Idan Tal: 'I Felt Like Everton Was A Home For Me… A Special Place'

Idan Tal played 33 games and scored two goals in two years at Goodison Park.

In an interview originally published in Everton’s matchday programme, the Israeli former midfielder talked about why he should have achieved more with the Club, how he has ‘changed my life’ after football and a controversial fight to play abroad.

Idan Tal solves the issue with his computer’s video function and emerges on screen.

“A bit white,” laughs Tal, referencing the lighter specks dusting a healthy head of jet-black hair.

The years have been kind to Tal, the slight, technically-adept midfielder who spent two years with Everton at the beginning of this millennium.

It is an indication of Tal’s enduring fondness for the Club that his youngest son sleeps in Everton pyjamas.

Tal has spent the past 10 years educating himself, he relates, after football invaded his school years.

Additional wisdom grants Tal new perspective on his decision to leave Goodison Park in the summer of 2002.

Perhaps he was impetuous, even if his desire to go was rooted in the right reasons.

From the age of 11 Tal would hop on a bus after school for three-hour round journeys from home in Ma’ale Ephraim to Israeli capital Jerusalem for football training.

“Football was something I loved, that’s all,” says Tal.

“I didn’t think about it becoming something big or being a star.

“I wanted to be the best player in the team and did everything in practice a bit better than everyone else.

“This is why I reached another level.”

Everton and the Premier League represented the pinnacle but Tal’s appetite for playing trumped any other considerations following an inactive second season when his seven league appearances included only one start.

Tal didn’t figure after David Moyes replaced Walter Smith as manager in March 2002.

The Israeli featured in 22 Premier League games in his first campaign after completing a protracted transfer from Maccabi Petah Tikva.

“I finished the first season very well and the manager [Smith] told me to prepare myself for a big step,” says Tal.

“But it didn’t happen and the second season was difficult.

“I regret a bit that I didn’t think, ‘It is a hard time but if you want to be at this level, you have to fight more’.

“Maybe I made a mistake? I am not sure.

“I spoke with Walter Smith, I was with a bad face when I went to him, so he knew I was not happy.

“Then I talked with Alan Irvine [Moyes’ assistant].

“He told me to keep on, ‘Don’t have your head down and your time will arrive’.

“But it didn’t happen, so I thought, ‘Maybe, if you don’t want me, I need to go somewhere else’.”

Tal was the ninth and, perhaps, least heralded of Smith’s recruits for 2000/01.

He spent the previous season on loan with Merida in Spain’s second division following a complex and extensive battle to force a move abroad from Petah Tikva.

The president of Tal’s parent club was eyeing a substantial fee from a wealthier domestic rival, in direct contrast to the player’s wish to play “proper football”.

“Even the second level in Spain is more aggressive, more tactical [than the Israeli Premier League],” says Tal.

“There is a big difference in mentality, attitude: everything.”

The story of Tal’s wrangling with Maccabi Petah Tikva was front-and-back-page news in Israel, the unwitting player allegedly tricked into signing documents agreeing to transfer to Maccabi Haifa.

Tal had a separate “fight with the coach”, who was reluctant to lose his most influential performer and, ultimately, used a short stay with Hapoel Tel Aviv – where he was an Israeli Cup winner – as a bridge to Spain.

He settled in Merida, capital city of Extremadura, an autonomous community bordering Portugal in Spain’s west, with girlfriend and now wife Doreen.

“It was a big mission but a football career is too short,” begins Tal, “you have to maximise it and do difficult things to achieve what you want.

“I learned how to behave with people in a new culture, it was a good season and special experience”.

Despite playing under the cloud of a desperate financial situation – they went bankrupt and were dissolved at the end of Tal’s season – Merida finished sixth in their division and were narrowly beaten by Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of Spain’s domestic cup.

Tal navigated the step up, sustaining a high standard to earn an invite to Everton’s Tuscany pre-season training camp.

His wiry frame withstood the increased physicality, granting Tal the platform to show the best of himself: the silky touch and quick-thinking which, wedded to a tremendous work ethic, had set him apart from peers at home.

Tal needed two more international caps to qualify for a work permit and eventually arrived in October 2000 after rejoining Maccabi Peta Tikvah as a stop-gap measure.

Every element of Tal’s description of his Everton initiation paints a picture of a young man entering an alien environment.

The football, in Tal’s opinion, belonged to another planet, too.

He trained twice with his new teammates before starting a 1-0 win at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park three days after landing in England.

“That was a big, big surprise,” says Tal.

“The manager didn’t say a lot to me, he put me in the team and that was it.

“I knew a lot about the Premier League: the atmospheres in stadiums and the speed and aggression of games.

“But from the first minute I came to the training ground, I realised this was totally different from what I knew.

“There was a kitchen, a lot of rooms, they had everything.

“It was beautiful and you have to behave in the professional way they expect.

“Not only in football.

“Everything was a big shock, if I am honest.

“I was ready in my head, although maybe not enough.

“You want to be at a club like Everton.

“You don’t ask how much money, where you will live, nothing: you just want to go and show your football.”

Tal gushes about Bill Ellaby, Everton’s former Player Liaison Officer – “A great person with a lot of patience” – who smoothed his settling-in process.

He was embraced by teammates and already boasted a strong command of the language.

Tal apologises for what he considers patchy English today but there is no need.

Mention of English food sparks a big laugh. Greek and Chinese restaurants were favourites, although Tal developed a liking for the hitherto unencountered fish and chips.

“Simple and tasty,” he beams.

“The city is good, with great people.

“I was very happy in the first season and so was my wife.”

Tal frequently swapped between the starting XI and games as a substitute in his opening seven months.

