Jonjoe Kenny returned to Everton for pre-season after celebrating another significant success on the international scene. He found himself scrapping for Premier League football and reacted in characteristically mature and determined fashion…
Jonjoe Kenny flips his mind back more than four years to a sultry early evening in Malta.
With dusk falling over the Ta’Qali National Stadium, and a penalty shootout reaching its climax, Everton’s young right-back fearlessly crashed home the kick which beat Holland and won the Under-17 European Championship for England.
Of that Young Lions class of 2014, Kenny is one of three outliers, along with Lewis Cook of Bournemouth and Liverpool’s Joe Gomez. That trio play Premier League football. The rest can be found scattered around England’s lower leagues, from Peterborough to Plymouth, or with their noses pressed against the windows at top-flight clubs, outsiders with scant hope of breaking in.
“I have been there, where you think, ‘I am ready’, and you probably are ready,” says Kenny. “A lot of lads around my age – 20 and 21 – are at a crossroads and everyone says they need to be playing games.
“And it’s true. You want to be playing as much as possible at a young age and getting as much experience as you can.
“Because it is tough. When you are called on you have to be ready and bang on it.”
Bang on it. It is a phrase Kenny uses a lot.
He stresses the three words, clipped and meaningful, as he describes his mindset on driving through the USM Finch Farm gates each morning.
“I don’t want to be thinking I have made it, I am far away from that,” says Kenny.
“I need to be coming in bang on it every day, doing extras and making sure I keep on top of myself.”
By anybody’s calculations, Kenny would have scored very good grades for his work last season.
He started 23 games, 17 of them in the Premier League, having entered the campaign with 73 minutes’ top-flight experience, spread across 12 months and two matches.
Kenny, then, could have felt his nose was knocked out of joint when he did not feature in any of Everton’s opening four games this term.
Rather than stamp his feet, the right-back opened his eyes to the opportunity presented by his situation.
“When you are playing regularly it is difficult to be doing stuff to improve your game because you want to be fresh for the match,” says Kenny.
“But I got told by a lot of ex-professionals, ‘While you are not playing, work on the things you need to work on’.
“That is what I tried to do, I did extra crossing, for example, and kept myself fit and healthy.
“With the new manager coming in I had to make sure I was bang on it.
“My attitude has never dropped with any manager I’ve had. I wanted to get in the team, I couldn’t be moping around. I had to keep doing what I do.”
What Kenny does rather well is win. He added an Under-20 World Cup success to that European Championship victory. The defender captained Everton Under-23s in their 2016-17 championship-winning campaign. A loan spell at Oxford United the previous term ended with Kenny celebrating promotion from League Two. Earlier in that season he spent a brief period with Wigan, who would claim the League One title.
In the summer just gone, Kenny, primarily operating on the right of a back three, was an integral cog in the England Under-21 side which won the Toulon Tournament.
He took himself back to age-group football in August, playing for Everton Under-23s against Swansea City at Goodison Park, while Marco Silva’s first team were 260 miles away taking on Bournemouth.
Four days later he was back at Goodison, excelling in the Carabao Cup against Rotherham United.
“I asked to play the ‘23s game to get some minutes on the pitch,” says Kenny.
“I spoke with the manager about it. It was not for anyone else, it was for me.
“I wanted to get as much as I could in the bank.
“And it was a good job I did, it helped me physically and I felt a lot better going into the Rotherham game.
“Anyone can go and run in training. Match fitness is completely different because of the stuff that happens in a game: little knock downs, slideys, it is tiring.”
When the door opened for Kenny to return to Everton’s first team he stormed through it with some gusto.
Renowned for his tenacity and force of tackle – “Your typical Scouse full-back, very aggressive and takes no prisoners,” is former Liverpool and England defender Jamie Carragher’s verdict on the 21-year-old – Kenny’s defending has been in fabulous order.
Silva’s expansive football demands full-backs raid upfield, too. When they arrive in advanced positions, they must slip into the attacking unit, be comfortable participating in slick passing interchanges and move intelligently. There is a requirement, too, to provide premium supply into the box.
Kenny is confident but modest and would no sooner blow his own trumpet than shirk a 50/50.
