WHEN, DURING the early Nineties, two teenaged players shared both Liverpool digs and their fantasies of what their future held, nobody could have prophesised that they would become respective captains of the city's rivals.
Actually, that is not quite true. Even then, Jamie Redknapp had an aura of natural leadership about him. It would be more accurate to say, though, that fewer could have forecast Don Hutchison's ascent to such an honour. "Hutch" soon carried a hazard warning.
As the Everton and Scotland midfielder concedes himself: "I was an ordinary lad from Gateshead. I moved to Hartlepool as a YTS boy and within six months I had signed for Liverpool. I was on pounds 27.50 at Hartlepool, then suddenly on, well, very good wages at Liverpool. Jamie and I both got into the first team and I had an excellent season. But you find that you can't do things that you used to at Hartlepool, ie. go to Cyprus and get pissed. All of a sudden, people are selling the story for ten grand that you were pissed in a bar." More pertinently, there was a photograph doing the paper rounds of him displaying what a Scotsman normally doesn't under his kilt. "I couldn't cope with it at the time. I was just a kid. I had to move away and it took that experience to realise what I could lose in football if I didn't get my head together and knuckle down." Not that it was an immediate metamorphosis, he would be the first to admit.
Hutchison and Redknapp remain close friends. They play golf regularly and recently both supported a charity function to raise money for a disabled Liverpool child. The pair also had lunch last week, when one subject was of overriding mutual interest: Saturday's renewal of that ages-old rivalry, Scotland versus England, in the first leg of the Euro 2000 play-off, when the cordiality between the midfielders will be suspended for 90 minutes.
"We'll murder each other," says the son of a Scottish father and English mother in an accent which is a refined amalgam of Geordie and Scouse, alluding wryly to the much-hyped confrontation. "The way some of the TV and papers are talking about it, somebody will be sent off before they even kick a ball. But Jamie's not the kind of boy who goes round kicking people anyway. He's a playmaker, that's his game." Possibly a crucial one in six days' time? "It's going to be fever pitch, one hundred miles an hour, and the first team that put their foot on the ball will probably do well. That's where Jamie comes into it, if he slows the ball down and passes it."
Hutchison will be intent on ensuring that his friend fails in that task. A perceptive passer himself and with a venomous shot the equal of Redknapp's, he is not known for his imitation of a school crossing patrolman.
He will not be one for standing benignly as the England hordes advance, beckoning the visitors across. "I don't mind putting my foot in. I'm not a shy person," says the character who has the same approach to the game as his former manager, Graeme Souness, who reflected only last week that if he and Hutchison had been contemporaries, they could well have been good mates. "I play off the cuff," Hutchison reflects. "If I can stick someone in to score, I'll do that; if there's an easy pass on, I'll do that, too."
While Redknapp has become the epitome of a well-rounded character, the smoothing of Hutchison's rougher edges has been a more gradual process. On this particular day, as he poses for photographs in Everton's indoor gym, he is urbanity personified, far removed from the urchin that the talent-prospector Kenny Dalglish had first seen. Like Ronnie Barker's alter ego, Norman Stanley Fletcher, in Porridge, Hutchison was an habitual miscreant. Nothing serious; just larks for the voracious tabloids to gorge on, such as the Cyprus episode, the infuriating of Souness - who first gave him his chance at Anfield - by risking injury playing for a five-a-side pub team back in Gateshead, and the occasional faux pas.
He became a kind of thinking man's Paul Gascoigne, with whom, incidentally, he shares his origins. They both played for the Redeugh Boys' Club in Gateshead, while his father, Douglas, a miner for 35 years before his recent retirement, used to drink in the same pub as Gascoigne. Whereas the former England midfielder tends to eschew media attention these days, Hutchison, with the aid of his agent, Rachel Anderson, appreciates the value of good publicity.
Instead of resenting the activities of some sections of the media, he opines: "There's nothing better than being rated nine out of 10, and being `star man' in a game. You accept that, so you've got to take the stick when you've got a problem."
Occasionally, he still can't avoid it. This year, neither Scotland's management nor the nation's supporters were too impressed when his wedding in Jamaica happened to coincide with Scotland's games against the Faroes and the Czech Republic, though Hutchison insists that he had no idea that he would be involved with Scotland when the nuptials were organised. He even received some light- hearted criticism for not responding in suitably impassioned manner to his first goal for his country, the winner against the European champions ,Germany, in Bremen earlier this year. He merely smiled and clapped his hands above his head. What kind of Scot do you call that, was the inference of critics, although he retorts: "All I can say in my defence is that I don't score many goals and I didn't know what to do."
To a degree, that is the story of his career . At one stage, after leaving West Ham - where he had arrived from Anfield following an introduction to Harry Redknapp effected by Redknapp junior - he appeared to be on the descent to oblivion. "Not a bad lad, just a lad who kept bad company," was the Hammers manager's opinion. It was Ray Harford who unwittingly forced the wayward mid-fielder to take stock. When Redknapp senior had suggested to him that Hutchison be swapped for Robbie Slater, the then Blackburn coach retorted: "I wouldn't touch him with a bargepole".
The player was shocked. "I started thinking, `I wonder if every Premiership manager thinks like that?' " confesses Hutchison. "That I'm a lunatic and a drinker and a bad influence on other players, even though Harry will tell you that I wasn't, that it just didn't work out for me at Upton Park football-wise. But in hindsight, I'm so glad Harry told me that because, if he hadn't, it wouldn't have sunk in what was happening to me."
Fortunately, his belief in his own abilities, and just as importantly the faith of Howard Kendall, who first took him to Sheffield United and then to Goodison, maintained his equilibrium. Everton's Walter Smith and the national manager, Craig Brown, who both appreciated a talent that was too often dormant, did the rest. Since then, his career has largely flourished.
Within Everton's Bellefield training centre the Anglo-Scottish rivalry is becoming positively vengeful. "If you look in the dressing room you'll see all the Scotland flags hanging there. But they've all been cut up in the last couple of days. David Unsworth's the culprit for that, so I think the gaffer's going to drop him on Sunday!" Hutchison adds, shaking his head in mock irritation: "Walter and Archie [Knox] are not happy about it."
Neither, presumably, is Everton's Scottish kit manager, Jimmy Martin, after his prized Scotland flag from France 98 was removed from his drawer and cut to pieces. Smith will be taking the non- participating members of his team to both Hampden and Wembley, with the Scottish contingent confident that such acts of sacrilege will be avenged on the field. "In midfield, I think our resources are as good as England's, if not better, and our defence is top drawer," Hutchison says. "If we can bang the goals in everything will be fine."
And that is the crux of Scotland's problems. No equivalent of Michael Owen, Andy Cole, David Beckham or Alan Shearer, who, intriguingly, Everton meet in today's Premiership game at St James' Park, where Hutchison once cheered on the Magpies from the Gallowgate End.
Football is a map of avenues to success and cul-de-sacs of failure and, for the majority, destinations unknown. "I said to Jamie the other day, `Who'd have thought when we were in digs together that we'd end up captaining Liverpool and Everton?" says Hutchison. On the whole, about as likely that they would do battle at Hampden and Wembley for the honour of a place in the European Championship.
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