by Dominic King
PUBLISHED: 16:44 EST, 13 April 2012 | UPDATED: 04:34 EST, 14 April 2012
You don’t need to be born on Merseyside to appreciate what Saturday’s derby at Wembley means, but it helps. Adventures of the future are more eagerly anticipated, stories of the past more readily told by those with local connections.
Everton have a couple of homegrown footballers who confirm that is true. Tony Hibbert, born in Huyton, and Leon Osman, from Billinge, have been described by David Moyes as ‘part of the brickwork’ at Goodison Park, amassing more than 600 top-flight appearances for the club during the past decade.
‘In every team you need local lads,’ said Hibbert. ‘We can show new signings what it means to play for Everton. this is a great club. We know what the fans are thinking and we try to get that across.’
On the eve of the eagerly awaited all-Merseyside FA Cup semi-final, they spoke about their eventful journey in royal blue.
Homegrown talent: Leon Osman (left)and Tony Hibbert
Hibert and Osman’s friendship blossomed when they met at Everton’s academy 20 years ago but it may never have materialised had Hibbert taken up an offer to join Liverpool.
Take us back to the beginning. How did you start playing in the same team?
Leon Osman: He’s a year older than me and, let’s be fair, when you look at that face you can tell he’s a good year older than me!
Tony Hibbert: very funny. We were about 10 and put in the same team at an academy tournament.
Did you hit it off immediately?
LO: I was scared of him! Hibbo was pretty much the same as he is now back then. He was quiet but would always have a look in his eye that told you not to mess with him.
TH: when I looked at Ossie, I knew – as everyone did – he’d make it. In games it would just be a case of ‘give him the ball’ and he’d make things happen. He was different class and hasn’t changed one bit.
Why didn’t you join Liverpool?
TH: I was already at the academy here and that was massive for me. But Liverpool kept asking me to join them but I said ‘no’. Liverpool’s academy was at a social sports centre. they wore mixed and matched kits and I just didn’t get the right feeling from it.
While some young players are destined to break through early, the opposite was true for this pair. A serious injury, sustained in the 1998 FA Youth Cup final at Blackburn, threatened to dash Osman’s dreams.
LO: it was a long way back but I never thought I was finished. it just felt that it was another hurdle I had to get over. it dragged on for three years in total but it never came to the point where I thought to myself: ‘I’m struggling to make it here.’
For Hibbert, some wondered whether he had the talent to cut it in the top flight before he made his debut in a 2-0 win against West Ham on March 31, 2001.
TH: I only found out a few hours before the game that I was playing, so I didn’t have the chance to get worried. not that I would have worried. here was my chance to play for Everton’s first team and I was never going to give that up.
Have either of you ever come close to leaving?
TH: I have never looked elsewhere. Of course, in football anything can happen. It’s been good that we’ve had the contracts that we’ve had and the club have wanted us to stay. I’ve never had anyone here tell me that another club are looking at me and that they wanted to sell me.
LO: The only time I ever thought that might happen was when I went on loan to Derby. I had done well and they asked would I be interested in staying. I came back and went to see the manager (Moyes). He said he knew I’d done well and he wanted to keep me. He started me in the next game and I scored against Wolves (May 2004). That was that.
Screamer: Osman is backing Hibbert to finally find the net for Everton
Everton’s manager has always been effusive in his praise for Hibbert – who played in Moyes’s first game against Fulham in March 2002 – and Osman as they have never let him down. they have evolved along with the Scot.
How did you feel when Moyes said that you would have jobs for life?
LO: it was very kind of him to say that. We are grateful but that won’t change us or our approach. We will still go about the job in the same way that we have always done. nothing would change that. How has Moyes changed?
TH: He’s a lot more mellow now but still has that desire and hunger to succeed. The change in him has come with the development of the team. He can still lose it.
LO: He is a great motivator. whether he wants to get a reaction out of you by thinking it’s you against the world, you against someone else here or you against him, he’ll do it. whatever it needs, he’ll get that bite out of you that he thinks will help on a Saturday.
All smiles: The Everton pair are full of praise for manager David Moyes
Everton aim to reward 31-year-old Hibbert’s loyalty with a testimonial, while Osman, 30, has been one of the most consistent performers in the club’s revival this season.
Do you find yourself looking back on where your career has gone?
TH: All the time. I don’t think people understand how difficult it is or what you have to do to play for such a long time in one club. The likes of Stevie (Gerrard) and (Jamie) Carragher are unbelievable. What they have done for Liverpool is frightening. I think people take it for granted.
LO: You are just trying to get into the team for the next game. You don’t think ‘I’ll try and get to that many matches’ or ‘I’ll aim to do this’. It’s always been a case of get in the team and take it from there. Hibbert has not scored in 304 games and fans unveiled a banner at the 2009 FA Cup semi-final declaring ‘Hibbert scores, we riot!’
Will he ever break that duck?
TH: What do you mean? You see me scoring in training all the time!
LO: He’s going to do it one day. He’ll lash one in from 30 yards. it might even be on Saturday.
Final preparations: Moyes has run his side through their last training session ahead of the semi with Liverpool