The Sports Book Festival kicked off on Saturday morning with an exciting line up of Evertonians.
Former players Alan Stubbs, Kevin Kilbane and Blues author James Corbett were joined by the Liverpool Echo’s Dave Prentice as host for the event held at the University of Liverpool.
There was plenty for the quartet to talk about including both Stubbs and Kilbane’s respective autobiographies which have recently been released.
With next weekend’s Merseyside derby fast approaching, the mornings chatter understandably turned towards the clash at Goodison Park as well as two ex-blues that featured heavily during Stubbs and Kilbane’s time at the club; Wayne Rooney and David Moyes. Howard Kendall and the guest’s thoughts on Ross Barkley were also among the hot topics.
Starting with Stubbs’ How Football Saved My Life, a compelling account of a career interrupted by cancer on two separate occasions, the former centre half spoke about the moment the tragic news was broken by his club doctor during a round of golf.
“When I knew it was the doctor I thought he was going to say there was no problem (referring to the results of a routine drugs test following the 1999 Scottish Cup final defeat playing for Celtic)”.
“But then I could tell by the seriousness in his voice that it was something more”
Stubbs was diagnosed with testicular cancer- a cancer he was to be diagnosed with again a year later- but it was his refusal to be laden with self-pity and a kind word from an Everton legend that got him through those tough years.
“I just felt like there was nothing I could do to change it- there would have been no point in going and hiding in a corner. (When you’re diagnosed) You become the stronger one and the people around you become the weak ones, which actually helped me”.
Prentice then went on to recall the moment when one of Stubbs’ childhood heroes called the ex-Everton skipper to offer him his support, branding him ‘a fighter’ and telling him he was ‘going to be okay’. That idol was none other than a man who earned his own reputation as a fighter for Everton, Peter Reid
“Sometimes little things can mean so much and he would have thought the phone call was a little thing, but it was massive to me and it gave me a big lift”.
His Everton teammate some years later, Kilbane, was sat alongside him as Prentice discussed with the ex-Republic of Ireland international his own book: Killa.
Among the anecdotes were peculiar tale about his time at Preston North End, where he met for the first time a certain red-haired Scotsman who’s fire and passion for the game was contrasted with a more light-hearted side not many people would associate with David Moyes.
Reading from his book, Prentice quizzed Kilbane on an extract that reveals it was not unlikely to find Moyes mischievously cutting holes in team mates’ socks.
“He had that intense side but it was that driving ambition from inside to bring out the best in everyone else around him, but off the pitch he was a bit like that (a practical joker)”.
Everton’s most successful manager Howard Kendall was the subject of much of the talk, no less from author and journalist Corbett who penned Kendall’s most recent autobiography Love Affairs and Marriage.
Having spent a lot of time speaking with Kendall for the book, Corbett is well placed to give an honest assessment of the man as manager, and he offered his insight into whether he would be able to achieve now what he did in the 1980s.
“I think he was very much a man of his time, I don’t think he would succeed now. But the way that he formed Everton sides that had so much success in the 80s was fascinating.
Just as interesting were his thoughts on why Kendall’s return to Everton on two separate occasions in the 90s was such a flop (albeit a last gasp relegation escape act in 1998).
“Football evolved at such a rate that the idea that you get the right players into gel as he and Harry Catterick did before him, wasn’t quite enough anymore.
“These were the beginnings of ‘Pro-zone’, tactics and large squads. The days of picking up a Kevin Sheedy or an Alan Harper from Liverpool reserves were long over”.
Perhaps the most interesting tale was that which Kendall revealed to Corbett for the book concerning Liverpool’s role in Kendall’s departure for Athletic Bilboa.
“By 1986 Bilbao were struggling and what they traditionally did in Spain was to go for a British manager. (Because of the clubs close relationship) They rang up Liverpool’s director and said that they’d like to hire Kenny Dalglish. You can imagine the reaction!”
“There response was along the lines of ‘no you can’t have him, but we know someone who might be interested (referring to negotiations the year before between Kendall and Barcelona that eventually broke down”
“He met with them, he saw a fresh challenge and he left Everton at the height of their powers”
As if Evertonian’s needed any more reason to point the finger of blame across Stanley Park!
Ahead of the 221st Merseyside derby this weekend, talk quickly turned to past experiences. As someone who didn’t grow up on Merseyside, Kilbane revealed that there was “something unique” about the Goodison atmosphere in derbies, while Stubbs stressed how important those games were to play in as a lifelong blue.
But Prentice’s account of the’ Unsworth-Fowler’ derby in 1997, in which both players saw red for raising their fists, brought about more than a few wry smiles.
“Unsy came out (after the game) and gave his unexpurgated view of what happened which was ‘I saw him take a step back and thought he was going to punch me so I got in there first, cracked him and his nose exploded. It was an absolute hell of a shot’”.
“Right okay”, replies Prentice, “What can we write?”, to which Unsworth replies:
“Well obviously I was very, very silly… I regret the whole thing…”
There was just enough time in the hour long talk to bring up two of the brightest talents to rise up through the prestigious Everton academy.
Stubbs recalled his memories of Wayne Rooney’s impact as a mere 16 year old, his first senior training session and his own personal belief that the now Manchester United striker will one day walk back out at Goodison in the blue of Everton.
“When Wayne came through, he was basically a freak! We’d heard about a young kid in the academy but Walter (Smith) was reluctant to bring him on too quickly. It was his first time training with us, we’d finished the session and the topic of conversation was: wow! How good is he? He was up against me in my prime and he was so strong. He was a 16 year old bull, but he was so clever, the way he read the game. There were things he shouldn’t have been able to do at that age”
The only player Stubbs has seen progress through the ranks since then who is on the same level as Rooney is Barkley.
“He’s the latest from Wayne. We had Wayne and we’ve not really had anything close to him since. But Ross is the closest to that level. That’s probably the biggest compliment I could pay him. As a coach I’m very hard to please, but Ross sometimes does things on a football pitch that puts hairs on the back of your neck. He’s got a special talent and the manager (Roberto Martinez) has given him an opportunity now.”
And Stubbs was only too frank with his opinion that had Martinez not come in over the summer, Barkley’s first team opportunities would have remained hard to come by under Moyes.
“He wouldn’t have had this opportunity with Moyes. That’s not to say that he (Moyes) was wrong but it’s just a different mentality of the manager that we’ve got now. He (Martinez) is a lot more understanding and he’s prepared to let Ross make mistakes, whereas Moyes wouldn’t have allowed him to make them. But he’s got a great chance of being a top, top player.
And coming back to the player Moyes has this summer been reunited with at Old Trafford, in his book Stubbs is clearly happy to put good money on the self-confessed ‘Once a Blue, Always a Blue’ returning to Goodison Park.
“I’ll tell you one thing I’m fairly sure about, I think Wayne will come back and play for Everton one day. He might play for Man Utd, but he’s an Everton fan. You only have to look at his son. What was Kai’s first football kit? An Everton one. That for me tells you everything”
Rooney’s ‘return’ is a subject that crops up now and then among Evertonians and not everyone is in agreement that he would be welcomed back with open arms. That’s not the view of one of the men who knows him best and there’s no doubt that the boyhood blue would give his all if he were to don the royal blue shirt again.
And it’s games like this weekend’s derby that you just know he’d be chomping at the bit to play in.