Landon Donovan Exclusive: 'I Would Run Through A Wall For Anyone At Everton'

To mark Thanksgiving in the USA on Thursday, evertonfc.com sat down for an in-depth interview with American great Landon Donovan to discuss his two memorable loan stints at Everton - and why he will always cherish being a Blue.

It is impossible to equate the statesmanlike Landon Donovan of today with the young man who would open his mouth without a thought of what was coming next.

Donovan currently “wears three hats”, as he has it. He is owner, executive vice president of soccer and manager of San Diego Loyal, a newly created club playing in the USA's second division.

What a wealth of personal experience he can draw on.

A glittering playing career interspersed with a share of extreme lows, for starters.

He was persona non grata following a “horrible” 2006 World Cup, for example, four years after becoming the poster boy of US Soccer with a star turn in his country’s run to the 2002 quarter-finals.

Donovan can recount the fallout from publicly – and mistakenly – taking David Beckham to task.

He understands what it is to be the odd one out, too, and after being mishandled himself on occasion, the imperative of knowing the person as well as the player.

Donovan moved to Bayer Leverkusen when he “didn’t know what Bayer Leverkusen was” and went back to Germany for an abortive spell with Bayern Munich.

He jokes about embodying Einstein’s definition of insanity – “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” – when saying yes to Everton’s offer of a third chance in Europe.

Donovan came to Goodison Park, he conceded, “humbler and more self-aware” than at any time in his life following an “interesting time mentally and emotionally”.

What marked out Donovan more than anything during his career was a resolve to do things his own way.

His former manager with Los Angeles Galaxy and the USA National team, Bruce Arena, once intimated he never knew which version of Donovan would turn up from day to day.

The arch professional ready to run his socks off or the guy conserving energy for another time.

“Yeah, that’s fair,” says Donovan.

“It wasn’t the flip of a coin but, maybe 80 per cent of time I was there and 20 per cent you didn’t know [what you were getting].

“A lot of days in my career, if I felt burnt out or had something going on off field, I’d have been better not training, or not playing a certain game.

“If I ever had three or four days off in a row, I would come back flying.

“I needed the ability to get away a little bit.

“But it is hard for a coach. You couldn’t be giving days off to your highest-paid player, the guy you’re counting on.

“This is something I’ll think about with players I manage – if they are in that place where they feel mentally or physically exhausted, to let them have time away and fall back in love with game.

“It is a brilliant job but it’s also a high-pressure job. You have millions of people watching and judging you at work.

“That is not normal.”

It is illustrative of how deeply criticism cut Donovan following the 2006 World Cup that he considered walking away from the sport.

USA went to Germany fancied to do well but one point from three group games was the return of a side suffocated by scrutiny they’d never encountered.

The counselling which has helped Donovan untangle his individual identity from football began soon after the tournament.

“It was the first time in my life I had real criticism,” says Donovan.

“I deserved it because I had a horrible tournament but I did not cope well.

"Soccer was becoming more popular and for the first time we went to a tournament with expectation from the media and public.

"And we were terrible.

“If it happened now, it wouldn’t be a problem, I would move on.

"I think there has been a change in attitude.

"The man or woman in 2006 saying, 'Landon, you were terrible, what a joke you were, what a disgrace you were to your country' – appreciate they have flaws and have made mistakes and it is okay to say, ‘I am sorry you went through that, it must have been a really hard time in your life’.

“But my identity had been so wrapped up in being a soccer player, so when that goes poorly you have nothing left to hang onto.

“That was part of the impetus for starting therapy.

“I had to figure out if I wanted to keep playing. Nothing was worth feeling the way I did.”

To grasp exactly what Donovan would have been giving up, it is necessary to go back to his formative years in California.

Drawn in by older brother Josh’s passion for the game, Donovan became hooked on soccer.

He was an outlier in that respect and his boy-apart status qualified as both a blessing and a curse.

Donovan was viewed with suspicion by his peers – but streets ahead of them on the playing field.

“Nobody played soccer,” says Donovan.

“I remember to this day my first coach, he turned up in baseball hat, carrying a baseball whistle and a clipboard and wearing baseball shorts and shoes.

“He didn’t know what he was doing.

“I was so far ahead in terms of ability, no one else was touching a soccer ball until high school.

“My brother is five years older, so playing with him and his friends, I learned a lot.

