A version of the below interview first appeared in the Sunderland matchday programme! To buy or download singles issues, click here. To subscribe, click here.
Exactly nine-and-a-half years on from his long-awaited Everton debut, Leighton Baines made his 300th Premier League appearance for the Blues on Saturday.
Baines, now the second longest-serving member of the current squad behind Phil Jagielka, who was signed a month earlier during the summer of 2007, is not one to obsess over numbers. But when it comes to painting an honest and insightful picture of the current landscape at L4, few are better placed.
“It is an incredibly positive position that the team and the Football Club is in at the moment,” says the left-back. “On the pitch, there is a good blend of experienced lads and lads coming through and, of course, off the pitch there is plenty to be excited about. The manager has come in and he’s doing a good job, so I think if you look at the whole picture of the Club, we’re in as good - or better - position than we’ve been in for a long time.
“For me, it will be nice to reach 300 games for this Club, but things like that are never in the forefront of my mind. I just deal with the next game and prepare for that. However, I’m sure when the time comes to look back, there will be pride in it.”
Even on reflection to date, it has been an incredible journey.
Rewind two decades and Baines, accompanied by older cousin Liam, regularly made the 50p bus journey from hometown Kirkby to Goodison Park in the hope of sneaking in for the final 10 minutes to catch a glimpse of his beloved Everton.
In those days – the mid-to-late 1990s – he watched the rugged determination of Dave Watson and David Unsworth shine for Joe Royle’s Dogs of War.
Then, while Baines was establishing himself as a professional footballer with Wigan Athletic, boyhood Evertonian Alan Stubbs took the unofficial responsibility of embodying the Club’s values while helping and passing on the torch to the likes of Tony Hibbert and Leon Osman.
Now at 32, Baines is the latest Merseyside icon to take up the mantle of sustaining a local heartbeat that began long before he was a schoolboy on the terraces himself.
“I think it’s always reassuring on some level – to know it’s always there,” reflects Baines. “We’ve had it down the years with Ossie and Hibbo. Prior to that, we’ve had Stubbsy and Unsy and players like that. It’s always nice to have those people who know the Football Club, the area and the people – it helps the dressing room. I think part of the job of players like that is to pass that on to everyone else.
“Fortunately, we’ve always had good groups who are fully invested in the Club and take a great deal of pride in putting on the shirt and representing Everton.”
West Derby-born Tom Davies has been the beneficiary of Baines’ wealth of experience this season, with the England international taking the 18-year-old under his wing during what has been an outstanding breakthrough campaign.
There are some clear similarities. Baines and Davies do not fit the stereotype of modern- day professional footballers. They would pick the rock tunes of Alex Turner over the dance music of Alesso – and, of course, The Beatles are a must on any playlist. But, above all else, the pair share a deep love for their Football Club.
They get ‘it’. Every Evertonian will agree ‘it’ is there – and that Davies and Baines understand as well as anyone – but what exactly is ‘it’?
Intelligent and considered in every answer, Baines speaks candidly about subjects he’s passionate about, but even someone with his eloquence finds it difficult to articulate exactly what it means to be engrained in the Club he made his debut for in a 1-1 draw with Blackburn at Goodison on 25 August 2007.
“It’s difficult to put your finger on it,” he concedes. “In terms of attitude, I think it’s about passion, application and commitment. Performances will naturally fluctuate or you may be second best on a particular day, but underpinning everything has to be a mindset that you always give absolutely everything you have. It’s hard to put into words what the values of this Club are, but that’s as close as I can describe it for a player.”
And how much does Baines see himself in Davies? The answer may surprise you.
“Not a lot, to be honest,” reveals the defender, who has scored 35 goals for the Blues. “Tom seems more comfortable in himself than I was at 18. He is more self-assured. I don’t see a lot of similarities in that respect. But I do see a young lad who is trying to make his way at a big football club. He’s not alone in trying to do that, either, with other lads like Mason Holgate, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Jonjoe Kenny, who trains with us a lot and, if needed, I’m sure he could come into the team and excel.
“There is plenty of young talent here. Primarily, you’ve got your own game to focus on, but there is a duty when you get to a certain point in your career to look out for other people. That is a responsibility that is shared between five or six of us at the moment – but it is about being approachable rather than being overbearing.”
Milestones often come at fitting times in football and that was the case for Baines as he reached this particular landmark against the club he could have joined almost 10 years ago.
What is more, the manager who signed Baines for the Toffees and handed him a debut was sat in the opposition dugout.
“It meant everything at the time. It was a long process for me to get here but, thankfully, David Moyes saw me as having the talent – or potential talent – to be a success,” he explains. “I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
“If he hadn’t decided that, perhaps I would never have ended up here and my career would have gone a completely different way.
“That whole summer I was holding on, waiting for the nod to speak to Everton, but it got later in the window and a couple of other bids had been accepted, so I went and spoke to Sunderland and Roy Keane. I spent some time there. He was a good guy and it was a great set-up. My decision was nothing against them, it was about my desire to play for Everton.”
On another day, Baines could have come up against as many as six former Everton teammates at the weekend, including Steven Pienaar, with whom he built up one of the most feared left-sided partnerships in the Premier League.
“Steven is someone who I played with a lot during his time here. It was strange when he came on for Spurs against us a few years back and it always will be when you’ve had that bond in the same team,” says the man who has accumulated 30 caps for England..
“What is particularly unusual in this case is that there are quite a few, two of whom [Darron Gibson and Bryan Oviedo] were here very recently, but you quickly learn that things happen quickly in football and everything moves on.”
And the Toffees are moving on in impressive fashion under the stewardship of Ronald Koeman.
Baines hails the honesty of the Dutch legend, describing that trait as key to an upturn in performances and an unbeaten start to the Premier League in 2017.
“What we’ve shown comes from the manager,” he concludes. “Of course, it takes time, but the team starts to reflect the manager out on the pitch. The manager wants intensity, a bit of aggression and good football as well.
“We can improve in those departments – as you always can – but I think he has been more pleased in what he has seen in that
“He has principles that he’s not willing to negotiate. The messages have always been clear and concise – and you can see everyone has bought into what he wants to do.
“At this level, there are fine margins. We’ve been on a good run, a bad run and now we’re back on another good run. Obviously, we’ve been working hard to try to keep that momentum going.
"There is a real feel-good factor around the place at the moment and long may that continue."Leighton Baines