John Ebbrell was identified as one of England’s best 16 footballers at the age of 14.
He was, to use his description, a “thinker” when he played the game.
The idea he might have employed his perception and standing to ask questions of authority elicits a laugh, nonetheless.
Ebbrell, for instance, was “in awe” of Dave Sexton, his “uncompromising” coach at the FA’s Lilleshall National School of Excellence.
Back at Everton, Colin Harvey’s instructions were “consistent and non-negotiable”.
“It was a case of, ‘We are doing this – if you don’t do it, you don’t play’,” says Ebbrell.
“That was the culture and elite environment of that time.”
Ebbrell’s upbringing served him well. He played 265 times for Everton – “my club” – after a First-Team debut at 17 and progressively establishing himself in Harvey and Howard Kendall’s easy-on-the-eye sides as he exited his teenage years.
Kendall and Harvey and Sexton were innovators, so it stands to reason that Ebbrell will apply elements of the three men’s principles in his new position as Everton Head of Academy Coaching.
But Ebbrell will accommodate the sea change in personalities of today’s emerging players, too.
“They look at things differently from how we did,” says Ebbrell.
“They are very respectful and they listen.
“But, more often than not, the question is coming: ‘Why?’
“That is great, because as coaches we have to have the reasons why.”
Ebbrell is at the vanguard of ensuring the message to every Everton Academy player is consistent and supported by a clear structure and vision.
The Club’s plan – overseen by Director of Football Marcel Brands – is for every Everton team from Under-12 to Under-23 to share a recognisable style of play.
It will wed characteristics of the best Everton sides with modern techniques and evolve to remain in front of trends.
“We are looking for everything on the pitch to be done quicker, for the ball to move faster and for us to press with more intensity,” says Ebbrell.
“We want to improve technical speed and accuracy.
“To play in key areas at the highest level, you must have magnificent skills and be able to perform them quickly.
“It is right we take that into the Academy and make sure we are seeing those qualities at all ages.
“We want to align all age groups in what we do.
“My main task is to make sure there is consistency, certainly from Under-12 to Under-23, which feeds into what the First Team needs.”
Ebbrell worked in a similar Head of Academy Coaching role at Tranmere Rovers before coming back to Everton as an Academy coach in 2015.
He briefly managed the Club’s Under-18 team, then at the start of 2016/17 was appointed right-hand man to Under-23 boss and former Goodison Park teammate David Unsworth.
The pair have twice overseen Premier League 2 title-winning campaigns – in 2016/17 and 2018/19 – and weeks before confirmation of Ebbrell’s new assignment, Unsworth accepted the job of Director of Academy.
“When I first went to work with David, I thought, ‘This is me, this is what I’ve been brought up on, this is how Everton play’,” says Ebbrell.
“There was an instant connection when we were on the pitch as players.
“And as we’ve grown to work together, it has become a joy.
“David challenges me a lot, keeps me on my toes.
“We think slightly differently at times but we have such a great relationship we work that out.
“He is a very intelligent coach. That part [maintaining strong working relationship] is easy.
“The hard part is getting my role absolutely perfect.
“That is the key challenge.
“It is going to take a big effort but I know Dave will support me and be involved in a lot of the process.”
The beginning of that process for Ebbrell entailed observing training sessions through the age groups to gain an overview of “how and what the players are coached”.
It is indicative of the One Club approach championed by Brands that in addition to working closely with every age-group coach from Under-12 upwards, Ebbrell will forge strong links with Tom Kearney, who heads Everton’s teams from Under-9 to Under-11.
This week marks the start of Ebbrell having an active part in sessions beyond his usual Under-23 remit, which he will continue next to manager Unsworth.
“Giving quick direction about subtle shifts of emphasis,” says Ebbrell of his early involvement with younger players and their coaches.
“Essentially,” he continues, “we need to make sure we create the exact game model we want, then fit that into all ages.
“I know where we’re going with this – so I very quickly want to get some of the identity we’re looking for on the grass.”
Ebbrell knows what an Everton player should look like.
More than two decades of his 51 years have been spent with the Club as a player or coach and in Harvey, Kendall and Joe Royle, he was managed by three of the greatest Evertonians.
Ebbrell was a doughty midfielder, unflinching in the tackle and unfussy in possession.
Beside Joe Parkinson and Barry Horne, he was one of Royle’s mid-1990s Dogs of War, a label which stuck and did a disservice to three players who were much more than your stereotypical engine-room enforcers.
Searching for an example of methods which have survived the passage of time, Ebbrell alights on a favoured mantra of Royle, whose own fondness for flair and enterprise was sometimes overlooked because his teams could play at 100 miles per hour.
