were thrilled to be part of the campaign this year and will look forward to the response we hope to receive from our supporters. Let’s hope we can make them proud to be blue.”
If you would like to support Everton in the Community collect our Wish tokens every day in the paper and send them to Everton In The Community, Everton FC, Goodison Park, Liverpool L4 4EL.
For information on all the groups registered and details of where you can send tokens, go to www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/wish
As the Premier League pauses for a second international break, Sportsmail columnists Jamie Redknapp and Martin Keown take a moment to catch their breath and assess the season so far.
One modern trend both have noticed is an influx of smaller, skilful players and a focus on passing that is taking the English game closer and closer to the style of the Spanish La Liga.
1 Which players have impressed you the most?
Redknapp: So far we’ve seen small playmakers with a low centre of gravity excelling — Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla being the three who have impressed me most.
Cazorla is the one I would have no qualms about paying to watch every week. You couldn’t get the ball off him in a telephone box. He is good with both feet and is not afraid to hit a killer pass. A lot of players take time to settle in the Premier League but he has hit the ground running and will get even better with Jack Wilshere alongside him.
Mousa Dembele has been a really good signing for Tottenham, too. Lots of clubs will be kicking themselves for missing out on him.
Keown: I agree with you on Cazorla and I’m also a big fan of Gareth Bale. He gets you out of your seat with his pace. It’s hard to believe he was a full back not so long ago.
Aleksandar Kolarov at Manchester City looks like a player who is stepping up, although you do lose something defensively with him in the side.
Marouane Fellaini is another who has moved up a level. Since Tim Cahill has left Everton, Fellaini is playing further up the field and it’s made him more effective. Keep an eye on Kevin Mirallas, too, because he could be David Moyes’ best signing yet.
He finds that hole in between the opposition’s defence and midfield and can pick a pass. I also want to mention Carl Jenkinson at Arsenal. Last season, he looked like he was apologising for being at the club but now he looks like he’s been there for ever.
2 Which team have surprised you with their start?
Redknapp: Chelsea. Their excellent start is surprising considering the transition they are trying to make. I didn’t consider them title contenders at the start of the season but Roberto Di Matteo has them playing exciting, attractive football. I feel they are a still a striker short but if they sign Radamel Falcao from Atletico Madrid in January — he has an incredible 12 goals in seven matches so far this season — they could be genuine challengers.
Further down the table, but not by much, are West Brom, where Steve Clarke has done a brilliant job. They have a really powerful spine to their team with Ben Foster, Jonas Olsson, Youssouf Mulumbu and Shane Long.
Near the bottom, Liverpool are short up front. In the past they had a goalscorer in Rush, Owen, Fowler or Torres, but they don’t now. Luis Suarez isn’t a born finisher but I’d still expect them to finish in the top six. If that is below Everton or not, I don’t know, as they have been very impressive.
Keown: It’s like Freshers’ Week at QPR with so many new faces. Mark Hughes has so many players at his disposal that he’s struggling to work out his strongest XI. He’s got some real quality in the squad — I like the look of Esteban Granero in particular — but they need to get the balance right. If they do, they should finish mid-table.
West Ham have surprised me too but for opposite reasons. I was concerned they would struggle in pre-season because of a lack of new faces but they have found a way to pick up points, even with the injury to Andy Carroll. They have done really well.
3 What new trends have we seen?
Redknapp: As well as the midfield maestros, our game is becoming more like Spanish football because of flying full backs. Barcelona have Dani Alves and Jordi Alba and there are equivalents in the Premier League — just think of Kyle Walker, Ashley Cole, Leighton Baines and others. It is exciting to watch, but it means teams have to play a defensive midfielder so that the centre backs aren’t left too exposed.
A few years ago a centre back pairing such as Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister would have had Gary Neville and Denis Irwin handcuffed to them, being defenders. Now the centre halves are being pulled into areas they don’t want to be, covering for the full backs.
Keown: We read so much about the virtues of passing the ball these days but there has been an emergence of players carrying the ball long distances to either score themselves or provide for others.
Yaya Toure, Gareth Bale, Abou Diaby and Aaron Lennon are just a few of those who are doing it, surging through the midfield. It gets you out of your seat and shows that even in these days of football being all about a team passing game, there is room for these high-speed ball carriers.
Jamie has a point about the full backs too. Arsenal had it for a while with Lauren and Ashley Cole and now more and more managers are willing to let their full backs get forward and be the extra player. Full backs used to just be strong and effective but now they’re smaller, like roadrunners.
4 If you could play for one team in this league based on what you have seen this season, who would it be and why?
Redknapp: I think it would be Manchester City. Imagine playing in that midfield alongside Yaya Toure and David Silva with Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez ahead of you. It would be fun. Let’s not lose sight though of how important it is that the Premier League has teams who play more direct football too. We need that clash of styles because it throws up great matches.
Keown: I’d like to play under David Moyes. I admire his loyalty to the club, his players want to play for him and he has good professionals there like Phil Neville. Each player at Everton seems to improve each year — think of Fellaini, Phil Jagielka, Tim Howard and Leighton Baines in particular. That is down to the manager.
5 It’s early but who do you think will be champions?
Redknapp: I’m sticking with my pre-season prediction of Manchester United. They only lost out on goal difference last season and have added Robin van Persie. They do need continuity in goal though. Think of all title-winning teams and there is always a stable No 1.
Keown: Chelsea. They were in a similar position this time last year — they have just three points more this season. This term, their players are better equipped with this new style of football and they still have the winning mentality of Frank Lampard and John Terry in the squad. Their next two games are against Spurs and Manchester United and that will tell us a lot about how serious their title bid is.
6 And who struggles?
Redknapp: Norwich seem to be struggling from second-season syndrome and they need Grant Holt to start scoring more. I’m a big fan of Brian McDermott at Reading but they look a little bit scared at times. They need to show no fear because it is an unforgiving league. They might need to be a bit more bold, like Southampton. Life could be hard for Swansea too after losing Gylfi Sigurdsson and Joe Allen.
Keown: Like Jamie, I think Norwich. They are letting in goals at an alarming rate and that is terrible for your confidence. When results are so much worse than last season, it won’t be easy for Chris Hughton to command respect. They aren’t alone in their slow start. Six teams — Sunderland, Stoke, Aston Villa, Liverpool, Wigan and Southampton — have only one win so far. Scrapping for draws will be as important as ever.
7 What’s bugging you?
Redknapp: I would love to see retrospective bans for diving but I can’t see it working. It’s an embarrassing problem for the game at the moment and it’s not just a problem with foreign players. The Gareth Bale effort was as bad as Luis Suarez’s on Sunday. It’s so tough for the referees and maybe retrospective punishment could be effective in the long term. But in the short term, there would be chaos with lots of bans and confusion over what constitutes a dive.
Also, we have to go back to the proper rule for deliberate handball. There are too many penalties given when a ball is smacked at a hand just a couple of yards away. It’s ridiculous.
Keown: Managers trying to get opponents’ players in trouble with the FA. After every game, bosses are asking the powers that be to look into something and to charge players.
But it is hypocritical because their players are usually guilty of another offence. Tony Pulis was moaning about Suarez’s dive but his side were being heavy-handed with the Uruguayan for the whole of the game. Managers should leave it and get on with their jobs.