“I am not scared of playing at Anfield,” said Joel Robles, contemplating the Merseyside derby. “I don’t know why people think so negative.”
Perhaps it is because Everton have not won at Anfield this century. Derbies are supposed to be wild, unpredictable affairs but when Liverpool face Everton at home, the form book has refused to hurl itself out of the nearest available window.
You would have to go back to a Monday night in September 1999 for Everton’s last victory at Anfield, a game that ended with Liverpool down to nine men after two red cards, one shown to a 19-year-old Steven Gerrard for a waist-high lunge on the Everton goalscorer, Kevin Campbell.
Gerrard had come on as a substitute telling himself to ‘belt a Bluenose’. He returned to the dressing room to a text message from his father calling him an idiot, or words to that effect.
That was nearly 18 years ago. Robles, whose last taste of Anfield ended in a 4-0 defeat that persuaded most Everton supporters that Roberto Martinez’s managerial regime was damaged beyond repair, argues that only the present matters. However, on Merseyside the past casts a very long shadow.
“That is a problem when people think like that,” said the Everton keeper. “This is totally different. If we win this, they will forget everything. We are all positive. The last game doesn’t matter, 1999 doesn’t matter.”
As someone who was part of Wigan’s astonishing FA Cup final victory over Manchester City, Robles knows how hard an underdog can bite. Would victory at Anfield release the same feelings as parading the old pot around Wembley?
“I hope so,” he said. “We are ready for them. It doesn’t matter, the past. We are positive and we want to win and that’s it. We need to kill them.”
You would have to make a thorough search of England’s local feuds to find a record to compare with Everton’s at Anfield. Wolverhampton Wanderers, who have not won a Black Country derby at the Hawthorns since 1996, would understand their frustrations and so, more pertinently for Robles, would his former club, Atletico Madrid.
Between 1990 and 2012 they beat Real only once in the Bernabeu. That, coincidentally, was also in 1999, although the celebrations did not linger. It was the season Atletico were relegated from La Liga.
“We had the same problem in Madrid,” he said. “When people thought negatively every time, they would lose. When Atletico went aggressive and started thinking positively, then they started to beat Real.”
When Robles was at the Vicente Calderon, he learnt very quickly that as a goalkeeper he would have to fight for everything. He was third choice behind David de Gea and Sergio Asenjo and when one left for Manchester United and the other for Malaga, Thibault Courtois arrived on loan from Chelsea.
Robles went to both Wigan and Everton as back-up but supplanted Ali Al-Habsi to become Wigan’s keeper in the FA Cup final and by May last year he had become number one at Goodison Park. But that was the month Martinez was fired and Ronald Koeman’s first act was to buy a goalkeeper and a Dutch goalkeeper at that.
“In that moment things changed for me,” said Robles of Maarten Stekelenburg’s arrival. “There was disappointment and it was difficult. In that moment things changed for me but when I went home I realised I needed to change my mentality, train well and be ready for the moment when the situation maybe changes. Like one day, a Stekelenburg injury.
“I don’t like to play just because one of my team-mates is injured but this is football and sometimes you get lucky. You need to grab the opportunity.”
Robles’ luck changed in December in the last Merseyside derby. Stekelenburg and Leighton Baines clattered into each other as they tried to make a clearance and Robles took over for the final 26 minutes, an echo of his debut for Atletico Madrid, where he had come on as a substitute midway through a game with Sporting Gijon.
The first 25 went well but in stoppage time a Daniel Sturridge shot struck the foot of the post and Sadio Mane reacted before Robles. Goodison was full of smoke from flares thrown by Liverpool fans in the Bullens Road Stand. They had carried with them a banner wishing Everton: “Happy 21st birthday” counting the years since they had last won a trophy. On Saturday at Anfield, Everton will hope not to turn 18.
Joel Robles was speaking at USM Finch Farm courtesy of BT Sport. After the Merseyside derby Everton will take on Manchester United live on BT Sport. To subscribe and watch the match visit www.bt.com/sport.