“I played other sports – American football, golf, roller hockey, basketball – but only soccer competitively, that was my real love.

“I used to carry a soccer ball round with me at high school. I would dribble through people between classes for practice.

“Those kids thought I was the biggest idiot – because I was – but it worked out all right.”

Donovan “didn’t have a ton of friends” in high school but didn’t really care.

He would take a punt on what homework would entail and race through it during classes to free up time after school to train.

Days at a time were spent away at age-group national team camps, too.

What was missing from his football was any direction.

“There was no MLS at that time, so there was nothing to shoot for,” says Donovan, who didn’t have access to European football on television and knew nothing of the professional sport beyond what he saw beamed in from Mexico.

“The end game was to go to college and get a scholarship, so my parents didn’t have to pay for it.”

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04:48 Wed 25 Nov 2020


Manager calls for Everton consistency after key Craven Cottage victory.

The goalposts shifted when Donovan was invited to join the first intake at the newly-established US Soccer residency programme for the 20 best Under-17 players in the country in 1999.

“It should have been daunting,” says Donovan of moving his life more than 2,000 miles east to Florida at the age of 15, “but it wasn’t.

“I got to play sport all day with 20 other 15-year-olds, who were equally as athletic and talented and competitive.

"It was my dream life."

The fact he wasn’t waving goodbye to an army of close friends aided the relocation process.

In hindsight, though, Donovan recognises that his favourite childhood pastime other than sport was the first sign of poor mental health.

He would shut himself in his room playing video games for hours on end, savouring the lonely venture to a different realm.

“I loved being alone and zoning out. In retrospect, I realise that was medicating, playing video games and letting my mind tune out,” says Donovan

“If I did feel depressed or sad, or when I was hungry or lonely, that is when it [isolating himself] would happen.

“Now I am aware of it, so I try to avoid those times to keep myself going.

“It makes me sad to think back to this little boy who didn’t know any better and was dealing with that.

“For the most part I still get energy being alone.

“Talking or being in social settings drains my energy, although I do get energy from people I enjoy being with.

“During my career, I was mostly introverted, I needed time at home to re-energise.”

Donovan had a lightbulb moment at the 1999 Under-17 World Cup in New Zealand where his USA team were semi-finalists and he was player of the tournament.

Another, more sobering, realisation would follow in quick order.

Donovan had been approached at a pre-World Cup competition in Austria by then Bayer Leverkusen youth coach Michael Reschke.

Leverkusen hardened their interest and Donovan joined after the Australasian World Cup.

“I was in the Under-17 national team, so I knew I must be one of best players in the country,” says Donovan.

“I was one of the best in the team, then I was awarded best player at the World Cup.

“I said to myself, ‘Why can’t I do this as a career?’

“In Austria before the tournament, a gentleman approached me and said, ‘My name is Michael Reschke, I am from Bayer Leverkusen, we are interested in signing you’.

“I was like, ‘What is Bayer Leverkusen, I don’t know what that means’?

“They kept coming and coming and there is a lot to be said for making someone feel wanted.”

Donovan‘s first spell in Germany – he was there 16 months before being loaned to San Jose Earthquakes – has generally been reported as a personal and professional nightmare from start to finish.

No so, insists Donovan, who was enriched by the experience of a new culture and learned a new language, in addition to improving his technical capability beyond recognition.

There was also the freedom to eat cereal for dinner – “frosted flakes most nights,” he laughs – and the sheer joy of playing football every day.

Leverkusen was a tough start to professional life nevertheless.

“Very difficult at the start,” asserts Donovan.

“I was from sunny Southern California and going to gloomy Germany in the winter.

“I was the star everywhere I’d been in America.

“At Leverkusen, I was one of 50 kids they were hoping would make it to the first team and if you didn’t, they didn’t really care.

“I told my dad the other kids wouldn’t pass me the ball.

“He said: ‘Why would they? They don’t want you to succeed’.

“For the first time, I realised, this is what professional soccer is like.”

Back in the States with San Jose, Donovan was a revelation.

He’d accepted he was “nowhere near ready” for Leverkusen’s first team – with its star-studded roster featuring the likes of Michael Ballack, Dimitar Berbatov and Oliver Neuville – and was craving the chance to play football.

