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Phil Neville will never forget the moment when his Everton career changed. It was October 26, 2008, and Manchester United were 1-0 up at Goodison Park; almost an hour had been played and Everton were struggling when Cristiano Ronaldo set off on a counter-attack.
Before the United star could get into his stride, Steven Pienaar clipped him and he stumbled. As referee Alan Wiley blew his whistle, Neville came sliding in at 90 degrees to Ronaldo and won the ball. It would be fair to say that he also took a piece of the man with him. Cue hysteria.
Rio Ferdinand was first on the scene, berating Neville. Soon United captain Ryan Giggs, someone Neville had known since childhood, was there too, aggressively admonishing him, face to face. He was lucky his brother, Gary, was on the bench.
'I think that was my defining moment,' said Neville, who turned 36 last month. 'It totally changed my Everton career. From that moment on, I felt as if they accepted me as captain, as an Evertonian. Up until then, win and, yeah, it was fine. Lose and I always got "Manc". I was always the Manc. After that I was Phil Neville, the captain of Everton.'
Everton went on to equalise shortly after and draw the game, with Neville instrumental in the result.
The way he remembers it, that incident was 18 months into his Everton career and that was how long it took to be accepted.
'When was that?' he asks and seems surprised that it was actually three years after he joined the club. 'My first season at Everton [2005-06] was without a doubt the toughest I've had,' said Neville.
'There were times when I wondered whether I had made the right decision. It was probably because I didn't feel I was being accepted. I had to be really tough to battle through those times, with my team-mates more than the fans really.
'Because of the way I am - I get into training early, I go into the gym - I had to try to convince them that was me, that I wasn't just trying to impress, trying to be the teacher's pet. That was just the way I worked.
'I look back now and the lads who were in the team that first year, Stubbsy [Alan Stubbs] and David Weir, they're now first-team coaches at Everton and they're great guys. But at the time, it was like a baptism. And coming from Manchester United was hard. Everyone knew how much I loved United and I had to convince the fans that my heart was in Everton and not in United.'
Today Neville will take on United and while he enjoys playing at Old Trafford, he dislikes the fixture.
'It's a little bit easier now that Gary's retired but there are too many complications. For me it's a case of, "get it out of the way and let's get on with the rest of the season".'
But so complete has the transformation been that you actually now see Neville as the personification of Everton rather than the ex-United player.
'I think I need to play another 20 League games and I've played just as many games for Everton as I had for United,' he said. 'I left United with people thinking I was diehard Red. And I want to leave Everton with the Everton fans thinking "He gave his heart and soul to this club".'
That alone will not be enough, though. All his considerable honours in the game - six titles, three FA Cups and the 1999 Champions League in which he was a substitute - were won with United. If Neville leaves Everton without adding to that total, he will not be satisfied.
'From a selfish point of view, a trophy would mean my eight years as captain had been worthwhile,' he said.
'If I leave and I've not won a trophy I would see myself as a failure. And if you win a trophy, it gives everyone a belief - the manager, the staff, the chairman - that what you're doing is right. It would give us that taste to kick on, because we are so close.'
And they are close to something at Everton. The prospect of qualifying for the Champions League is, of course, still very much alive, although Neville is pragmatic.
'It's OK being in the race but Newcastle had a great season last year and they didn't make it.
'That's happened a lot over the last 10 years, where clubs have been in the race but at the end they just fall a little bit short and finish fifth or sixth because they hit a brick wall. And why did they do that? They just don't have that one player to fire them into the Champions League. And that is my worry for us. I think we're in the chase now for fourth place for the rest of the season. I still think it will be a miracle if we get into the top four. But we'd always back ourselves and we'll continue to fight because we've given ourselves the best possible platform.'
For someone who has experienced so much in football, Neville's lack of cynicism is remarkable.
Take this, on the prospect of playing in the Europa League: 'I'd love to go away and play Bate Borisov [in Belarus] on a Thursday night. People talk about "Thursday nights, Channel Five", but that is my dream for next season if we don't qualify for the Champions League. You go on to the field for a European game and there's that smell in the air. I'll get it on Sunday when you get a knot in your stomach and you think, "Big game, this". And that's what I still crave.'
Everton and Neville seem a natural fit. And his relationship with David Moyes, the manager who convinced him to sign for the club by paying him a home visit back in 2005, is clearly integral to his job satisfaction.
