David Moyes gets the best out of ex-United duo
Ahead of Saturday’s clash…
Top flight football, as many have already found, can be an unforgiving place; one where individuals are left to rue what might have been if not for injuries, intense competition or failure to adapt and/or develop at the necessary rate. A world which is no longer as rosy as it once was, as cold, hard reality hits home and becomes too much to bear. Once this happens, you very barely get a second chance. However, there are some notable exceptions. Phil Neville, for one.
At first, there were no limits. He was once a prodigy and, under the guidance of Sir Alex, was expected to do big things. He played for the strongest side in English football and was regularly called up for international duty. As time passed, though, he eventually found himself playing second fiddle to his older brother, Gary, and pushed into the fringes. Things were going downhill, so it seemed.
Perhaps, Phil Neville is lucky. Leaving Manchester United for any club would typically be viewed as a step down (unless you’re Gerard Pique), but since joining Everton, Neville appears at his happiest. And why wouldn’t he be? He’s a permanent fixture in the team and although he’s well into his thirties, is still going strong and continues to influence the team on the pitch. In 2007, he was rewarded with the captaincy, yet the responsibility that comes with such a task had largely unfazed him. “I don’t know if it’s a dying breed but he’s a great leader,” manager David Moyes once said. “The team seems to function much better with him in the team.”
“He might get to the stage where he might not be the best player but, certainly, the team needs his leadership qualities. You should hear him in the dressing room; you should see him before the game,” added Moyes.
It helps that Everton are a cautious team with a reluctance to spend; indeed, they have made a few notably shrewd signings in the transfer window in recent times, but not so much that provokes the sort of competition that the younger Neville found at United, nor are individuals scrutinised as much. That’s not to say Everton are a small club, however. Moyes’ transformation of the Merseyside club from relegation contenders into a competitive club worthy of a place in Europe has been nothing short of admirable, promoting youth and landing gems such as Mikel Arteta and Tim Cahill in the process.
Among the likes of Cahill and Arteta is Tim Howard. The thing with Howard is this: he was criminally underrated by the end of his Manchester United career and was by no means a flop; rather unlucky (in fact, he was in PFA’s Premier League Team of the Year in 2003). But you feel that’s not how he’ll be remembered; instead many will be quick to point out that he was error-prone. This was not true (although that one fateful mistake against FC Porto where he failed to deal with a free-kick thus allowing Francisco Costinha to knock United out of the Champions League back in 2004 will live long in memory) but then again he’s just like any other ‘keeper, so often the lone stars of an unforgiving world where one mistake can define who you are. Reputation for any goalkeeper is fragile.
Over at Everton, though far from perfect, Howard’s importance mustn’t be underestimated. In 2009, he set a new club record of 16 clean sheets, one more than Neville Southall – which is quite an achievement considering that the Welshman had made nearly 600 appearances for the club. And Howard will be looking to make a point when he faces his old club on Saturday; you certainly cannot put it past him to frustrate in what will be a tough game for the visitors – more so because of the hammering they received by Man City last Sunday.
There is one more former employee of United’s at Goodison Park: but, unlike both Howard and Neville, has been less fortunate. His midweek goal in the Carling Cup against Chelsea suggests that Louis Saha still has a lot to give; but the problem with the Frenchman is that fans worry not whether he’ll produce, but how often. Because, as United are too familiar with, his tendency to pick up injuries means that his time at the club comes under serious doubt. It will be interesting to see whether he’ll start against United, or be consigned to the bench. While Saha’s story is a lot more complicated, it is heartening to see that both Tim Howard and Phil Neville avoided the downward fall that players in their position so often experience.