In his first year, San Jose won the MLS Cup – the national title, decided by a series of season-ending play-off games – a success he would repeat once more with the same club, in 2003, and on four occasions at LA Galaxy.

Donovan, in his words, “was in dreamland… living in San Jose, playing soccer for a living and making money”.

He scored in the title-deciding match in 2001 against Galaxy, furthering a fast-growing reputation following a prolific season.

At the same time, Donovan was gaining notoriety for his outspoken nature.

He was an interviewer’s dream, unguarded and irrepressible.

“I had no self-awareness,” says Donovan.

“If something came into my head I’d say it.

“If a defender was being a jerk on the field, I’d come off and tell the press.

“It was a case of not having respect and not thinking about what was coming out of my mouth.

“But part of that is what made me good.

“On the field, I had the ability to be a little brash, be a punk.

“I had extreme confidence, bordering on cockiness.”

Donovan was still with San Jose when he had an “incredible” 2002 World Cup, scoring twice – including in a culturally significant last-16 win over Mexico – as USA reached the last eight.

Fortified by that experience, he harboured faint hopes of better fortunes when retuning to Leverkusen midway through 2004/05.

When it didn’t work out a second time – Donovan played a handful of games in three months back at the Bundesliga team – he completed a permanent move back to the States, with accusations he “couldn’t cut it in Europe” outweighed by the excitement of a genuine US star committing to MLS.

And signing for one of its glitziest teams, to boot.
LA Galaxy to Donovan, he says, is Manchester United to Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.

“I knew I was home as soon as I arrived, playing in front of 50 or 60 family and friends every week,” says Donovan.

Everything was going according to script when Galaxy were champions in 2005 but a combination of – in Donovan’s view – “poor coaching and poor players” led to acute decline.

Beckham joined after the first of three successive seasons when the club failed to qualify for the play-offs.

“That is what he walked into," says Donovan of the turmoil engulfing his club in 2007.

“A guy who had played for the best teams in the world and with the best players, came to the worst team in a league that was nowhere near the level he was used to.

“There was no reason that wouldn’t have gone poorly. And that's how it played out.

“I felt embarrassed for him and for us.

“I was so excited he was coming.

“I understood what the spotlight and attention looked like from playing at World Cups and wanted that for our league.

“To be so bad was embarrassing, no question.”

The younger Donovan – the man before the 2009 divorce from actress Bianca Kajlich which triggered a mental and emotional overhaul – shot from the hip.

It seemed logical to him, then, to release his anger over Galaxy’s regression by contributing to a book about Beckham.

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02:40 Tue 24 Nov 2020


Former Arsenal player starred in new role.

“I made a lot of bitter comments about him, things I should have told him in person,” says Donovan.

“I was really frustrated, I vented and it was really stupid of me.

“I felt he came in and brought all this attention and spotlight, earned all the money, but wasn’t performing.

“This was my interpretation, not the reality.

“You have to communicate.

“When you don’t, you make up things in your head and that is what I did.

“I thought, ‘He’s this, he’s that, he just wants to be in Beverly Hills and doesn’t care… all this.

“The reality was, he probably cared more than any of us.

“It was his legacy and pride on the line, he made this huge move to come to a league no one had heard of.

“If I’d had that conversation with him, I’d have understood where he was coming from and why he would he so frustrated – he wanted to be successful.

“Why would I expect him, when he was used to playing with Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes, to be performing at a high level with some of these players who were doing terribly?

“I wish I’d sat down with him and said, ‘We have to be together and make this better’.”

That conversation ultimately happened with Arena, newly appointed in 2008, acting as mediator.

“Bruce said we were the two most important players and if we wanted Galaxy to be successful it was up to us,” continues Donovan.

“Before Bruce started the meeting I apologised to David.

“He was great, he said, ‘I get it, it’s over, let’s go and be successful’.

“From that moment everything changed and we went on an upwards trajectory.”

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Midfielder puts on virtual event for supporters who missed out on planned Everton in the Community hug-a-thon.

Donovan’s final flirtation with Germany came at the behest of Jurgen Klinsmann.

The former Germany striker was managing Bayern Munich and familiar with Donovan due to his home on Newport Beach and regular visits to Galaxy home games.

Klinsmann, though, was losing an internal power struggle when Donovan arrived at Munich and a player viewed as the manager’s man was never going to get a look-in.

