Duncan Ferguson steps up to plate at Everton with Ancelotti's backing

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The demands of three knockout ties in eight days, including a Spanish Super Cup final in Saudi Arabia, sparked a rare outburst this week from Carlo Ancelotti but amid anger over the “absolute nonsense” of Real Madrid’s schedule he made time for a gratefully received phone call. The recipient was Duncan Ferguson.

“Carlo phoned me when he heard the news and said to me: ‘Be yourself. You’re ready.’ That gave me a bit of confidence,” admitted Ferguson, who has been tasked with lifting Everton spirits and relegation fears as caretaker manager once again. “I worked with Carlo for a couple of seasons and he told me to go for it, to be myself: ‘You know what you’re doing and you’ve got the experience on the training ground.’ He said: ‘You’re ready.’ That gave me a bit of a boost, to be honest, hearing it from a guy like that who has done it all.”

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Related: Everton v Aston Villa: match preview

In caretaker terms Ferguson has been there and done it too, although there were noticeable differences in his demeanour on the eve of facing Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa to when he took on, and beat, Frank Lampard’s Chelsea the last time he managed at Goodison Park. In December 2019 Ferguson was appointed interim manager less than 48 hours before the game. He could not sleep that night and ran a bath at 2.30am. His voice cracked with emotion and his eyes welled with tears as discussed Everton’s “devastating” slide and his pride at leading the team. This time, with four days to prepare for Villa alongside Leighton Baines and John Ebbrell, it was a more relaxed, more self-aware Ferguson who addressed the media. A lesson learned from Ancelotti?

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“Obviously Carlo was calm, wasn’t he?” he replied. “He has seen it all. Things like that, his calmness, tactically he was fantastic, and I picked up loads of things from him but you have to be yourself. You pick up experiences but I just want to be myself. That’s what you’ll see tomorrow and that’s what you see on the training ground.” In other words, and as Ferguson put it, the ball boys had better be careful should Everton score on Saturday.

There has been another marked change about Ferguson this week. He was a first-team coach with no real prospect of landing the job permanently when he replaced Marco Silva in 2019, and adopted an arm-around-the-shoulder approach with Dominic Calvert-Lewin and others as a result. Now, as an assistant manager with several games to press his claims to replace Rafael Benítez, the blunt and formidable character of old has re-emerged.

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Duncan Ferguson steps up to plate at Everton with Ancelotti’s backing
© Provided by The Guardian Duncan Ferguson led Everton to victory over Frank Lampard’s Chelsea in his previous spell in charge. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

“The way I’ve dealt with it over the last few days is that it has not been good enough,” Ferguson said. “It’s been a long time losing, losing, losing and not getting results. So the gloves are off now. You know what I mean? You can get right in there, right after them [the players] because everybody knows in the club, in the city, that the performances have not been at the level we expect. I’ve got right into them over that.

Related: ‘Determination to deliver’: Farhad Moshiri increases Everton stake to 94%

“People have to be told a few home truths. The form has not been good enough and the fans expect much, much more. We are here for the fans, that’s it. We are here to play for them so I got that message to them, but in stronger terms than that.”

Everton say they want to appoint a new manager as quickly as possible and he will align with an ongoing strategic review into the entire football operation, even though the review is unlikely to be completed until later this year. A strategic aim is to have a clear Everton “DNA” running through the club. On that basis Ferguson’s prospects, along with those of Wayne Rooney, are enhanced. But this is Everton under Farhad Moshiri, a billionaire whose “largesse cannot be faulted but whose decision making as Everton’s majority shareholder, and the advice he has continued to follow from a few influential agents, is now open to ridicule”. That quoted line was written when Ferguson was unveiled as caretaker manager just over two years ago. Every word still stands, unfortunately for those who will pack out Goodison on Saturday.

Ferguson is 50 years old. Ancelotti, who has won the Champions League three times as a coach, believes the Scot is ready. Ferguson, wisely in the circumstances, avoided becoming hostage to fortune when asked whether it was now or never for his chances of managing Everton full time.

He said, quite brilliantly: “The club are looking for experience, aren’t they? I believe in myself and I believe one day I’ll become a great manager. I know I can do the coaching. Hopefully one day, whenever that day is, I’ll become the permanent Everton manager. Of course they are always going to be looking out for the top boys, the guys with the big CVs and the guys who have won trophies. And so they should. At the end of the day we are one of the greatest clubs in the world. Why not look for one of the greatest managers in the world?”

An Everton great will be close to Ferguson when his managerial career resumes against Villa. Howard Kendall’s wife, Lily, presented Ferguson with a watch that belonged to her late husband before he started a three-game unbeaten stint as caretaker in 2019. “I will be wearing it again, absolutely,” he confirmed. “That watch is mine now, forever.”

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