Steven Pienaar says the influence of uber-professional Leighton Baines enabled him to reach the peak of his powers with Everton.
Left-siders Pienaar and Baines joined within 18 days of each other in summer 2007 and over nine years and 185 games together formed an intuitive and potent on-pitch understanding.
The enduring image of the two in full flight is of defenders being given the slip by the evasive Pienaar and Baines's mobility and subtle passing interchanges.
South African Pienaar, an exceptionally skilful winger, bought from Borussia Dortmund, reckons his formidable long-time ally’s legs could have propelled him through a minimum of two more Premier League seasons.
And it was the defender’s much-feted endurance and dedication that rubbed off on his older colleague to consequential effect.
“Leighton was one of the fittest and best and most professional players I played with,” Pienaar told evertonfc.com.
“He was always in the gym, before and after training, and had a healthy lifestyle.
“I was surprised he retired, to be honest, I thought he could go on without any issues for two more years, at least.
“He used to drag me to the gym with him, I was one of those who didn’t like it.
“He was always wanting me to do extra work – which I had never been keen to do.
“My first impression when he came was that he was quiet and kept to himself.
“But straight away you could see in every training session he was eager and full of passion."
Pienaar was first through the door 13 years ago, initially coming on loan from Bundesliga club Dortmund after emerging in a free-spirited young Ajax team.
Baines arrived from Wigan Athletic soon after but it wasn’t for another 12 months – after Pienaar’s stay was made permanent at the back end of 2007/08 – that the duo really hit their mutual groove.
Pienaar, 38, recalls combining with by turns Baines, Joleon Lescott and Nuno Valente on Everton's left flank in his first campaign.
But with Portuguese Valente sidelined and Lescott steadily fixing himself at centre-half, the Baines-Pienaar axis had the platform to flourish.
It is only reflecting from a distance, however, that Pienaar fully appreciates the unique nature of his relationship with a player nearly three years his junior.
Pienaar actually rates the former England full-back's defending as his strongest quality but cites two goals against Newcastle United as his favourite Baines moments nonetheless.
The first, at Goodison Park in September 2012, saw Baines continue a forward run to collect a sumptuous back-heeled return from Pienaar and shoot across goalkeeper Steve Harper to complete a 17-pass move.
Pienaar had the best seat in the house four months later when Baines crashed in a 30-yard free-kick at Newcastle’s St James’s Park home.
“People said how good a partnership it was but you never realise while you are playing,” said Pienaar.
“I played a few games with Leighton in pre-season [ahead of 2008/09] and most of the time we were on the same team in training.
“I am always attracted to players who want to play a passing game – and it started to click.
“But we never said anything to each other about it.
“I had a similar relationship with [Tunisia international full-back] Hatem Trabelsi down the right at Ajax.
“When it clicks, the other player is willing to work hard for you, and you want to do the same in return.
“Looking back at some of the goals we created together, you maybe appreciate what we did more.
“There were a few good ones in there.
“My personal favourite was at home against Newcastle, a small combination, Leighton came in from the left, we played a one-two and he scored.
“For the free-kick, I was standing next to him and saw the ball’s movement all the way.
“That was a beautiful goal.
“People would say his attacking ability was his best attribute – but I think it was his defending, how he read the game.
“He wasn’t the biggest but he was one of the most difficult guys to play against.
“He was just really good at defending and that is what I enjoyed about him.
“When I had him behind me, I knew if I lost the ball, he was always there to tidy up my mess.
“The attacking part is a plus point – he was so good at going forward and giving assists.
“And I have never seen a defender score so many beautiful goals.”
Pienaar and Baines were separated for one year when the forward went to Tottenham Hotspur in January 2011.
He returned 12 months later and the two men promptly picked up where they’d left off, their first game reunited at Goodison Park a 2-0 win over Chelsea, with Pienaar on the scoresheet.
They effortlessly rekindled their friendship, too, and Pienaar enjoys talking about Baines the person as much as Baines the footballer.
“Evertonians are very open and look after their family and that is what you got from Leighton,” said Pienaar.
“He was always there to help.
“You could call him late at night when you were going through your own problems and he would answer the phone and was always willing to listen.
“Leighton is one of those who had time for all the players and was always ready to listen.
“He also had that dry humour... when it was a serious conversation he would make you laugh.
“But he was someone you would go to for advice.
“I would ask him where I should and shouldn’t go in Liverpool!
“The best thing about him?
“Wanting to help people, always laughing, I never one saw him angry in training.
“He was just a happy guy.
“He got on well with everyone, the groundsman and security guard at the gate.
“And when we went out, he was always the one who made sure I got home!
“If he was playing for a team consistently pushing for the top four, people would have realised how good he was.
“We knew how good he was at Everton from the day he walked in the doors for the first time.”
Pienaar played 229 games and scored 24 goals across his two spells with Everton and departed for the second time following the end of his contact in summer 2016.
After one year with Sunderland and a short spell with Bidvest Wits in South Africa he quit playing in March 2018.
It was a decision Pienaar wrestled with for some time – but he reckons Baines, with his eclectic interests, will manage the transition into retirement with little bother.
That said, with his supporter’s hat on, Pienaar hopes his ex-teammate takes Everton up on their offer of a non-playing position at the Club.
🔵 | Leighton Baines has announced his retirement from football.— Everton (@Everton) July 26, 2020
Thank you for everything, Leighton. 💙 pic.twitter.com/mhYYWiPHHB
“Everton will benefit if they can keep Bainesy around,” added Pienaar.
“He has played at the highest level and been one of the Premier League’s best left-backs.
“All the young players – and new players coming to the Club – would get so much from having him there.
“But not playing won’t be a problem for him.
“He wasn’t a football-crazy person, the sort who would sit up and watch all sorts of games on telly.
“He would play and train 100 per cent but then be with his family and music.
“When I think about Leighton, the first thing that comes to my mind us his music.
“He was always with his guitar.
“He would make me listen to songs I’d never heard.
“I was saying, ‘This is some strange music you listen to’.
“But I want to wish him all the best and say congratulations on everything he accomplished.
“To play for 13 years for the team you supported as a kid and represent your country at a World Cup is some achievement.
“Now, he can have time with his kids and enjoy his music.
“Welcome to life, Leighton.”