The Kirkdale boy is, though, savouring the chance to show what he can do. In his first Premier League game this season against West Ham United, he whipped in a tracer bullet of a cross for Gylfi Sigurdsson to score.
“That is what I want to be doing,” says Kenny. “I am high up the pitch now and it is not just about putting the ball anywhere, you want to be picking out players.
“That is the level you have to reach. I want to be getting more assists. Leighton Baines has got tons and tons of assists because he is picking people out and putting in great balls.
“People might mistake me for just a defensive right-back but with our style of play, now, I can get forward and show people how good I am.
“I want to be bombing forward and putting in crosses. You have to keep the back door shut but if I have the chance to go forward I will.”
Kenny recalls his first Premier League match against Arsenal at Goodison 12 months ago with mixed emotions. There is understandable pride but it was a difficult afternoon, the away side winning 5-2.
“We weren’t great,” says Kenny. “I was right wing-back and wasn’t great with my positioning at the time.”
He demonstrated a good level of defensive acumen against the same opponents last month, his strength and instinctive positioning consistently shutting the door on Arsenal’s express attackers at the Emirates Stadium. Kenny also derived a certain amount of pleasure from winning a series of headers in front of his man at the back post.
“I was taught that from when I started to play right-back… with David Unsworth and the Under-23s,” says Kenny.
“You have to keep your body open because people run in there, it is where most goals are scored, I enjoy it when the ball comes in at the back post and I can show my defensive skills.”
Kenny has a sharp appreciation of his own game. He is reflective and analytical, even if studying footage of his games can be uncomfortable.
“I watch my clips back, which I didn’t do too much last season,” he says.
“I watch what I am doing and who I am playing against, assess their strengths and weaknesses.
“But it is tough watching your own clips back when you have not done great.
“That is what I have started to do more, watch where I haven’t been great and then try not to repeat those mistakes.
“If training does not go well I am the type of person who takes it home with me.
“I have a great family around me, my mum and dad and sister, they help me out and I speak to them a lot.
“Even when I have a good game, if I make one bad pass, it is frustrating.
“You want everything to be perfect.
“But I have played a lot of games and I am getting a lot better at letting it go and focusing on the next one. Not everything is going to go your way.
“I am learning how to deal with that a lot better.”
Kenny’s learning started when he joined Everton’s Academy aged nine, his education accelerating when he joined Oxford United for the final four months of 2015-16. An 18-year-old beginner, he landed in the middle of a promotion race and played 17 games – including the last three, which his loan side won to go up with one point to spare.
“I went in to replace a right-back who had returned to his parent club,” says Kenny, “They all loved him – he was very good.
“I was a young lad and had big shoes to fill.
“I just tried to show what I could do. I was a completely different type of player from the one I replaced but I wanted to impose my style of play on the team.
“They were flying when I went in, so I was a little bit nervous.
“Fingers could have been pointed at me if things went wrong. But I just went in, played my games and loved my time there.”
He would “love” to score his first Everton goal, too. Kenny netted six times for the Under-23s, so has he given any thought to how he might react should he strike for the seniors, having gone close in last weekend's 2-1 win at Leicester?
“It would be a dream to score a goal for Everton. I might go a bit mad, do you know what I mean?” he says, wide-eyed.
“When the time comes, you see how you feel.
“It will happen and I will love the moment but right now I just want to keep performing and be winning games.”
Kenny talks of winning with the conviction and intent of a man who has amassed a treasure trove of prizes which would be the envy of players a decade his senior.
“That is what I am in the game for, to be winning trophies,” he says.
“I love winning. I was always a kid who wanted to win and it might have come across as annoying when I was younger – but that is how it works.
“And I still feel like that.
“When you get beaten it is frustrating and not a nice place to be.
“But when you are winning, there is no better feeling. You want to experience it as much as you can.
“The lows are not nice, so you need to enjoy the highs.”
Kenny, he confides, stocks his hoard of medals “all in ours, I think I have a few in my room”.
Advance the idea it must be tempting to admire the cache in his quieter moments and you receive an insight into a singularly driven character.
“Nah, at the time I loved it but I want to keep on winning more,” says Kenny.
“There is no better feeling than winning big trophies.
“You don’t want it to stop, you want to keep winning and winning.
“And that is what I want to be doing at Everton.”
His attitude, to borrow a phrase, is bang on.