The below story first appeared in April’s Everton magazine! To buy or download singles issues, click here. To subscribe, click here.
There is a ground-floor corridor that stretches half the length of Everton’s 9,441 square metre Finch Farm training ground. Along its walls on both sides are photographs of every player to have come through the Club’s Academy to make a first-team appearance since the mid-1990s. The 43rd and most recently erected picture is of Jonjoe Kenny and it is housed no more than three steps from the exit. Room is running out.
It’s a clear visual representation of the success stories spawned from within this building and a similar but smaller facility in Netherton before it. Dunne, Ball, Rooney, Barkley… we all know the names. Of the 43 to have joined the list since Tony Grant became the first in 1995, all but five were teenagers when they pulled on the royal blue shirt to make their debuts. Everton is a club that has traditionally trusted its youngsters young.
Yet, for all the glowing times for an envied Academy, few have been quite as fluorescent as the early months of 2017. Tom Davies has established himself as a first-team regular, earning himself a new five-year deal in the process. Matthew Pennington, likewise, has impressed enough to be handed revised terms. Mason Holgate, having grasped his chance in the first half of the season, has continued to look every bit an England international of the future. And that’s just for starters.
Against Manchester United at Old Trafford in early April, manager Ronald Koeman named a squad that included as many as five Academy graduates, two other players who were signed from elsewhere but still progressed through David Unsworth’s Under-23s set-up and a 19-year-old in Ademola Lookman who was spotted playing for League One Charlton Athletic but whose talents were deemed so advanced he was elevated straight into the first team on being signed in January.
But that players like Davies are ready to grasp their opportunity, even, as in his case, at the tender age of 18, is no fluke.
Above that ground-floor corridor, is another its equal in length. Along these walls are not individual graduates but group shots, each depicting an Everton tournament victory. The C.V.V Zwervers Cup Winners of 2010, including current Under-23s stars Kieran Dowell, Jonjoe Kenny, Callum Connolly, Liam Walsh and Antonee Robinson. The Dachstein Hohlen Cup Winners of 2006/07, boosted by the presence of Pennington and Tyias Browning. The Northern Ireland Milk Cup Winners 2008, a beaming Barkley leaping out from the crowd. The Geneva Cup Winners of 1998, back row, centre and smiling, Rooney. But these are just a handful of examples.
There are other names; Lundstram, Hope, Rodwell, Anichebe, Vaughan, Ledson, Forshaw, Duffy, Agard, Bidwell – all players who have left Everton but gone on to ply their trade elsewhere in England’s professional leagues. There have been Premier Academy League wins in 2010/11 and 2013/14 too, as well as last year’s triumph in the prestigious international tournament The Dallas Cup. In fact, in the last two seasons, young Everton teams have racked up no fewer than 21 tournament successes, the most recent coming when the Club’s Under-10s won a national competition in futsal, a form of the game only recently adopted in the UK but designed to hone skill, close-control and creativity.
That 16 players operating at Under-18 level or below have been called up to represent their countries this season is another indicator the Toffees are getting it right. A Premier League 2 title should soon follow.
“We have a very distinct policy here of, yes, it’s about development, but why can’t you win at the same time?” says Unsworth. “We instill that winning mentality in all our players and I, for one, firmly believe you can develop and produce winners at the same time.”
But what is it specifically that makes Everton’s Academy so fruitful? Ask around the staff and a set of recurring themes quickly emerge: Unity, trust, hard graft and, above all else, a love of Everton.
“I think it’s the desire of the staff to get the next player into the first team and on that wall downstairs,” explains the Academy’s local recruitment manager, Ian Lavery. “Most people here don’t see it as a job so they go the extra mile because they care and they want to push the player to be the best they can be. We’re all quite proud of those corridors and trying to predict who the next one up there will be.”
“When I go to other clubs and people talk to me about Everton, they purr, they really purr,” adds Unsworth. “Everybody always asks what it is about Everton? I tell them there’s no magic dust that we sprinkle about the place but we have a set of values, a real way of working, an honesty and a humility about what we do and then you throw in all the expert coaches who know what the journey is like and who know what this club is all about - the fans, the players, the expectations, what it is to be an Evertonian.
