Player, Everton, 2004-2012
“Are you going to give me my opportunity?”
It was the only question I had for David Moyes. He looked at me.
“Well, we’re signing you, son.”
“But am I going to get the opportunity to play? To start? To be involved.”
“Yeah, you’ll get your opportunity.”
I looked at my agent: “That’s enough for me.”
I knew straight away. It suited me perfectly to go to Everton.
Football had always been a part of my life because of my father. He’s from England – a Dagenham boy, a West Ham supporter and a massive football fan.
Growing up in Australia, I used to wake up in the early hours of the morning. I would see the light from the TV flickering in the hallway, and hear the sound of the commentary.
The time difference meant that English football was always on at that time. Sometimes my dad would let me sit and watch the Premier League with him. When he didn’t, I used to creep around the corner, sit just outside the lounge and watch from afar.
“It didn’t help that, two days after I signed, Wayne Rooney left for Manchester United”
It became apparent to me when I was about 10 or 11 years old that I wanted football to be my career. By the time I met David Moyes and Bill Kenwright, at the age of 24, I knew I was ready for the Premier League.
It’s always difficult, as a player, to leave a club you love – especially with the kind of relationship I had enjoyed with the fans at Millwall (below). You want to do so much more for them, but there wasn’t any real investment going into buying the players we needed to push for promotion from the Championship.
I didn’t know how many games I’d played – it was more than 250 – or how many goals I’d scored, but it didn’t matter. I knew I was ready.
But I needed the right club. The right environment for me and my family, and the right energy for me – I couldn’t just go somewhere and sit on the bench. Everton were signing a player who just wanted to play.
There were question marks, though. I was proven in the Championship, but it wasn’t a massive transfer fee and the fans wanted to know what type of player they were getting. It didn’t help that, two days after I signed, Wayne Rooney left for Manchester United.
The season before, the team had flirted with the lower end of the table. They’d finished 17th, in fact, but I looked at the squad and I saw only opportunity. Duncan Ferguson, David Weir, Alan Stubbs, Lee Carsley, Tommy Gravesen, Kevin Kilbane, Kevin Campbell was still there.
At Millwall, I’d been a young kid in a squad full of men who all had families. The club had history, it had belief, the fans were very passionate. At Everton, it felt like I’d walked into a similar dressing room at a similar club.
I knew very early on that I had to do more, to work harder than I ever had. I had to be aggressive, had to be a leader. I wanted to make an impact, to leave an impression, to be respected within the changing room.
But I think David Moyes knew exactly what type of characters he was signing at that time, and the players he was bringing in to build the core of a team that could play to his style. I was fearless, and I had arrived to do a job – he knew from very early on that he could lean on me.
It was important, too, to earn the respect of the Evertonians in the squad: Duncan Ferguson, Alan Stubbs, Tony Hibbert. They taught me what it meant to be an Evertonian.
“David Moyes knew how to set up a defence, but his transition on attack was superb”
It was my second game for the club, away at Manchester City, when I scored my first goal for Everton. A Hibbert cross that I headed back the same way it came from – something I had done in training for my whole life, and throughout my career.
I was in shock. My first ever goal for Everton, 1-0. I was so happy, and I celebrated by lifting my shirt over my head. Literally put it up, then put it down again. But it was just at the time they’d introduced the rule that pulling your shirt over your head got you a caution. Yellow card.
I’d already been booked. I scored my first goal for the club after 60 minutes, and was sent off (below) on 61. That half an hour waiting for the whistle to blow felt like the longest time of my life, but when it eventually came – and the team had held on – it was a very special moment for myself.
When you get those opportunities on the pitch, you have to take them. I’d put myself in a situation I knew, a normal position for me, and did something I had done throughout my career. But in a new stadium, a new atmosphere, and at a new level. It’s what I’d waited my whole life for.
That season, I used to do shooting practice with Duncan Ferguson. I would just watch him, see the way he struck the ball, and then I would follow him. I didn’t know what was going to happen that season, but I knew something good could happen. I knew it was going to be more positive than the last season had been.
“When the Merseyside derby came around, the first name I looked for on their teamsheet was Steven Gerrard”
And, at a club with such history and such determination, why couldn’t something happen? We had Tommy Gravesen – give him the ball and something could happen out of nothing. Lee Carsley, sitting in front of the back four, being that shield. David Moyes knew how to set up a defence, of course, but his transition on attack was superb too.
The constant theme throughout my career has been to get together as a team and form a belief. Then, if you can make the ingredients work, tactically and technically, and you maintain your discipline and attitude, you can execute something special. That season, which ended with us finishing fourth in the Premier League, that’s exactly what happened.
We also got our first Merseyside derby win in five seasons, and our first in seven years at Goodison.