'Straightaway you just think, "I could work for this guy". Why? Because he's honest, he doesn't talk rubbish, he tells you good or bad, he gets the best out of me and he challenges me every single day.'
His observations of Moyes at close quarters are inclining him towards a managerial path when he does retire, unlike the punditry of his brother.
'If you asked me now, I'd say 70-30 I'm going into management. Though I'm not involved in any of their team tactics, I'm fortunate that the gaffer and Steve Round [Moyes's assistant] do include me in terms of coaching videos and analysis and scouting players.
'I jot things down. The last five years I've recorded every training session I've been part of. I watch that many games of football and I watch training sessions on YouTube. It's not something I forced myself into doing. It's just natural. That tells me that maybe that's my niche. I did Match of the Day this year, which I loved as well, but I'd say I'm swaying towards the coaching side.'
The lifestyle of a manager, with minimal security and impossible expectations, does not deter him.
'It makes me want to do it even more,' he said, explaining that he has something of a patriotic zeal to prove that, contrary to popular opinion, Englishmen can coach.
'Nigel Adkins got sacked [at Southampton] and we played them three days later. Nothing against the current manager and staff there but they've probably sacked four English managers and coaches and brought in four Spanish coaches. Now they've employed an Argentinian and he's brought in Spanish staff. We don't value our own. I think there's a myth about these foreign coaches. I think we've got good coaches who just don't get the chance.'
Management will have to wait for now, though. Neville hopes to play on for two more years and will meet Moyes next month to see what Everton's view is. If they do not offer him a new deal, he might even play abroad.
'There's not a country in the world I would be averse to going to. I've even thought I'd go and play for somewhere for nothing, even if it was just for two games, just to say I've done it.'
Although he refuses to dwell on his achievements in the game, when pressed he can offer some perspective on his football life, recalling his teenage years when he was called up for Euro 96 at the age of 19, how he cried on being left out of the 1998 World Cup squad by Glenn Hoddle, or how as a 23-year-old he was deemed personally responsible for England's failure at Euro 2000, arriving home to abusive graffiti near his home. It is easy to forget that his path has not always been a smooth one.
'I look back and I think I'm a bit disappointed in how upset I was in 1998,' he said.
'But it was the World Cup. And I was 21. It was the be all and end all for me. I used to think, "I hate Glenn Hoddle!" Now I think he was one of the best coaches I ever played with. It was actually my fault I didn't get in. I didn't play well enough. I just put too much on it and it affected me for two or three months after.'
That intensity of youth seems a world away now. 'We were on the way to play Cheltenham last month and I sat opposite Seamus Coleman, who is just starting out, on the team bus. Seamus said, "What you thinking about?" We take a chef with us on the bus, so I said, "I can't wait for the sticky toffee pudding after the game".
'Seamus said, "What?! Aren't you thinking about the game?" And I said, "When I was your age, that was all I was thinking about. Then you realise there's more. Whatever will happen in the game will happen. I'm actually looking forward to the nice bit after the game". And he was like, "I can't wait to get to that stage!"'
If you did not know better, you might think Neville was ready for an easy retirement. But that is never going to happen. As a player, manager or pundit, you cannot imagine him easing off. Just ask Cristiano Ronaldo.
Wayne Rooney is now over his Everton nightmare.
Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted that the England striker used to be ¬affected by the abuse that was directed at him by furious Goodison supporters unwilling to forgive him for leaving the club he supported as a boy for Old ¬Trafford.
Ferguson has even taken the step of leaving Rooney out of his team when the Red Devils have travelled to play David Moyes’ men – even though it is now more than eight years since the Scouser made the £25million switch.
But he now expects the United No.10 to be firing on all cylinders when Everton travel to Old Trafford today.
“When Wayne first went back to Goodison, the crowd gave him a lot of stick, and maybe it did affect him,” said Ferguson.
“He’s missed a couple of games at Everton through injury, but he scored against them last season.
“So I don’t think it’s a problem for him any more, particularly at Old Trafford.
“If I can get all our three strikers on 25 goals this season then that will get us in the ball-park for honours.
“The way they are going, the signs are good. Wayne’s on 13, Javier Hernandez has 14 and Robin van Persie is already on 22.
“We have 13 Premier League games and, hopefully, another half-dozen cup games as well, so there’s plenty of time for them to reach their targets.”