“Off the field, it was amazing, on the field, not great,” smiles Donovan.

“Training, though? It was crazy,

“Guys were making plays I’d never even thought about, let alone seen.”

Donovan pushed thoughts of Einstein’s words out of his head when Everton asked him to join on loan at the start of 2010.

There could be a different outcome this time, reasoned Donovan, because national team colleague Tim Howard was at the Club.

He bit the bullet, studying pictures and profiles of Everton players on the flight over to avoid any first-day embarrassment.

Donovan was coming from a hard time, too. Weeks before crossing the Atlantic, he missed in the shootout as Galaxy lost the MLS Cup final on penalties to Real Salt Lake City.

“I was sitting on the back of the bus crying, then I came to myself and felt, ‘I am totally at peace with this,” says Donovan.

“I had put very ounce of my being into that season. I missed a penalty? We all miss penalties.

“I went through a divorce in 2009, it was an interesting time mentally and emotionally and I came out if it humbler and more self-aware.

“I felt as good as I ever had emotionally and as a player heading into 2010.

“It was an easy decision to join Everton.

“Tim was there and it makes a big difference when you have an established player who knows you and the club and the manger and locker room and culture.

“I was maturing mentally and understood the game, I was not going to be overwhelmed by anything ever again.

“Tim told me David Moyes would watch players 15 times before signing them, so there was a reason he was bringing me.

“He wanted me to have an impact.

“I didn’t know anything about the Club, so can you imagine what a beautiful surprise it was to walk into that environment.

“The two periods I had with Everton were the most enjoyable stretches of my career.”

Donovan was astonished to be included in the travelling part when Everton went to Arsenal days after he landed in the country.

Doubly so when Moyes told him over breakfast he’d start the game.

Donovan heeded the advice of Alan Stubbs, the Everton captain, who in a quiet moment following the American’s arrival advised him, ‘If you do only one thing here, just run. You don’t have to play well and score goals – just run’.

“That was music to my ears,” says Donovan.

“It was brilliant David waited to tell me I was playing because I had no time to worry, I just went and played.

“I ran non-stop for 70 minutes until I cramped.

“I served the corner for Leon Osman to score our first goal (the game finished 2-2) but my other main memory is of chasing a player 60 yards down the line.

“I made the tackle and the ball went off him for a throw-in.

“I got up and thought, ‘This is awesome’.”

Donovan scored on his second Goodison appearance, against Sunderland, and ended with two goals from 13 appearances.

His return to Galaxy in March was broadly considered a big loss for Moyes’ team.

The manager was sufficiently impressed to hire the player a second time 12 months later, although Donovan admits to concerns over damaging his legacy.

“How often do you a watch great movie, then the sequel is terrible,” says Donovan.

“I didn’t want that.

“I did have some fear that if it didn’t go well, it would ruin memories of my first spell.

“But the second time was just as good.

“When I walked into Goodison for the first time, I felt so loved and accepted by absolutely everybody.

“When I receive that respect, I give it back in spades.

“I knew I would run through a wall for any of those people.

“Leaving [after the two loans] was really hard because I fell in love with the place.

“But when I feel loyalty I reciprocate.

“Galaxy didn’t have to let me go but they did on condition I went back.

“Part of me was excited to get home but those 90 minutes every week were so special and I didn’t want to give that up.

“But that was the reality.”

Donovan had played four years with scarcely a break when he cracked at the end of 2012.

He was “physically beaten up and mentally and emotionally done” – and took the unusual and very brave step of having a four-month sabbatical.

The time out ultimately cost him a place in USA manager Klinsmann’s 2014 World Cup squad – it would have been Donovan’s fourth World Cup after he achieved “redemption” in 2010 with a critical goal against Algeria to send USA to the last-16 – but he is comfortable with his decision.

“I needed time to get away to see if I could love playing again, I was burnt out,” says Donovan.

“I don’t think I’ll ever know the truth about why I was left out of the squad.

“I try to be honest with myself.

“I was not in good form but I knew I was one of the best 23 players in the country and I could have helped.”

Donovan’s candour is especially impressive and significant when he talks about his mental health.

“I have no issues being vulnerable,” says Donovan.

“I have had years of therapy.

“Once you crack that it is easy.

“Getting to that point, having a therapist ask questions over and over until you are vulnerable enough to say, ‘I did that wrong, my ego was out of control, I shouldn’t have done that’ – that is hard.

