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Feature

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5 Minutes with...

Andy Hinchcliffe

I was delighted to speak to FA Cup winner, now Sky Sports commentator, Andy Hinchcliffe about his time at Goodison Park...

The sight of Andy Hinchcliffe curling that tantalizing left-footed in-swinger, with sat-nav like precision, straight on to the head of Duncan Ferguson, rising between Neil Ruddock and David James, to send the ball into the Gwladys Street net, is one of my earliest memories as an Evertonian. It was about a year too early for my own Goodison debut as a fan; although it was a clip I would sit and watch time and time again, on VHS tape in my bedroom, as a young Evertonian. It was the dawn of a new era, for Everton Football Club, for more than one reason. Not only was it the first Duncan Ferguson goal in an Everton shirt, the night a Goodison Park hero was born, but also the first game in charge for new Everton manager, and club legend, Joe Royle. A night that had been expected by most to be a baptism of fire, a hiding to nothing against our most bitter rivals, turned out to be the complete opposite, with Goodison Park back to its ferocious, and ultimately euphoric, best.

It was a sight that would become familiar, and synonymous with Joe Royle’s Everton side going forward. Blessed with an absolute wand of a left-foot, pacey, and strong in the tackle, Hinchcliffe had been out of the first-team picture, languishing in the reserves, under previous manager Mike Walker. Joe Royle, however, immediately identified him as a key player, and a player who had exactly what the team was missing.

“I’d seen Andy Hinchcliffe and Joe Parkinson playing in the reserves against Liverpool, I went with my father, and I could see that they were exactly what we needed in the first team. Andy had a wonderful left foot, he could pass the ball so accurately from one side of the pitch to the other with ease, I knew right away he needed bringing into the first team picture.” Royle told me when we spoke, last year.

“After watching him in that first reserve game I said to him – ‘why aren’t you playing for England?’

Andy was a genuinely good guy, very talented and very intelligent, too.”

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Joe still speaks fondly of Hinchcliffe, and the feeling is most definitely mutual. Royle’s appointment, could not have come at a better time for Hinchcliffe, he will be the first to tell you that he was struggling with confidence, and lacking self-belief prior to his arrival.

“Joe Royle and Willie Donachie totally transformed my football career. They instilled a confidence in my game like no other manager or coach that I have ever worked under. They got me supremely fit and both worked tirelessly to improve every single part of my game. For a player/person lacking in confidence, as I was, they really were an absolute godsend.

I owe my FA Cup winners medal and all of my international caps to them both. They elevated me from a run-of-the-mill left-back, to an England international, and for that I will always be so grateful.

That confidence they instilled in me as a player, even went on to give me the belief that a broadcasting career could be possible after I retired. ‘Lifechangers’ in every sense of the word.”

The lack of confidence he speaks of, was by no means unfounded. Hinchcliffe had not had an easy time of things; coming to terms with the devastating loss of his mum at just 21 years of age, and then later on, the worrying health concerns for his first born son, Sam. Football had almost become the least of his worries, as he told the official Everton match day programme…

“What happened with my mum made me realise how fragile life is. When you lose someone so close to you, so young, it does set you back. I think it affected me more than I appreciated at the time.

“When Sam was born in 1994, he was very ill. You are thinking ‘I have a son fighting for his life, here, is playing football even important?’ It was an awful time. I was close to saying to Mike Walker ‘I don’t really care’ “.

Thankfully, Joe Royle’s appointment came at the perfect time for Hinchliffe, and he went on to become an integral part of the famous ‘Dogs of War’ that went on to lift the FA Cup in 1995. That ‘Dogs of War’ tag may be something that Joe Royle says he regrets, but you cannot escape the fact that his Everton side was a team full of genuine leaders, who really knew what it meant to play for the club. It was a meteoric rise, from relegation favourites, to trophy winners and European qualification.

“Absolutely, the leaders in that team at the time were just astonishing. Tough men, and great footballers who you just didn’t want to let down. When I look back at my career, that Cup Final win is hard to top. It was just reward, though, for a brilliant group of players, who all pulled together so well. The fans appreciated our application and quality, and we appreciated their support.”

