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In an era where the Premier League is filled with Academy graduates in sports cars, bling and more commercial deals than goals on their CV, Jose Baxter is a refreshing antidote.
The youngest player in Everton’s history five years ago, the Oldham midfielder turned his back on a lucrative contract at Goodison Park because he aspired to play football rather than simply be described as a Premier League footballer.
Had Baxter stayed on Merseyside, he’d be travelling to Boundary Park for Saturday’s Fifth Round FA Cup tie on the Everton coach, enjoying the trappings of being a Premier League player but most likely preparing to be substitute.
Disillusionment set in last summer. Baxter jeopardised his career by dropping down the divisions, and the relaunch was evident as he helped overcome Liverpool in the last round.
The contrast between Goodison and Oldham, where the players don’t even have a specified training ground (they’ve dubbed a practice pitch behind their stadium 'mini-Wembley’), could not be more extreme.
Baxter says this is a glimpse of the real world many young players would be wise to experience.
“To me, it’s about having some pride in yourself,” said Baxter. “A lot of young kids won’t do what I did because they’ve a good contract and want to keep it that way. To me, that’s the easy way out. Just sit there, take the money and be a bit 'Billy big-time’ if you like.
“If you want to just drive around town in a nice car, that’s up to you. Not for me. I’d rather not have the nice car and play every week and fulfil some dreams. If it means taking one step back to take a few steps up I’ll do it.
“That kind of decision has to come from within, really, but my advice to any young player is go where you’ll play or you’ll never learn anything. Get kicked around the pitch for a bit. Honestly, it will do you good. Get that feeling of scoring a goal in front of a crowd that will sing your name. Nothing will beat that buzz.
“I’ve done all the sitting on the bench for a big club I want to for one career. Now it’s all about playing and enjoying it. I train hard to play on Saturday.
“When you’re 16 and on the bench at Everton you know you’re overachieving.
“That was great at the time, but when you’re 18 or 19 and it’s just reserve football, which is not of a good standard, you want more. I went on loan to Tranmere and got the bug for playing in front of crowd, scoring and running to a packed stand. You remember why you became a footballer.
“When you played in the reserves it didn’t really mean anything when you lost. No one was going to shout at you for losing three points. I wanted to play in an environment where you get punished for mistakes.
“I’d go and watch my mates playing Sunday League, buzzing if they won, gutted if they lost and going out afterwards and talking about the game. I missed that. You need that hunger and love of football to succeed. If I play well from now on, the contracts and offers will come to me. I won’t have to look for anything. I was never going to know what my level is sitting on the bench or playing for the reserves. I’m looking to work my way back up now, build up a CV and show people what I can do.”
Baxter could have moved on from Oldham before the end of last month and it’s apparent he is playing at least one tier, probably two, below where he should be.
He remained loyal to Oldham — ex-manager Paul Dickov especially — for the faith shown in him when he was a free agent, wondering if anyone would take him on.
Dickov’s departure a week after victory over Liverpool depressed the Bootle-born midfielder.
“Paul brought me here. He’s a great manager and a great man and I hope he goes on to bigger and better things, but it was hard to take for me and all the lads when he want,” said Baxter.
“Tony Philliskirk has come in and done a great job and in football no matter what happens you have to keep moving on for the sake of the club and all the players.
“It’s just a bit sad that when you lose a few games your job is on the line. It’s a tough business.” The timing, so soon after beating Liverpool, was especially brutal.
“What we’d achieved never really sunk in until a few days after the match,” said Baxter.
“My mates had been texting me and I watched it again on the telly, but it was bit later I realised what a team we’d beaten and what it meant to all the lads here, and the club. People said it was a young team, but they had lot of great young players like Henderson, Allen and Sturridge on the pitch. It was a bit of an easy target picking on those who’d come through their Academy, I thought.
“Liverpool showed us a bit of disrespect by not starting with all their big players. They realised League One is more aggressive and it’s not so rough and ready in the Premier League. We left a bit on them to see how they’d cope and I don’t think they wanted it as much as we did on the day. No one shone for them.
“Now we have to repeat that performance against Everton. They haven’t won a trophy for a long time and winning the FA Cup means a lot to them. I know from being around that team for a long time what it would mean to win it.
“Everton will come with their strongest team and try and do the job professionally and properly.
“I was on the bench for the Cup Final against Chelsea in 2009. To get that far and lose was hard to take. The club could taste it after beating United in the semi-final that year, so they’ll want to make it their own now.
“My phone went nuts when the draw was made. I spoke to Leighton Baines, Victor Anichebe and Phil Jagielka about it, but it’s all friendly stuff really. I’ll always appreciate what Everton did for me.”
It would be some Merseyside double if Everton go the way as their neighbours, making Baxter the only content Scouser left in the city.
A day after Liverpool were embarrassed, Baxter was in the cinema to see the latest Quentin Tarantino blood-fest Django Unchained. As he walked in, he was faced with long-time family friend Jamie Carragher. Twenty fours too late for Liverpool fans liking (Carragher was an unused sub at Boundary Park) but nevertheless the awkwardness of the encounter swiftly passed.
“He was still fuming,” said Baxter. “I’ve too much respect for him to have any kind of banter about a game like that. I just asked him how he was and left it at that.
“We can do it again against Everton. They are world class team with world class players and if we sit off them they’ll pick us off, but if we get in their faces we can win it.”
Win or lose, Baxter will head out in his home city with his head held high. He may no longer be a Premier League player, but at least he feels true to himself telling people he plays professional football for a living.
