When Joe Royle went back to his former club Oldham in July 1996 to buy goalkeeper Paul Gerrard, it was hoped that the highly rated 23-year-old would go on to be a long-term successor to the ageing Neville Southall. An established England under-21 international, with a good record – 12 clean sheets in 18 appearances – had made him the most highly rated young goalkeeper in the country, placing a price of £1million on his head.
INITIALLY SERVING as Southall’s understudy, Gerrard’s chance came in February 1997, when the Welshman was made scapegoat during Joe Royle’s winter of discontent, and dropped for the first time in 15 years following five successive defeats. Alas, Gerrard was unable to change Everton’s luck, conceding four goals against Newcastle in his first start. Given further opportunities over the following year, Gerrard failed to grasp them, looking edgy and short of confidence. The Norwegian international, Thomas Myhre, was acquired in November 1997, and the England under-21 international Steve Simonsen the following summer, severely limiting Gerrard’s chances.
Myhre’s early promise in an Everton shirt was brought to an abrupt halt with a broken ankle in the summer of 1999, and Gerrard was brought back to the fore. For the next two years, he was largely Everton’s first-choice goalkeeper and, given an extended run, seemed to grow in confidence.
A good shot-stopper who commanded his area reasonably well, he was nevertheless prone to some excruciating lapses. These included the concession of an improbable 44-yard free kick by Liverpool’s Gary McAllister in the last minute of the 2001 Goodison derby and an ugly collision with Abel Xavier in a home defeat to Newcastle the following October. Gerrard had come charging off his line, missed the ball entirely, sent his defender to hospital and left Newcastle striker Craig Bellamy with an empty net. This proved to be one error too many for Walter Smith, who dropped him. Although he was to remain an Everton player for another four years, Gerrard barely featured again, as he fell behind Simonsen, Richard Wright and latterly Nigel Martyn and Iain Turner in the pecking order. Despite a series of loan moves, the club was unable to offload him until the expiry of his contract in the summer of 2005.