“Once you get to that place, it is easy.

“My family has a history of mental health issues.

“I don’t want to shy away from it – I wouldn’t worry about saying I’d pulled a hamstring.

“Mental health is no different.

“If I am feeling depressed, I am not going to shy away from saying it.

“A number of people have said thank you for sharing my story and that it’s helped them.”

Donovan was playing for USA’s Under-20 team in a World Cup qualifying match against Trinidad & Tobago in March 2001 when he was involved in a freak collision with home defender Marvin Lee.

Lee sustained neck and spinal injuries which left him almost completely paralysed.

He died two years later in March 2003, aged 21.

Donovan exhales when asked about the incident, says, ”Wow”, but is okay talking about it.

“It was a very sad time,” says Donovan.

“It is crazy that this sport, which people say is not as physical as others, can cause that to happen.

“I feel terrible for Marvin’s family

“His aunt reached out to me a few times and we spoke.

“I do think about it, once in a while.

“The incident seemed like nothing.

“I was running across the field and took the ball on my chest, he got there late and tried to head it but headed my sternum.

“I broke a few ribs and for six weeks had to wear a rib protector.

“But he was paralysed and later passed away.

“It was so sad.”

Donovan’s fuel light was red after the 2014 season – and a farewell match for USA, an honour conferred because of his status as record cap holder on 157 and the 57 goals which make him joint-highest scorer with Clint Dempsey – and he retired following another Galaxy MLS Cup final win.

He had three years remaining on a lucrative contract but felt himself sliding towards depression.

“I felt completely burnt out and needed to get away and knew I couldn’t take six months off,” says Donovan

“The transition was easier because of not being tied to that soccer player identity.

“A lot of athletes are wrapped up in that and it’s not healthy

“Your ego runs away with it and you think, ’This is who I am’.

“But it is not who I am.

“It is what I did and was a huge part of my life and helped mould me but it is not all of who I am.”

Donovan couldn’t resist a second coming nonetheless.

He went back to Galaxy for a short period in 2016 before the prospect of “incredible money” and a unique family experience enticed him to Club Leon in Mexico.

After settling in San Diego with wife Hannah and the couple’s three children he played for indoor team San Diego Sockers.

“That was a chance to have fun and feel like a kid again,” says Donovan.

He makes an interesting point about his current three-headed role, maintaining he can select the 18-year-old who currently gives him 7/10 performances but has the potential to be a 9/10 player, over a steady-eddie veteran guaranteed to operate at 7.5/10 every week.

“I don’t have pressure of worrying about every single result,” says Donovan.

“These men need your help every day, there is a reason they are not yet at the top level, and I enjoy it.”

San Diego’s first season was played amid the coronavirus pandemic and the club made global headlines when forfeiting a match in October after their openly gay player Colin Martin was allegedly subjected to homophobic abuse from a Phoenix Rising opponent.

Characteristically forthright, Donovan said: “… we would not stand for bigotry, homophobic slurs and things that don’t belong in our game.

“Our players in the heat and passion of the moment still wanted to play, but if we wanted to be true to who we are as a club, we have to speak and act.”

Donovan's competitive fires still burn and he misses feeling the "energy in a stadium" from a positon on the pitch. "It is addictive," he says.

There is still a tendency to get lost in the moment, however, and that is another area where he can employ his experience.

"Most coaches don’t have time to deal with how a player is feeling," says Donovan.

"There was a game at Galaxy when I hurt my knee – it was bone bruising – and it was so painful.

"I was walking to the side of the pitch and Bruce Area is yelling to the trainer, 'Is he good to go, or not?'

"I was thinking, ‘I have given 10 years of my life to this club and he couldn’t take one moment to see how I was doing, or give me a minute to see if I was okay’.

"I get it – but it was one of those moments when you realise how caught up you get."

It is testament to Donovan’s impact in two relatively short Everton spells – in all he played 22 games and score two goals – that his name is so readily associated with the Club.

“I am proud of that and I can take some credit but it is reciprocal,” says Donovan.

“It doesn’t happen without the Club treating me that way.

“When players, staff and fans all support and welcome you so strongly, you want to make them happy.

“This period has made me realise it is time for me to go back and see people and feel that again.

“It was such a special time in my life and I want to and thank people for that.”