The ever-fascinating Leighton Baines reveals the predominant driving factor during his career and discusses his unrelenting desire to hone his talents on and off the pitch…
A premium footballer who has remained at the peak of his profession for well over a decade, that Leighton Baines’ appetite for self-improvement remains as insatiable in his 13th season at Everton as when he joined the Club in 2007 underlines the character of the man.
It is an attitude that allowed Baines to excel in Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Manchester United at Goodison Park.
The Everton left-back - making his fifth Premier League appearance of the season - was exemplary throughout, blending enterprising surges forward with polished defensive work.
He won five duels, created three chances and had more touches of the ball than any other Everton player (66).
Baines provides an insight into the mentality that underpinned such a display.
“One consistent for me is fear of failure and letting other people down,” Baines explains.
“Even now, pushing myself, in case I’m needed. As a player, you can’t go, ‘Aw well, I don’t really play regularly anymore – I can switch off a bit’
“I go the other way and say, ‘I’m not getting the games, and that’s where you get your match fitness, so what else can I do to replace that?’.
“I’m always working with the staff here. I’ll ask, ‘When is good for me to top-up some running, or it could be, ‘When is the best time to get in a bit of strength work?’.
“Other things come and go, but that fear of failure has been a constant. And it’s healthy. It’s not a negative thing.”
Baines, who turned 35 in December, looks in prime condition as he chats to evertonfc.com on a bright, yet bitingly cold morning at USM Finch Farm.
In a recent interview, talented Everton youngster Anthony Gordon was asked who his toughest opponent was. His answer was unequivocal.
“In training, Leighton Baines,” said the Academy graduate. “People think that, as he has got older, he may have slowed down a bit, but he hasn’t lost anything. He’s unbelievable.”
In Baines, you sense Gordon has an ideal mentor as he seeks to establish himself as an Everton first-team player.
Baines explains how the professionalism of two individuals in particular had an inspirational effect during his early years at the Club.
“When I first came here it was Joleon [Lescott],” he says. “I got a sense early on that he was different, his application and his drive. I kind of piggy-backed onto him then for a bit.
“I watched him and we became very close friends. I looked up to him, really. He had a good work ethic and a strong mindset. He looked after me a bit.
“After that, there was Sylvain [Distin]. Although he was an amazing athlete, you look at him – he’s a big, strong guy – and you think, naturally he’s physically gifted. But what you wouldn’t see is that when no-one else was really here [at the training ground], he was in the gym.
“And he wasn’t just there lifting weights, he was doing his hurdles, his jumps and biometric stuff.
“He was still one of the strongest and fastest guys in the team, even at 35, 36.”
Baines details how sustaining the fitness levels required to perform in an era with increasing athletic demands offers a unique challenge.
“You get to an age where nature is going to take its toll and that’s natural,” he says.
“It can be hard, that. Because you work harder to maybe be a little bit less physically than what you once were.
“That willingness to work harder comes from wanting to be healthy, but also understanding the responsibility of the job. And it’s worth it. In short, it’s what you’ve agreed to do when you sign a contract.
“And like a lot of things in life, you may lose something, but you gain something else in so many ways.
“Your awareness of what is needed from you on a football pitch is better. The more time you spend doing something and being around it, the more you know.”
Baines’ immaculate ball-striking has remained at a consistently exceptional standard throughout his career – an attribute the Kirkby-born defender showcased to devastating effect when he hit a spectacular last-gasp equaliser in December’s Carabao Cup quarter-final against Leicester City.
The visceral explosion of noise and emotion sparked by his 25-yard thunderbolt crashing into the Park End goal has been unsurpassed at Goodison Park so far this campaign.
In contrast to the impassioned celebrations of the roaring thousands inside Goodison – as well as his elated Everton teammates – Baines appeared the coolest man in the stadium as he waved for the ball to be returned to the centre spot to get the contest back under way.
“I don’t like celebrating too much,” he says. “Some people used to mention that to me, so a couple of times I tried to force something.
“But it didn’t feel quite right. It’s just a moment where you become slightly aware that it’s about you, and I never really want it to be about me.”
Asked to reveal his thought process in the seconds before unleashing his power-packed, precision effort, his answer is reflective of an individual revered by colleagues past and present as a team player to the core.
“In those situations, I am almost always looking for a pass,” he says. “Any goal that I’ve scored like that, it’s probably almost always been a last resort.
“Feeling that I can’t see a better option, so I’ll take it on.”
Baines receiving possession within sight of goal naturally elicits a collective roar of ‘Shoot!’ from thousands of watching Evertonians. How does he resist the temptation?
“Every now and then you might get sucked into one because of that and have a bit of a snapshot, but not very often for me,” he says.
“I’ll never really arrive into that situation, with that pre-meditated: ‘If I get the ball here, I’ll be able to shoot’.
“If there isn’t anything on, then I’ll fall back on that.
“But I’m always looking for something else.”
I’m always looking for something else.
It’s a comment which resonates when in conversation with Baines, who explains how his hunger to learn stretches to areas outside of his football expertise.
“I burn my own brain out!
“I watch a lot of YouTube tutorials, trying to learn how to do different things…or I could be in a music phase and I’m thinking, ‘How have they made that, why is that line there?’
“It could be something visual, with my photography, whether it’s trying to find out how to harness lighting better, or whether it’s motion, or watching filmmakers and trying to find out how to do that sort of thing. I wish I could write well, too.
“It’s the same [attitude] when it comes to football. If I’m talking to our fitness and medical guys about our programme, I will always ask, “Why?’ in relation to how that work translates onto the pitch.
“It could be, ‘Why are we doing this today, and not tomorrow or yesterday?’. I’ve got that curiosity.
“It’s just leaning on the people who have got that knowledge, being guided and then being willing to put in the work.”
That Baines supplements his outstanding footballing ability with a desire to extract the maximum from his talents speaks to why only 12 men in Everton’s 142-year history have made more first-team appearances than his running total of 417.
When called upon as the Blues strive to sustain their push for European qualification between now and the end of the season, Evertonians can be safe in the knowledge their iconic left-back will be primed for battle.