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Signed from Manchester City in 1990, and later having a spell at Sheffield Wednesday, it was undoubtedly at Everton that he enjoyed the best form of his career. Hinchcliffe played 182 times for Everton, winning 7 England caps along the way.

“Everton is such a unique Football Club, with extremely knowledgeable, and intensely demanding fans. It will always be a club not for the faint hearted! As an Everton player, you have an obligation to carry on the Everton tradition, and represent those fans, and that can be something that can weigh some players down. The way I saw it, I was extremely lucky to represent Everton Football Club, they weren’t lucky to have me, by any means!”

You may, or may not, recall the fact that Hinchcliffe was sold by Howard Kendall at Manchester City, and had the misfortune to end up having him become his new boss again, not once, but twice! He was later sold again by Kendall, to Sheffield Wednesday, in 1998. There doesn’t appear to be any bitterness, though, from Hinchcliffe.

“Howard was an incredible guy, and what he did for Everton was fantastic, but he just didn’t rate me.”

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To the younger generation of Evertonians, Andy Hinchcliffe may be more familiar as one of the voices of Sky Sports Football. Following his playing career, Hinchcliffe has gone on to forge a very successful career on TV, where he now works as a co-commentator on Sky Sports, for both Premier League and Football League matches. His commentary on Everton games has not always gone down well with Evertonians across social media, who sometimes feel that he comes across overly critical of Everton. But Hinchcliffe is a professional, and is there to do a job, not blow smoke up anybody’s backside. He calls the games as he sees them, and takes his job extremely seriously, as you would expect.

“A key element of being a professional broadcaster is being able to look objectively at every team, and every game I cover. Commentating on Everton, has to be just like commentating on any other game, I have to be professional. Until the final whistle, and my microphone goes down…

Believe me, I feel the fans frustrations when it comes to poor performances, because I know exactly what the club means to those Evertonians, I find it hard to watch performances that let the fans down.

On the flip-side, the same goes for good performances – my happiness kicks in post-match, not during the game.”

From speaking to him, I can absolutely confirm that Everton still holds a special place in Hinchcliffe’s heart. He speaks with genuine enthusiasm about the club and the fans, as well as his former teammates and the staff he had around him at the time.

“Everton is a special club. As a Mancunian, If I thought for one minute I was well thought of at Goodison Park, it would be a real blessing. To be seen as ‘one of theirs’ would make me immensely proud.”

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As our conversation turns towards the current Everton side, I was keen to hear Andy’s thoughts on our start to the season under new manager Rafael Benitez, and gauge his reaction to the controversial appointment of the former Liverpool manager.

“My only concern was the fact of his obvious association with Liverpool, and how awkward that would make life for him, especially in those early weeks. If you look at it in pure footballing terms, it made perfect sense; he has a great CV, winning trophies with different clubs, and importantly – he knows what Everton means to the fans, having been on Merseyside for so long.

In terms of the start to the season under Benitez - initially, things looked good. You could see how he had tailored the playing style to suit the players at his disposal; no more over-passing/over-playing, getting the ball forward to make the best use of Dominic Calvert-Lewin. We looked well organised defensively. But then with such key players missing – DCL, Richarlison, Doucoure, Coleman, it is virtually impossible for the team to get results.

That squad is so short on depth, but Rafa knew he wouldn’t be able to spend (or waste!) money, as previous coaches have done. We have to be honest with ourselves, at the moment it is a squad with limited potential. I think if key players are available all season, top 8 is possible. If not, then you would have to say top 10, at best.”

One thing is for sure, with such a threadbare squad at his disposal, and the financial restraints Benitez will be expected to work under for the foreseeable future, we could most certainly do with that ‘Dogs of War’ attitude returning to Goodison Park to carry us through this season ahead, perhaps even further, in to our new stadium…

“I will be so sorry when the day comes to leave Goodison Park, but I suppose that progression sometimes means moving on, and the move to an incredible new stadium at Bramley Moore will help elevate the clubs standing, and will encourage players to sign for Everton Football Club. Please let the good times return! The Evertonians have been starved of success for far too long now…”

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I'd like to thank Andy Hinchcliffe for being such a gentleman, and being so approachable.

I would also like to thank Hugh Ferris, for going out of his way to help me.