That game really is everything for both red and blue. Both sets of fans live for the game, and as a player it gives you a huge opportunity to leave your mark – to animate the fans in a whole different way. They remember these games – the wins and the defeats – forever.
When they came around, the first name I looked for on the Liverpool teamsheet was Steven Gerrard. One tackle, one pass, one run, one shot – you could not a find a character who had a bigger influence through his actions. I’ve not come across many players who could have such an impact on a game.
I used to love coming up against Xabi Alonso, too. Such a great player to watch; it was like he had the ball on a string. And the other player I always looked for was Jamie Carragher (below), because he was the first one I’d target to have a meeting with on the pitch. When the ball came in to you, you could always expect contact with Jamie – but if you could win those sorts of battles with characters like that, it could have a massive effect on both your teammates and the fans.
And then there was David Moyes (below). A stern character, and tall – not intimidating as such, but when he entered a room you knew he was there.
And he cared. He cared about the players, about the fans, and he knew exactly what it meant to represent Everton. He built his teams around the identity of the club.
“I look at the team that finished fourth, and he made all the players in that squad better”
Off the pitch, he always asked how my family was, how I was doing mentally. He wouldn’t shower me with compliments, but offer constructive criticism that would hit a nerve, create a spark and make me try to do better.
He was also a master at putting good characters together, and giving responsibility to a group that would help him on and off the pitch. Mikel Arteta, Steven Pienaar, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Phil Neville, Louis Saha, Tim Howard, Marouane Fellaini – he signed them all during my time at Everton, and the list could go on.
Now, as I am transitioning from being a player into a coach, the attribute I remember most is his analysis. The level of detail, whether in the media room for hours and hours or out on the training pitch on a Thursday or Friday.
Just one example was knowing where we had to stand on set-plays: arm-width apart, body shape open, looking to where we were going to head it, and how we were going to break in transition.
He doesn’t get a lot of credit for his level of detail as a coach, and I don’t think he’d really ask for it – but I look back to the team that finished fourth and he made all the players in that squad better players.
“Mikel Arteta was one of the best professionals I played with”
Playing for Everton gave me a great platform to learn more about myself and the club, but also to learn from other players.
Phil Neville brought a new level of professionalism to the club. There was a reason that the Manchester United team he had been a part of won things so consistently – there was a protocol, a system, and every single player was on it.
Yes, they had world-class players, but every day I could see the standard of implementation that Phil brought when he signed. Organising on the pitch, off the pitch, getting messages across to the players – it’s about much more than just football.
And Mikel Arteta (above) was one of the best professionals I played with. We formed an amazing relationship on the pitch, but I wanted to understand more and learn from a player who had played at Barcelona and for Paris Saint-Germain. Off the park, he brought a level of professionalism to go with his technical ability. His own physio, his mindset, his detail at free-kicks, his tactical awareness.
Leaving Everton in the summer of 2012 was the hardest thing I’d ever done as a footballer, but you have to know when the time is right and understand your body.
I had aspirations of playing at more World Cups and Asia Cups for Australia, and I could see that maintaining the levels of intensity and running that was needed for Everton at the same time would have been impossible.
“Putting out cones, moving goals, planning sessions – I’m loving it”
I was never someone to stay in a dressing room just for the sake of being there, so I moved to New York to join the New York Red Bulls.
It was a fresh start for my family, a great place to live, a new challenge in the MLS, and I got to play with guys like Thierry Henry (below), Rafa Marquez, Juninho Pernambucano. It also allowed me to take less stress on my body while learning more about the business world. It was a really fun and rejuvenating time.
Eventually, I made the tactical decision to go and play in different countries around the world. I looked at my desire to continue playing for the national team, and Australia playing in the Asian group, and it made sense to go to China, to India, and even back home with Melbourne City.
Different languages, different emotions, different attitudes, but developing leagues – and that gave me an opportunity to help my teammates, take on a leadership role and almost be a passive coach within those groups.
Those spells taught me a hell of a lot because I was thinking tactically within each set-up, and developing the mindset of a coach.
Did I want to be a coach, though? Did I want to cross that line? Maybe. Not 100 per cent.
Now, sitting where I am today, I’m loving it.
But I’m loving it because I’m starting in an academy. Putting out the cones, moving the goals, planning sessions. Working six to eight-hour days, but blocking it in two or three-week periods that allow me to take a breath and assess where I am as I work to get my badges.
I’ve now completed my UEFA A Licence and I think I have the ingredients, but I want to listen and educate myself around people who are much better than me – who know a lot more than me when it comes to coaching.
Mikel Arteta once said something to me that will never leave me.
“When you want to become a coach, what you put in is what you get back.”
I sit from afar and watch him now, and know the hours he is putting in. His work rate is second to none.
Mine needs to be just the same.
Author: Tony Hodson