Rooney, who scored for England in the win over Brazil in midweek, has scored 10 goals in his last 10 ¬appearances for United.
He is now bang in form after an ¬inconsistent start to the season caused by fitness problems.
Rooney has revealed that he asked England manager Roy ¬Hodgson to play him for the full 90 minutes at Wembley on Wednesday night so that he could keep himself in top physical condition for the business end of the season.
Rooney said: “I spoke to the manager through the week and I told him I wanted to play the full game because I feel in a good run of form at the minute and I tend to play better when I’m playing all the games.
“I wanted to keep my goalscoring run going – and thankfully I did that.
“Physically I feel good. I had an injury early in the season and I did a lot of work to make sure that when I came back into the team I was ready to go.
“I feel very good at the moment.”
Everton defender Leighton Baines came on as a second-half substitute against Brazil.
And he knows he will be facing Rooney at the very top of his game at Old Trafford.
Baines said: “You can see from the way he plays that Wayne is a big character.
“The way he carries himself. He’s a leader – on and off the pitch.
“He is always one of the more vocal players.
“You could see that against Brazil. After the way we conceded the second goal, and then when we started the second half sloppily, he was the one who came back to remonstrate with us.
“That’s what you get with Wayne. It could be in a match against Brazil at Wembley or in a five-a-side in training.”
Everton winger Kevin Mirallas has revealed the revolutionary treatment that has got him off the sick list and back in David Moyes’ team.
The £5.3million Toffees forward has been under the supervision of Dr Hans Muller-Wohlfhart – a German sports specialist nicknamed ‘Healing Hans’ – in a bid to cure the hamstring problem that had put his Goodison career on hold.
Dr Muller-Wohlfahrt injects his ¬patients with the extract from a ¬cockerel’s crest and has also used calves blood in his treatment of top athletes like Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt.
Mirallas got the recomendation from Belgian buddy Daniel van Buyten, the Bayern Munich defender. And he ¬revealed: “I decided to turn to Hans after talking with my best mate in football, Daniel.
“If he’s on the staff of Bayern Munich then he’s obviously there for a reason. He’s proved that he’s a competent guy at what he does. He certainly did a good job for me. And so far so good. Things have gone well. It’s worked for me. I just had this problem and as an option I decided to turn to him to try and cure it.
“We tried a certain method here at the club with the doctors and the physios and had a setback.
“So I chatted to Daniel and he said: ‘Why don’t you come and try here. He’s very good. It might work out for you’. So I consulted with the club and with their blessing I travelled over to ¬Germany. I went there with the club doctor and it was explained exactly what he was going to do.
“From the very first injection I started to feel a slight improvement in things. It was incredible.
“Let’s hope the injuries are behind me now and that I can start to get a run of games together again.”
LEIGHTON BAINES will be saved from another ear-bashing today as he faces Wayne Rooney as an opponent and not an England team-mate.
The Everton defender is regularly on the end of a tongue-lashing from Rooney on international duty, with Wednesday night’s victory over Brazil no exception.
But Baines wouldn’t have it any other way as the Manchester United star leads by vocal example on the pitch.
Baines said: “Yes, he’s always one of the more vocal ones and you could see that after we conceded the goal and started the second half a little bit sloppily.
“He was the one who was coming back and ¬remonstrating with us.
“That’s what you get with Wayne and it could be in a match against Brazil at Wembley or in a five-a-side in training.
“And it’s right for him to do that. I have always believed that in a team you should be able to fall out with each other. If you are not doing your job you should be told.”
TEA and toast for breakfast. That’s how David Moyes likes it and, as the first cuppa is poured, he’s already in full flow about his “best-ever” team at Everton and how a new mood of inspiration has filled the club.
Moyes is the most grounded of football managers. He’s serious, direct and realistic. He doesn’t gild the lily. He doesn’t speak glibly. His desire is always to tell it straight, even when he has to publicly condemn his own players for diving.
So when he talks with optimism about fulfilling the ambition of marching Everton into the Champions League and about the boldness of spirit his side will take into today’s vital match away to Manchester United, it is a conversation to make the ears prick up.
It also puts into perspective the widespread speculation that he will definitely quit Everton this summer.
The current buoyant mood at Goodison suggests instead that only an extra special offer could tempt Moyes to leave the club that he says “suits my personality”.