TIM HOWARD believes the FA Cup is the perfect opportunity for Everton FC to ensure this can still become a memorable season.
The Blues goalkeeper echoed the collective view of David Moyes’ entire first team squad that the FA Cup is just as important as progress in the Premier League.
And ahead of Saturday’s trip to face Oldham in the fifth round, the USA international – who was named the club’s player of the month for January – insists complacency is not an option on either front.
He said: “January was a good month for us and we’ve still got a lot to aim for this season – we’re going well in the Premier League and we’re in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
“A lot of clubs would settle for that but we’ve just got to keep pushing forward and try to make this a season to remember.
“As for my award, it’s always nice to win individual awards and I was delighted when I was told about it but it’s all about the team. I know that’s a cliché but we’re at the stage of the season now where it’s all about results.”
Costa Rican left-back Bryan Oviedo is also hoping to be involved in a pivotal game at Boundary Park on Saturday evening, and is equally convinced of the importance of progress in the cup.
“We want to win the FA Cup so everything is focused on it,” he said. “It’s very important to us. It’s well known in Costa Rica. Everyone watches the big games.”
Meanwhile, teenage midfielder Ross Barkley is hoping to concentrate on impressing David Moyes after his loan spell at Leeds United ended.
The 19-year-old England U-21 starlet, who returned from Elland Road yesterday, is another bidding to make the match day squad to face Oldham, and believes he has made good progress so far this term.
He said: “It was a bit frustrating while I was there (at Leeds) because there weren’t many games. But I’ve learned a lot this season. I feel like I’ve progressed.
“I’ve learned a lot about the game. I’m pleased I’ve kept injury free and fit. Last season I had some niggly injuries but the pre hab I’ve done has helped a lot. Now I’ll see how it goes. Hopefully I can impress the gaffer and then get in the team. If I don’t play any part in the game on Saturday then hopefully I can play for the U-21s on Sunday.”
PETER REID knows all too well about the caprices of mood and energy levels in the dressing room which can significantly alter the course of a football club's season.
The 56-year-old Everton hero has seen it all as a player and faced more than his fair share of twists and turns as a manager too.
So Reid is not getting too carried away about the current slump in momentum hampering the fortunes of his Goodison favourites. But the straight-talking Huyton-born former England international has his reservations about one notion in particular.
Ask him whether he fears the Blues' small squad is currently dipping below the high levels of earlier this term because they are tired, and he admits he's not totally convinced.
"I ask people the question - are the lads fitter now days? They say they are because of the advancements in sports science but on the same token the game is less physical.
"The pitches are infinitely better now too," says the man who formed an integral part of Howard Kendall's title-winning side in 1984/85.
That season Kendall - aside from six players who each featured just once - effectively used only 19 individuals to win the league (42 games), reach an FA Cup final, and lift the European Cup Winners' Cup.
Perhaps that's why Reid isn't overly convinced by suggestions of fatigue.
"I take the point when people say they are concerned the players might be tired. But at the same time if you tell players they are tired, there's a risk you given them an excuse they can use," he says.
"If you are playing week in, week out, and getting results you just want to keep on playing and keep the momentum going.
"I remember in the 1984/85 season. Most days after a game me and Andy Gray would be in the treatment room with ice packs all over us. We were both crocks! But we managed to get through it.
"Sometimes it's about desire and heart to get out on that pitch and that still counts for a lot now. Look at Ryan Giggs. he keeps going and is still scoring goals now at 39."
After collecting just six points from their last five games, Everton are now six points adrift of Tottenham in the battle for a Champions League slot, and two behind Arsenal, who have leapfrogged above them into fifth.
And in the context of the Blues' rivals for fourth-spot Reid is far more sympathetic to the current Everton players.
"Having said all that," he adds. "If the question is about getting fourth place this season then Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs and even Liverpool have got bigger squads.
"You can't use that as an excuse all the time but it's true.
"Overall there have been games they should have won. Newcastle at Goodison should have been three points, Reading away, Fulham away, Norwich at home. They are points that if they were in the bag we'd be much higher in the table.
"Unfortunately we lacked that cutting edge to get them in most of those games. That's not to say it hasn't been a good season until now. It has. The big task is to keep it going. Everton need to grind out results more
"Look at Manchester United. They will win the title because they've got results, even when they're not playing well. You aren't going to play well every week, it's impossible. But they have the winning habit."
Reid believes Moyes' players should not be too harsh on themselves after last weekend's defeat at old Trafford, and should instead focus on progress in the FA Cup tomorrow evening.
"Distin was a big, big miss and Manchester United's goals were a bit cheap," he says.
"Everton got caught high up the pitch. Everton played some decent football but it's always undermined when you concede goals like that. You just can't afford to do it. But still we did well in patches, nobody can deny that.
"As for Oldham - Matt Smith is a handful and certainly caused Liverpool problems.
"Nobody will underestimate Oldham after the way they played against Liverpool, but Everton will be ready to compete and I'm sure David Moyes will impress that on them."
Moyes will hope to have Distin fit and back in his plans to face the Latics at Boundary Park, but if he should need to call on John Heitinga again, Reid believes the Holland international will benefit from going back to basics.
"He's been caught out at key moments," says Reid.
"At the moment he's in a rut where his mistakes are being punished with goals against him and he is the only one who can lift himself out of it.
"I always feel when you are making mistakes you should focus on getting the basics right again.
"Don't dwell on the ball if you have time and space. And don't try and defend too high up the pitch. At the end of the day we've all been through it."