On Sunday morning, in the South Korean city of Suwon, five Everton players lifted the Under-20 World Cup.
Three of them had come all the way through the Blues’ famed Academy; two had been brought in thanks to a rigorous scouting mission to unearth the best young talents not already on the books.
All five had played their part in the Club’s Premier League 2 triumph in 2016/17, while three also appeared for Ronald Koeman’s first team during the campaign.
All five - Callum Connolly, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Kieran Dowell, Jonjoe Kenny and Ademola Lookman - have made their first team and Premier League debuts for Everton.
But what it the secret to the Club’s youth success?
We asked those who have helped nurture our five World Cup winners to find out…
“WE INSTILL A WINNING MENTALITY IN ALL OUR PLAYERS”
The Everton pathway: It’s a phrase anyone who has spent time on the Academy side of Everton’s Finch Farm training ground will have heard.
Yet the concept is not merely a metaphorical one.
Stretching half the length of the Club’s 9,441 square metre Halewood complex is a corridor. Along its walls on both sides are photographs of every player to have come through Everton’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 first half of 2017. In addition to the five World Cup winners, 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.
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 Dowell, Kenny, 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.
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. And then there’s that inaugural Premier League 2 crown.
“We have a very distinct policy here of, yes, it’s about development, but why can’t you win at the same time?” says Under-23s coach David 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.”
“THERE’S NO MAGIC DUST - JUST A SET OF VALUES”
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 and what it is to be an Evertonian.”
Kevin 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.”
“WE’RE ALWAYS LOOKING TO BE BEST IN PRACTICE”
Equally important to the Academy, however, is its recruitment.
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."
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 then there are the likes of Lookman and Calvert-Lewin, those not on the books at 10 or 11 but discovered and brought in to complement the existing talent at the Club's disposal.
“We look at our depth chart in great detail and go all the way down to Under-9s and Under-10s,” says Unsworth. “When we’ve felt the need for a player or found a hole in the depth chart, we’ve identified players and the board have backed us 100 per cent.
“That’s what’s allowed us to bring in the likes of Brendan Galloway, Mason Holgate, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Bassala Sambou and others when we've needed to.”
“WE FIND THE RIGHT CHALLENGE AT THE RIGHT TIME”
Once the talent is pooled, finding the right course (or pathway) for each individual is key.
Connolly and Kenny, for example, have both benefitted from spells out on loan in the Football League.
“We did a little piece of work with our staff looking at people’s journeys and how many games they’ve played and the conclusion was that everybody is different, everybody is individual and therefore different pathways are needed for different players,” explains Unsworth.
“Someone like Matthew Pennington has been a gradual step up through the leagues to training with and then playing for our first team and it’s worked for him. Other players, like Tom Davies, have gone straight into the first team and that’s worked for him.
“It’s a set of circumstances that is always changing and evolving and you constantly have to assess it. That’s what we do and we’re always talking about players every day, every week, every month and we go into detail about every individual’s plan, always trying to be proactive and quickly push them on to the next level.
“What these lads need is a challenge and I think we get that balance right here and find the right challenges for the right players at the right time.”
“IF YOU DON’T GET OPPORTUNITIES, YOU HAVE NO ACADEMY”
Taking the giant stride from promising youngster to legitimate first-team player is the final, and most difficult, challenge.
Yet, in Ronald Koeman, Everton have a manager who has shown a willingness to give those he believes deserve it their chance.
“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.”
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, while Waldron and his team will keep up the hunt for the next Rooney, Barkley or Davies.
“Every time one gets in the first team it puts pressure on you,” says Waldron. “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.”