As a youngster Steve Jennings dreamed of featuring in a somewhat grander derby than the one which sees North meet South in Lanarkshire, and he insists that the derby-day passion he experienced growing up in Merseyside stands him in good stead for what’s to come this afternoon.
Jennings is a lifelong Everton fan and chased his dream as a boy, joining The Toffees’ youth team as a talented young midfielder.
At that point it was thoughts of Everton v Liverpool under the Goodison lights that drove the gifted teen on.
“Everton were great with the young lads. They would take us to every home game so we could get the experience of what Goodison was like on a match day,” Jennings recalled.
“I’m a football fan and always have been. I had seven or eight season tickets at Goodison Park as a kid before I joined the club and I loved the derby experience.
“The nerves are unbelievable when I watch every Merseyside derby; even now I can hardly watch any time Liverpool get the ball in the Everton half – especially Gerrard; my heart starts pounding ten to the dozen, so I know what the fans feel on these occasions.”
Things weren’t to work out with the blue half of Merseyside and Jennings moved on to Tranmere Rovers, where he excelled in their School of Excellence before graduating into the first team – even winning the clubs’ Young Player of the Year award in 2008.
Yet, as an Everton supporter and former Everton youth player, the Liverpudlian midfielder obviously has not lost that appreciation of a good derby, and the move up north has given him the chance to excel in Motherwell vs. Hamilton encounters.
He is grateful to former boss Jim Gannon for that opportunity. The former boss brought Jenning’s up to Motherwell, and despite initial injury problems Steve was to end up playing a starring role last season:
“It has been an unbelievable turnaround from missing out on the play-offs down in England to coming up here and playing in Europe, local derbies, and the latter stages of cup competitions,” he said, referring back to his time with Tranmere Rovers.
It certainly didn’t take the 25-year old long to get into the groove of the Lanarkshire derby. In his first taste of the rivalry Jennings turned in a dynamic display – complete with booking – in an utterly enthralling 2-2 draw at New Douglas Park.
Two more starts, and one more booking, would follow as Motherwell managed to complete an unbeaten 09/10 season against their rivals from down the road.
You can’t help but look at the way Jennings’ plays the game and think that it is simply made for high-intensity, passionate derby football. Crunching tackles, impeccable work rate and an eye for a pass in the most manic of midfield battles is a must – and the former Tranmere player ticks all the boxes.
In a typically tenacious assessment, Jennings confirmed: “I’m a straight-forward guy and I wear my heart on my sleeve and work hard, and going into games like this it might sound daft but if you get a couple of good tackles in straight away that can set you up for the game.
“On these occasions if you can start the game well then you can kick on from there and put in a good performance.
“So on Saturday we need to start sharply – which we’ve done the last few games at home – and get a grip of the game.”
There is little doubt that a match against Hamilton is very different from most other SPL encounters, and there are just certain types of players who seem to thrive in a derby-day cauldron. This is confirmed with the enthusiasm with which he talks about this afternoon’s encounter.
“I know what this type of game is all about,” he smiled. “The tempo is cranked up, the fans are up for it and whole experience is more hyped up than a lot of other matches.
“With that in mind we’ll come out with all guns blazing and give it a really good go.”
Hamilton visit Fir Park on the back of a difficult start to the season. Billy Reid’s men haven’t won a match in six attempts, and were defeated 2-1 at home last week thanks to a Danny Grainger goal for St. Johnstone.
The Accies currently sit second-bottom of the SPL, just two points ahead of bottom side St Mirren.
The Steelmen, on the other hand, are flying high. Brown’s men are lying in third spot – best-of-the-rest – and have only lost two games in the SPL all season; utterly understandable defeats to Rangers and Celtic – the latter an unlucky reverse thanks to a late, and somewhat dubious, penalty.
Nonetheless, you all know how the cliché goes: when rivals meet form goes out the window.
“Hamilton can come in to this game knowing Motherwell are perhaps the slight favourites to win,” Jennings noted. “That could give them a boost.
“We’ll go into the game with the utmost respect for Hamilton; there’s not one player in that dressing room who doesn’t give every opposition team the respect they deserve – the management team make sure of that.
“Hopefully if we play as well as we have done recently then the game will go by the form book, but that isn’t certain.”
The midfield dynamo’s insistence that the team must be ready for a battle today further emphasises the need for the team to have sole focus on the SPL. It seems Motherwell’s season has been punctured with distractions; firstly the Europa League qualifiers and now Tuesday’s Co-operative Insurance Cup quarter-final victory over Dundee United.
So far the players – in a remarkably small squad given the amount of games they have played – have coped well with bouncing back to SPL duty following a midweek challenge, and Jennings knows that is the task once more.
Putting a trip to Hampden out his mind he said: “The gaffer and Archie said straight after the cup game that we have to focus on the league now. Saturday is a massive game for everyone here and we all know that the SPL is our bread and butter.
“We’ll be fit and ready for it. Because of the Europa League we started our pre-season a little earlier, and I think you are seeing the benefit with how fit and strong we have been in the second half of games.”
Last season the midfielder was part of something of an ‘Everton mafia’ with Toffees’ loan stars Lukas Jutkiewicz and keeper John Ruddy, before this summer saw both players sold on by their parent club to Coventry and Norwich respectively.
It was undoubtedly a blow to Jennings to see two talented players, and good friends, leave Motherwell but he has dealt with the disappointment and carried on the form of last season.
“I lived with Jukes (Lukas Jutkiewicz) last season, and we speak pretty much every day. I’ve just booked a holiday next summer with him, Jim O’Brien and a few of the lad’s here now – it just goes to show the great bunch of guys we had last season, and the great atmosphere you get at this club.
“But the nature of football is that people leave. You could be at one end of the country one day and at the other end the next day – you just have to get your head down and get on with it.”
His own determination to keep performing mirrors the achievement of the current Motherwell team, which has collectively shaken off the loss of all the quality which departed Fir Park over the summer; not just Ruddy and Lukas, but Jim O’Brien and Giles Coke too.
It’s something Steve acknowledges: “I spoke to a few of the lads who left and they were asking whether we had brought anyone in. At that point we were trying but we couldn’t get any deals done – and I thought it could be a really tough season.
“A lot of the lads knew they had to stand up and be counted with other players leaving and the results show that everyone has done that.”
One constant which remained over the summer was the presence of Craig Brown and Archie Knox, and they are quickly proving that players may come and go, but with good coaching, man-management and tactical awareness they can keep ‘Well performing.
“Craig and Archie coming in have helped my game a lot,” he said.
“It’s not just me; a lot of the guys in that dressing room have come on leaps and bounds since the new management team came in.”
The next test for Craig, Archie, Steve and the rest of the lads will be to illustrate that progress against Accies who will, no doubt, be right up for it.