“And not only are they excellent coaches but they can call upon the memory bank for examples of how things worked for them. We’ve got some wonderful coaches and probably more ex-players here – the likes of myself, Phil Jevons, Francis Jeffers, John Ebbrell, Sean Lundon, John Doolan, Duncan Ferguson, Kevin Sheedy - than Ajax have and they’re renowned for being a very, very good Academy built in that way. There are people here who know what Ross Barkley looked like and what he was about at 12 years of age and we can call upon that knowledge.
“That’s the core of the Academy for me - it’s the values, it’s that winning mentality, it’s the meaning of what this club is all about and those things are drummed into the players day in and day out.
“The whole process from start to finish is geared for each individual player to make that journey to our first team.”
Sheedy, a league and European Cup Winners’ Cup winner with Everton and long-time manager of the Club’s Under-18s agrees the “family feel” is pivotal.
“Ultimately when you step out at Goodison Park in front of 40,000 really demanding supporters you need to have the understanding of what’s going to be required,” he says. “Tom Davies is a great example where he’s come right the way through the system, been coached by all ex-Everton players along the way and when he’s got in he’s handled the mental side of that, as well as being technically and tactically very strong.”
Equally important, however, is scouting. Not for ready-made additions but those with the potential to become elite sports stars of the future.
Martin Waldron, Everton’s Head of Academy Recruitment (pictured below with Tom Davies, Gethin Jones, Kieran Dowell and Callum Connolly), is charged with overseeing a team of scouts that has grown from “about a dozen” covering the north-west of England when he joined the Toffees 23 years ago to a network of 230. Within that, there are 64 ‘league co-ordinators’, one for each league in the Club’s catchment area and each with a team of scouts working under them. In the past two-and-a-half years, the national and international scouting network has expanded from nine scouts to 109 working across the UK and at all major international youth tournaments.
The goal, now achievable, is to scout every team of each of the 92 Football League clubs from Under-9 to Under-16 every season; effectively to know every single professional youth player in the country.
“We’re always looking at procedures and making sure everything is best in practice,” says Waldron. His team are currently creating a live ‘recruitment dashboard’ to track their work. “I want to sit there and be able to see the percentage of players we know going up every week at the touch of a button."
Paul Johnson has come in from Chelsea as Professional Recruitment manager, while Mark Curran recently joined from Manchester City to be the Greater Manchester Recruitment Officer.
“Manchester has become a hot bed for footballers and I think nearly every one of our age group has got six Manchester boys in it now,” says Waldron. “It used to be hard getting kids from Manchester but now if Everton come calling, you come because the reputation is very good. I’m convinced we’ve got the best Manchester boys here at Everton.”
It’s music to Sheedy’s ears. “If you don’t recruit good players at seven, eight and nine years old then it’s difficult for the coaches to turn them into the likes of Tom Davies. We’ve proved over the years that we can get players in and then proved that we can turn them into first-team players.”
And that is where Koeman comes in.
“You can have the best facility in the world and the most coaches but, at the end of the tunnel, if you don’t get the opportunity to play in our first team then you have no Academy,” says Unsworth. “We’ve got a manager here who wants to play the young kids and throw them in. That is priceless.
“We’ve seen other clubs who have quality, quality players but they never get an opportunity to play in the first team. Here they do and, if it doesn’t work out, then the next player is there banging on the door.”
One of the latest to find that doorway open, Pennington confirms his gratitude to the Dutchman. “When you’ve got a manager who’s courageous enough to put young players in the team, who thinks if you’re good enough you’re old enough, it’s great. The young lads below us must be looking at us and thinking, ‘why can’t I be the next one?’ It shows them there’s a clear pathway into the first team and gives them that incentive to carry on working hard to achieve that. I think it’s a very exciting time to be Blue.”
Despite its success, the one thing Everton’s Academy will never do is rest on its laurels. After all, Nil Satis Nisi Optimum.
Unsworth, Sheedy and Co will continue to pass on their expertise and passion, all the while keeping young men grounded and ready to represent the Club’s crest - and motto - with the dignity demanded should their moment arise. Meanwhile, Waldron will keep up the hunt for the next Rooney, Barkley or Davies so the process can begin again.
“Every time one gets in the first team it puts pressure on you,” he smiles. “Everyone just says, ‘When’s the next one coming?’
“You get a pat on the back for one day and then the next day it’s back to it. But it’s a great job to be in and, like everyone here, I’m proud to do it.”
The above story first appeared in April’s Everton magazine! To buy or download singles issues, click here. To subscribe, click here.