Despite having a dozen nationalities to choose from, Rafa Benitez is pinning his faith on Everton’s most local of heroes.
Winger Anthony Gordon grew up in Kirkdale next to Goodison Park and joined the club’s academy aged 11. After a strong performance at Old Trafford earlier this month, the 20-year-old was given a standing ovation by the travelling Bluenoses.
‘As a local lad you are judged to a higher standard because the fans expect more of you,’ explains Gordon about his rise into the first team.
Rafa Benitez (right) is helping to get the best out of Everton wonderkid Anthony Gordon (left)
The 20-year-old winger starred in Everton’s 1-1 draw at Manchester United last time out
‘But nobody holds me to a higher standard than I do myself. I’m from literally two minutes away from the stadium and just having normal people thinking something of me is unbelievable.
‘I’ve always wanted that because I’ve seen other players coming through and been in the same position looking up to them.
‘I looked up to any Scouser that played football. It is not an easy place to come from, to see them going on and making something good of themselves was inspiring.
‘To hear the fans chanting my name at United was probably the best moment of my life. I’ve dreamed about that since I was, I can’t even think how old. I’ve always loved the fans singing, so I probably enjoyed that more than a goal.’
Gordon (middle) was given a standing ovation by the Everton fans after the Old Trafford game
Whippet-thin and direct with his running, Gordon is a throwback like another Kirkdale old boy, Steve McManaman,
Everton have a long tradition of producing their own, something today’s visiting manager David Moyes of West Ham will remember from his time at Goodison when he had Wayne Rooney.
Rafa Benitez told Gordon only a couple of hours before kick off he’d be starting against United which led to him facing his all-time idol Cristiano Ronaldo. Now he wants to nail down a regular place.
‘It was a good performance at United but it’s only as good as what I do next really,’ says Gordon. ‘I’ve got to make it a foundation to build on.
Gordon (left) described the Everton fans chanting his name as the best moment of his life
‘I made my Premier League debut without fans but this was totally different. It was a weird feeling because I didn’t know what the experience would have on me. Now I know the cliché is true, football without fans is nothing.
‘Those lockdown games were really hard to get up for. You had to motivate yourself and pump the adrenaline. It was difficult.’
Benitez is renowned as a hard taskmaster but that suits Gordon’s mentality.
‘He is a really intense coach. For me that’s really good, I never get to relax. I am always locked into improving. He gives you a little bit of praise but then he’s onto the next thing. I’ve had a good few coaches, haven’t I? Rafa and Carlo (Ancelotti) are probably top 20 ever.
‘It is down to me now. A lot of players blame managers for their [lack of] opportunities but if I work hard enough and keep training how I am, they will come.’
Young winger Gordon (left) has heaped praise on ‘really intense’ Toffees boss Benitez (right)
Plenty of the players Gordon used to watch at Goodison are still around the camp to dispense advice, from Duncan Ferguson to Leighton Baines.
Andros Townsend beat him to Ronaldo’s shirt at Old Trafford but Gordon says that’s fair enough because the England winger scored in the game. He himself is still looking for his first Everton goal despite coming close on a number of occasions.
‘I think about it every day,’ he admits. ‘I try not to and people tell me not to but I can’t lie, I think how it would feel and celebrating with the fans.
‘The manager’s style suits me. We play on the counter, I am a short, sharp player, quick over the first few yards. It benefits me and I can let my legs go and have a good couple of runs during the game.’
Gordon’s hero is Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo who he faced earlier this month
Like many of his generation, Ronaldo is his role model for building a long career.
‘He is 36 but his body is better than anyone’s because of the way he looks after himself,’ says Gordon.
‘I do a few of the things he’s doing. The game has evolved so much. Everyone is fitter and stronger and quicker. If you can get an edge on the opposition then it’s massive. That could be the difference.
‘The only thing for me that separates Messi and Ronaldo is that every time there’s a big moment, Ronaldo always scores.
‘You can’t replace that. No matter how skilful Messi is, if I was a coach and I had to win one game, I’d pick Ronaldo.’