Many headlines in recent weeks have put the 49-year-old Scot on the shortlist as the next manager at both Manchester United and Chelsea. It is only rumour, just like the plate of toast that hasn’t arrived.
The here and now is what matters to Moyes – striving for victory at Old Trafford this afternoon.
“In the past we’ve gone there to shut up shop,” says Moyes. “But we won’t have that mentality this time. We’ve had too many draws this season and we have to try to win. The mindset now is... a draw isn’t enough.
“We have been a more ambitious team this season, playing with a real style. Beating Manchester United at home in the first match of the season gave us a lot of belief – so much came from that. We also had that 4-4 draw at Old Trafford last year.
“I’ve always wanted to see how far I can take Everton and the way the players have performed in the last 12 months has inspired me. It has given me such a boost, something fresh to work with and the scope to be more attacking and score more goals.
“This is the best team I’ve had at Everton and, in parts of the season, it’s the best football we have played. It is an inspiration to everyone.
“We will try to make the Champions League. I am not shying away from it. We are genuinely having a go at that and we need European football to keep us moving forward. Maybe we pull up short in the end against teams like Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs who have more resources but we have hung in there with 13 games to go. We are in a decent position.”
Another cup of tea is drunk. The toast is still missing.
Those 13 matches will take Moyes past 750 games as a football manager. He’s never been sacked in all that time, a remarkable record, and unique in modern-day football for an experienced boss. Even Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger suffered dismissals early in their careers.
Only a few legends of the past like Bill Shankly, Bill Nicholson and Matt Busby have made it right through their managerial lives without the axe. The perils of his trade alarm Moyes, who saw one of his friends and former playing colleagues, Keith Curle, become the 35th boss sacked this season when given the boot by Notts County last week.
“It’s very sad that the era of a manager being given time to build something has gone,” says Moyes.
“Maybe it’s just the way of modern society, wanting everything to happen instantly. I don’t think we’ll ever again see a manager spend 10 years at one club. I think I will be the last one. The occupation of a football manager is changing to a short-term role only, where even a year will be a long time.
“I played with Keith Curle. We were central defenders together at Bristol City. I know Keith and I know he was doing everything he possibly could for his club. That’s what managers do, just like Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and myself, who have been given a long time to work at one club. We aren’t different.
“If, over the last 11 years, Everton had changed managers every season, it’s likely the club would be in a poor position financially and I don’t think they’d be competing towards the top of the league. Every time you change the manager, you also change the staff and the players. It costs so much.
“I’m not saying this to blow my own trumpet but only twice in my 10 years at Everton have we not finished in the top 10. What I think that shows is the virtue and the value of stability.”
Another cuppa is drunk. The toast remains conspicuous by its absence. Moyes tucks into a croissant instead. Well, getting into Europe is the key to everything for Everton now, isn’t it?
Many neutrals wish him well in that crusade, not least because they admire the way he refuses to turn a blind eye to poor conduct by his own players, including this season a dive by Phil Neville and a head-butt by Marouane Fellaini.
“We’re critical of referees for not telling us about decisions, so I think we as managers should speak openly,” says Moyes. “Everyone can see a game through tinted glasses for their own team but in those two cases it was blatantly wrong. We need players to take responsibility for their actions and, in the main, ours at Everton are very good.
“As managers, if we see mistakes by our players, we should say that. I protect my players as much as I can. You always try to take the pressure off your players and it’s right to do so.
“But if you do something so blatant like these incidents, then it has to be said. It’s something managers have to be better at. If we want to set standards for players, then it probably has to come from managers.
“Maybe some managers are more elusive than me but when I get asked questions I try to answer them honestly as well as trying to protect my players in the proper fashion.”
MAROUANE FELLAINI has been urged to snub Chelsea’s attempts to lure him to Stamford Bridge.
The midfield giant told the Blues to “put up or shut up” after rumours resurfaced that they were poised to bid £30million for him.
Fellaini’s Everton and Belgium team-mate, Kevin Mirallas, says the 25-year-old should stay at Goodison and help establish the Toffees as regular Champions League contenders.
Mirallas said: “We definitely want him to stay.
“He’s a real strength. Having Marouane in your team helps because he scares the opposition – although he doesn’t scare me because we’re always on the same team!”
Mirallas says 6ft 4in Fellaini also played a big part in his £6m move from Olympiakos, adding: “He convinced me Everton was the place for me.”