“When we were moving the ball,” begins Ebbrell, “Joe always wanted it on the floor and fast.
“That is still relevant today.
“If you can move the ball quickly on the floor, you can attack teams at speed, suck teams in and go somewhere else really fast.
“That is so important.”
On the issue of communicating to Academy players what is expected from an Everton footballer, Ebbrell makes a pertinent point.
It is a subtle process, he explains, nothing like the scene of easy imagination which depicts Ebbrell, or Unsworth or Professional Development Coach Leighton Baines standing at the front of a room beseeching players to tackle and scrap and run and pass the ball quickly and purposefully and imaginatively.
The former Everton midfielder Stephen Hughes recently related how coming from Arsenal he was astonished at how a meaningful tackle ignited the Goodison public.
Ebbrell never needed his eyes opening to that. Nor the Evertonians’ preference for attractive and incisive football.
Emerging behind Peter Reid and Paul Bracewell, he saw style and substance consistently embodied at the Club’s old Bellefield training ground.
Those qualities were there every day in the “brilliant but simple” sessions overseen by Harvey and Kendall.
A characteristic binding together those Everton icons was their appetite for winning.
Ebbrell still winces when he thinks about fatally erring in any training ground game of head tennis while on the same team as Reid or Bracewell.
“They’d let you know,” says Ebbrell. “They were just driven.
“Every great player, from every era, is driven to be the best, or to be the best they possibly can be.
“Why wouldn’t we, in the right way, pass that on to all our younger players?
“All through my time at Everton, there has been a winning mentality, right through the Club… and I suspect it stretches back long before then.
“There is nothing wrong with players wanting to win in everything they do and for us to create a culture and environment where they are allowed to compete every day, to practice winning and making sure they win.
“And to experience how bad it feels to lose.
“That is what nearly every sport is about, certainly football at the top end.
“We need to make sure that mentality is absolutely at the forefront of everything we do.
“How you deliver to a player what they need to play for Everton is very, very important.
“We have lots of ex-players who can deliver it – but it must be reflected in every facet of how we play.
“There are times us coaches instinctively look at each other because we know how Goodison would react if a player does something we’ve just seen.
“We all know certain things are really appreciated at Goodison and others aren’t.
“Yes, you need the communication skills to point them in the right direction.
“But it is far better if it is out on the grass, if it is in their training every day, in how we play in the matches.
“That is the key to learning.”
Ebbrell’s courage on the field – and the mettle of his contemporaries – was measured exclusively in physical bravery.
Football authorities have employed a mission creep tactic to tweaking rules which have steadily changed the sport.
Finesse and skill and flair count for more than size and strength and a willingness to put your foot in.
“Being resilient and tough and hard-working and having the desire to not be beaten are really good values,” says Ebbrell.
“Those are massive things for Evertonians.
“Not losing tackles, things like that are very important.
“In my day, bravery was a big tackle in the middle of the pitch.
“There is still an element of that.
“But bravery today is to receive the ball on the edge of your own six-yard box and play.
“That takes great mental strength.
“Carlo Ancelotti has introduced a magnificent way of playing out from the back and moving the ball.
“That is something I will be looking to bring into the Academy – we have our own values but we have a world-class coach at the head of the Club and it would be wrong to not take on board as much as we can from him and integrate it into our younger players.
“We will be – and we are – making sure our players have that special bravery to take the ball in those areas.”
Ebbrell was among the inaugural intake when the FA’s Lilleshall National School opened its doors in Shropshire 36 years ago.
The players were chosen following exhaustive trials and housed at the centre, where they received elite coaching alongside studying at nearby Idsall Comprehensive School.
Despite being “completely homesick for 18 months of the two years” Ebbrell was one of only two players from his class – along with former Manchester United striker Mark Robins – to have a professional career.
Ebbrell reflects on a “straight-line journey” from leaving Lilleshall to Everton’s First Team and in doing so probably does himself down a little bit.
His senior debut came in March 1987, against Charlton Athletic in the unloved Full Members Cup.
He waited nearly two years for his next chance, coming off the bench to play against Wimbledon at Goodison Park in February 1989.
Additionally, Ebbrell was one of those with the thorny task of trying to fill the colossal boots of Reid and Bracewell.
He can empathise, then, with players of all ages, in all manner of situations.
“You draw on that, especially when you have conversations with them,” says Ebbrell.
“Only last night I spoke to a young player who is down in some way.
“The journey is never perfect.
“I had doubts and insecurities, wondered, ‘Am I good enough?’