A highlight was coming off the bench, against Middlesbrough, to deposit a scorching left-foot blast past goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer for a 2-2 draw.

The friend watching inside Goodison trying to take a picture still laughs with Tal about spiralling down several rows of steps amid characteristically barmy celebrations.

“With this crowd, it was unbelievable,” says Tal.

“It is one of the best, if not the best, in the Premier League. It is very loyal.

“I was in shock at away games.

“We weren’t in a good situation but still they came to see us in their thousands.

“They were always with the team.”

While memory of that Middlesbrough goal elicits a smile, it prompts Tal to reflect on his broader impact.

He never felt certain of his location in Smith’s plans and didn’t voice a preference to play in the centre of midfield, rather than the left-wing position where he was routinely deployed.

“I could have scored more goals if I was more concentrated in practice and the head was better… my head was not very clean,” says Tal.

“I’m not sure why (long pause), I didn’t feel the manager and coach had confidence in me – that would have helped.

“But it is not on them, you are an adult and in the First Team and they want you take responsibility.

“Sometimes, I thought I didn’t deserve to play and played, other times, it was the opposite.

“It was strange.

“If I was in the centre [of midfield], I could have brought better quality and helped the team more.

“I had good technique with the ball.

“Archie [Knox, Smith’s assistant] – a tough guy, but a good, honest guy – asked me once where I preferred to play but did nothing with the information.

“I can understand – maybe there were other players for that position.”

Tal likens his second-season predicament to that of a test driver who never gets to race his car.

At home in Israel, Everton were the live Premier League pick every week, only for audiences to be disappointed.

“That was a bad situation for me,” says Tal.

“I was very happy with the Club and the people and the fans.

“My first son was born in the city.

“But it doesn’t matter. Even if I lost a lot of money, I wanted to play.”

Tal adopted a similar stance when he was lightly run at next club Rayo Vallecano, leaving midway through the La Liga season to go back to Israel with Maccabi Haifa.

He was duly front and centre of a thrilling and controversial finish to the campaign.

Tal scored five of Haifa’s 15 goals in their closing three matches but the league was lost by a goal-difference margin of two after rivals Maccabi Tel Aviv were allowed to switch their final away game to home territory to accommodate a larger crowd.

Haifa, with Tal instrumental, recovered to exert a stranglehold on domestic football, winning three successive titles.

Then, in the summer of 2006, Bolton Wanderers offered a second Premier League opportunity.

“Haifa was a new city for me – it was a very good time and my biggest experience in Israel,” says Tal.

“Bolton was a surprise.

“We had two kids, so it was a bit difficult but, if it was good for me, my wife was happy to move.

“She said: ‘No problem, we go again’.

“Bolton is good club but couldn’t compare to Everton, there wasn’t the same focus and attention on us.

“But the attitude was very professional.

“If we did something wrong in practice you could hear [manager] Sam Allardyce’s voice all around Bolton.

“It worked, though – the team was together.

“Again, I should have been more concentrated playing at this level.

“It was a second chance and I didn’t always do it…  I did well from bench but wasn’t as good when I started games.”

One of Tal’s Bolton starts came in a 1-0 defeat at Goodison.

“It was wonderful but not a good feeling,” says Tal, aware of the contradiction.

“I felt like Everton was a home for me… a special place.

“Even if it is a big club, the attitude is brilliant, the people at the Club were very good with me and the fans were great.

“When I got to the stadium with Bolton, I was nervous.”

Tal was asked to stay a second season by Allardyce’s replacement Sammy Lee.

“But the kids were young and my wife was pregnant,” explains Tal.

“She said we could stay – and that would have been best for my career – but I had to think about other people, not only myself.

“I was okay with that, later.”

Beitar Jerusalem supporters were initially sceptical about signing Tal from Bolton, perceiving the player as truculent.

“The papers said I was a difficult guy but it wasn’t true,” says Tal.

“It changed very quickly when the fans saw how I was with the coach and other players, then we won the Double in my first season.”

Tal completed his career circle in 2011, ending four years with Beitar to return to first club Hapoel Jerusalem.

When he advanced through that club’s youth teams, Tal’s only thought was for the here and now.

“I didn’t even think as far as the next month, only about doing my best” says Tal.

“I wasn’t thinking what would happen if I played well or not.

“You bring your own motivation and talent and [consults dictionary for this word] character.”

The money from Tal’s sale to Maccabi Petah Tikva in 1996 kept Hapoel afloat.

He took over as manager in June 2013 but left six months later and hints at a confrontational culture.

“I wanted to take to them to a higher level, step by step,” continues Tal, “to bring all the things I grew up with.

“I want to be professional, not semi-professional.”

Tal, who has four sons, Meron, 19, 18-year-old Amit Yosef, Yinon, who is 12, and Hillel, 6, has deliberately retreated from elite football.

He teaches sport in a school for students aged 13-18 – working 75 per cent of the week because, “I don’t want to work very hard, I want to do different things".

“I changed my life,” continues Tal.

“I am a more religious guy than I was, if I was, to be honest.”

Tal prays three times a day at his synagogue and extols the virtues of Shabbat – the Sabbath – which is “like a present from God, you have to rest and can clean your head.”

There is one thing still bugging him about his former life: Israel’s failure to reach a major tournament. They missed the 2006 World Cup despite an unbeaten qualifying record.

“But,” says Tal, who won 69 caps, “we cannot do everything.

“Lionel Messi has never won a World Cup, for example.

“I am happy with my career, if this was my level, it is okay.

“If I wasn’t so concentrated, it is my fault, not the fault of my clubs or the fans or my wife.

"Only me."