Season In Focus: Everton's Emerging Talent Get Chance To Shine

by Paul McNamara

What next? If not quite the elephant in the room, that particular question sharpened its elbows and butted into any conversation about the success of England’s Under-20 football team in 2017.

The nation’s young footballers became world champions in South Korea, counting Argentina and Italy among their illustrious victims on the way to landing this country's first global title in 51 years.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin had 345 minutes of Premier League football in his legs when he scored the only goal of a tense final against Venezuela.

Pertinently, Everton forward Calvert-Lewin’s top-flight experience accounted for 31.5 per cent of the combined 1,094 minutes played in the division by the 13 Englishmen who featured in the showpiece match in Suwon.

Conventional wisdom had it that those players would return home to find their pathway to first-team action strewn with obstacles; primarily in the twin-shapes of established stars and managers working under extreme pressure and reluctant to gamble on emerging talent, with its rough edges and paucity of experience.

Calvert-Lewin paid no heed to the gloomy forecasts, though. He had joined Everton in August 2016, ostensibly arriving as a gifted but raw attacker, set to continue his development with the Toffees Under-23s.

The former Sheffield United player quickly appreciated he was at a club which rewarded promise and application, his first-team debut coming four months after he signed at Goodison Park.

Ryan Cresswell was a centre-back at Northampton Town when Calvert-Lewin spent five months on loan with the League Two team in 2015/16.

He remains close to Calvert-Lewin and was a guest of the 21-year-old at Everton’s opening game of last season against Stoke City.

Cresswell’s phone rang in the hours before kick-off. Calvert-Lewin was on the other end of the line.

“Cressy, I’m playing right-wing back,” said the Everton player.

Cresswell teased his friend about trying to imitate David Beckham and then watched on as Calvert-Lewin sent over an arcing, deep cross, landed slap, bang on the forehead of Wayne Rooney, who powered in the game’s only goal. It was a delivery Beckham would have been perfectly content to call his own.

“When I met him in the Northampton changing rooms, would I have said to you he would whip that ball in for Wayne Rooney to score on the opening day of a Premier League season?” reflected Cresswell.

“Absolutely no chance.”

Above all, Calvert-Lewin’s selection on the campaign’s first day was an indication of which way the wind was blowing. Everton had been busy in the transfer market but were in no mood to row back on their commitment to trusting young players.

Calvert-Lewin was deployed as Everton’s lone striker in the next match, at Manchester City.

His performance, laced with skill, intelligent movement and controlled aggression, belied his tender years.

Additionally, hindsight sheds Calvert-Lewin’s display at the Etihad Stadium in even more favourable light. It transpires that the rookie striker’s relentless frontrunning and physicality was spreading panic throughout a team that would shatter a phalanx of Premier League records en route to being crowned champions.

“He ran Manchester City’s centre halves (Vincent Kompany, John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi, owners of a shared 153 international caps and 11 domestic titles) into the ground,” added Cresswell.

Calvert-Lewin finished the campaign having made 44 appearances in all competitions – second only to goalkeeper Jordan Pickford’s tally of 46.

The 1,873 minutes Calvert-Lewin played in the top-flight – across 32 outings – is an especially relevant figure, given it represents an increase of 779 minutes on the total England’s entire Under-20 World Cup-winning side had accumulated prior to their global triumph.

Pickford, ever present in the Premier League following his move from Sunderland 11 months ago – one of only 10 players in the competition to be on the field for every minute of 2017/18 – claimed the Club’s young-player-of-the-season prize.

The previous campaign’s winner, Davies, was on the pitch for 1,896 minutes – spanning 33 games – of Everton’s top-flight season.

His 59 Premier League appearances to date is 55 more than Manchester United’s 11-times Premier League-winning great Paul Scholes managed before his 20th birthday. Steven Gerrard, capped 114 times by England, had played 41 Premier League matches when he waved farewell to his teenage years.

“Tom has reached 50 games now, which is the mark where you can start to really feel you have established yourself,” said former Everton winger Kevin Kilbane

“Once you get to 50 games and beyond there is a bit of pressure on you, because there is an expectancy that comes with that.

“And as he gets better and better through his career, he has to live up to those expectations and the burden which comes with that.

“He is at the right club and in the right environment to help him take that load. And I think he will be fine. He has massively impressed me with the way he has continued to work at his game and tried to improve.”

Kilbane’s assertion that Everton is the ideal home for high-quality young footballers is echoed by Steve Watson, another ex-Blue, who witnessed first-hand the blossoming of a teenage Rooney and fellow homegrown pair Leon Osman and Tony Hibbert.

Furthermore, Watson has been especially impressed by the rapid strides taken by Kenny this term. The 21-year-old right-back, who was on the pitch for every minute of his country’s World Cup campaign last year, and will join Davies and another Everton youngster Kieran Dowell in England's Under-21 squad for this summer's Toulon Tournament, started 17 Premier League matches following his full-debut against Arsenal back in October.

“He is a solid footballer, decent on the ball, an excellent crosser and he has that bit of grit to him,” said Watson.

“People still want that in the game. It is a huge asset to have that toughness about you in English football.

“And the Everton kids are brought up with that. They are developed as well at Everton as anywhere in the country.

“They are brought through with technical ability but also with discipline and manners. They are good young men when they come out of Everton’s set up.”


Beni Baningime and Morgan Feeney, both 19 and graduates of the Toffees' renowned Academy, made first-team debuts in the past season.

“You see players breaking through and think, ‘I am going to be next’,” said Baningime, who joined the Club aged nine and embodies the motivational power of Everton's famed pathway.

“When Tom Davies broke through, after playing with him in the age groups, I thought, ‘He is a great player but if you work hard as well, you can be like him’.

“It is great when people have so much faith in you. I am lucky that I have had that right the way through the Academy.”

Midfielder Baningime was selected at right-back when Everton travelled to play Apollon Limassol in the Europa League back in December.

Under-23 duo Harry Charsley and Fraser Hornby had their first starts for the Club on that night in Cyprus, with the callow trio of Nathan Broadhead, Anthony Gordon and Alex Denny making debuts off the bench.

“I don’t think I am a right-back… but I am glad I came through it and it was a great experience,” says Baningime of being asked to operate outside his comfort zone.

“It speaks of your character, because some players would take the attitude, ‘I am not playing right-back, I would rather be on the bench’.

“But I would play anywhere… right-back, that’s fine.

“Everton is a great place to be as a young player. If you work hard, you will get your chance.”

What next? was a loaded question 12 months ago, layered with connotations of thwarted ambitions and blind alleys.

Ask it in the context of Everton’s young footballers, though, and ‘What next?’ conjures thoughts of opportunity and aspiration. Of a Club welded to a tradition of giving its next generation of players the chance to thrive.

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