“It is important to understand, even if you think a player is doing really well and looks happy – and it looks like he believes he is doing really well – there might be other things happening that aren’t immediately obvious.
“I look back on Lilleshall and think, ‘I hung in there, I stayed’.
“The easiest thing would have been to ring my mum or dad to come and get me.
“I wanted to do it so many times.
“But it is part of that resilience and not giving in.
“I was desperate to be a footballer.
“That is relevant to our young players now.
“How much do they want to be a footballer?
“Equally, Everton has always kept young players’ feet on the ground.
“We want them to do well but not to get ahead of themselves – you need to keep working at your game.
“Part of the culture created here over a long time is that young players know about Everton’s values and work ethic and that we are all in it together.”
Complications following ankle surgery forced Ebbrell’s playing retirement at the desperately young age of 29, two years after leaving Everton for Sheffield United in early 1997.
He stepped away from football’s coalface, briefly keeping his hand in by scouting for former Everton manager Walter Smith but ultimately concentrating on establishing a football agency business.
Ebbrell agreed to a coaching post with Tranmere Rovers’ junior teams in 2008, advancing to have nearly four years in the Prenton Park Head of Academy Coaching post.
There was a lot of introspection in the intervening period, as Ebbrell pursued what he calls a “roundabout journey”.
“When I spoke to family members, they always felt I should be in coaching,” says Ebbrell.
“But the fact I didn’t go straight into it has become a positive.
“I had time to think and evaluate what type of coach I wanted to be – and what frustrated me when I saw certain things.
“I wanted to challenge players but in the right way.
“A lot of England teams at that time weren’t playing on the floor and through midfield.
“It wasn’t intricate and fast.
“Midfield players weren’t getting turned on the ball or receiving it in difficult areas.
“That’s what I felt we needed and academies and the FA have addressed those issues.
“You don’t have midfield players now who can’t handle the ball, who can’t receive it from the back four, or take it under pressure.
“That was something I looked at and it was a passion.”
Ebbrell began learning under former Manchester United manager Sexton, his lead coach at Lilleshall – “He was a brilliant coach because he kept it so simple, I took so much from him” – and has been absorbing information since.
From Harvey and Kendall and Royle and from former teammates. He namechecks Andrei Kanchelskis; “A top, top player; demanding but he won games for us single-handedly,” says Ebbrell, chuckling at memories of the stroppy but brilliant Ukranian winger.
“The game has changed but key elements haven’t,” continues Ebbrell.
“You don’t take everything from those great coaches.
“But you certainly take some things and continue what you believe to be right from the best teams you played in.
“There are definitely things I look at and think, ‘We used to do it that way, does that fit in here?’
“I wasn’t a great player – but I played with some great players and you take little things from them, how they were every day and their strengths.
“It forms part of the whole body of who you are in terms of your football.”
Ebbrell’s experience working a similar remit with Tranmere will be relevant, he reckons, while acknowledging, “this is a much bigger juggernaut”.
Dutchman Brands, who came to Everton from PSV Eindhoven in the summer of 2018, will be a valuable source of support as Ebbrell does his bit to get it hurtling towards its destination.
“It is great to have someone in that position [Director of Football] who wants to understand Everton,” says Ebbrell.
“I have a lot of respect for Marcel and what he is doing.
“I will need his help at times, in terms of what we are doing and how we are looking to change – and I look forward to continuing the excellent relationship I have with him.”
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Ebbrell enthuses, too, about Everton manager Ancelotti’s eagerness to include players from the Club’s Academy in his senior squad.
“Players from the Club,” Ancelotti claims whenever asked about graduates such as Anthony Gordon, Tom Davies and Jonjoe Kenny, “create a sense of belonging”.
That feeling of being in the right place is familiar to Ebbrell.
So, too, the Italian’s readiness to publicly talk up what he expects from Everton.
Ebbrell holds himself to similarly high standards.
There is a hint of the 51-year-old deliberately adding pressure to his own shoulders when he talks of wanting Everton’s Academy to produce “great players” capable of delivering success in the Club’s proposed new Bramley-Moore Dock home.
“We have to get this right,” asserts Ebbrell.
“The pressure is a great pressure, because it is Everton.
“It is my club.
“I look at the role I have and think, ‘I am honoured’.
“The challenge is to make an immediate impact but also to shape the medium-to-long term in the Academy.
“I want to make sure I get my small part absolutely perfect, or the best I can with my ability – and for that to fit some way towards what is happening higher up the Club, which is very exciting.
“I completely understand the size of this challenge.
“It is one I am looking forward to and I will get it right.”