In an interview first published in Everton’s matchday programme, Ben Godfrey talks about personal sacrifices made in pursuit of football ambitions, overcoming rejection and proving doubters wrong, a sliding doors day in the defender’s young career and joining a club where supporters share his “football morals”.
Ben Godfrey is the new kid on the block with old-fashioned values.
A 22-year-old footballer who, with his speed and vigour and proficient technique, is equipped for the modern-day game – yet positions both the raw quality of “hard work” and passe skill of tackling on a pedestal.
In the supporters of Everton, the club he joined from Norwich City back in October, Godfrey identifies kindred spirits who share his “football morals”.
This harmonious relationship between player and Evertonians crystallised during the victory over Arsenal last month.
Godfrey threw every ounce of his muscular frame into a clean tackle on midfielder Dani Ceballos.
The challenge was so robust you were entitled to wonder if an instinctive roar of approval from 2,000 fans inside Goodison masked the sound of the Spaniard’s bones shaking.
Godfrey’s endurance, meanwhile, inspired one Twitter user to playfully suggest, “Ben Godfrey runs home after training and every match… and he still lives in Norwich”.
His parents are enormous influences and Godfrey mentions dad Alex – a former rugby league professional – when explaining that evident fondness for a tackle.
“You want to take the ball, first and foremost, and if you don’t go in harder than your opponent, you will come out on the wrong end,” says Godfrey.
“In my mind – and my dad always told me this when I was younger – the harder you go in, the less likely you’ll be hurt.
“That is the mentality I take into my tackling.
“But I am aware of the psychological side of a tackle as well.
“If you put in a big challenge it knocks your opponent down a peg and, hopefully, they think about it for a while.
“As a fan, I am devastated tackling is slowly going out of the game.
“I am a northern lad and, for all of us up north, it’s always been a big part of football.
“It wasn’t appreciated so much at some of my other clubs so, for me to play for Everton, where the fans have a similar mentality to myself, is huge for me.
“It is nice to have the same football morals as the supporters. They are passionate and appreciate hard work and tackles and that side of the game.”
Godfrey, who turned 23 on 15 January, questioned whether he had a future in football after a prolonged phase when his ambitions were thwarted at every turn.
He wouldn’t trade that bumpy road for a smooth path, however, and nor does Godfrey wish he grew up showered with all the mod cons, as opposed to “not being as privileged as some of my friends”.
Instead, Godfrey is “so grateful for my journey and upbringing”. He sounds those words with conviction.
There have been sacrifices, too. Godfrey left the family home at 18, shortly after the birth of youngest sister Sylvie.
An image of Sylvie’s eye is among the tattoos banked on Godfrey’s weightlifter’s arms.
There is a rose symbolising mum Sharon, too.
Godfrey was on the books at Middlesbrough – who took him from hometown club York City – when he captained the 2011 English Schools Trophy-winning York and District Schoolboys Under-13 team.
Godfrey was one of three players in the squad from York’s Archbishop Holgate’s School where, he confesses, he’d have “done a bit better if I wasn’t laughing and joking with my mates”.
“Despite everything,” concedes Godfrey, “I went through school without a back-up plan for a career.
“It was just football, football, football.”
A contemporaneous profile in York’s The Press newspaper described 13-year-old Godfrey, then a central midfielder, as “… captain and a leader passionate about the team… carries a threat from set pieces and often a scorer of wonder goals”.
Godfrey originally played as a striker after starting aged six – and is keen to point out, “I scored a fair few goals” – until various coaches recognised a multi-faceted talent and “stuck me in the middle of the park to do a bit of everything”.
Within two years of that national schoolboy success, however, Middlesbrough decided Godfrey wasn’t for them.
Alex Godfrey – who finished his rugby career, aged 29, in late 2007, and works as a Student Development Manager at York College – has recalled his son “in tears in the back of the car, distraught”, after being released by Boro.
Trials with Barnsley and Leeds United concluded with Godfrey being told he was no better than what was on those clubs’ books.
Leeds added he should go and show them their judgment was wrong, a conversation that “stuck with” Godfrey.
He “scored a couple of goals and was flying” in a trial match at Sheffield Wednesday but an offer wasn’t forthcoming despite Godfrey’s parents driving the round-trip to Sheffield after work for training on countless weeknights.
It was mum who suggested Ben go back to York City, then a League Two club.
“She didn’t want me to go through being rejected anymore,” says Godfrey.
“There was a club in York that would be happy to have me back.
“And she wanted me to have the feeling again that I was wanted somewhere.
“It is natural for a mum to want that.
“My mum and dad have been brilliant for me and I am so grateful to have them.
“As a kid, it is tough to cope with knockbacks.
“Without knowing it, I was relying on a lot of good people around me and was fortunate to have that support, so I could keep chipping away at my dream.
“My dad knows the ups and downs of a professional career and my mum was always there, helping.
“I have lots of good friends, they love football and tell me they’re proud when I am doing well.
“That was an inspiration to keep going.
“I loved the idea I’d be doing well at football and mates would come to watch me – which they do.
“I probably doubted myself when I was going in and out of clubs – and did question whether it was for me.
“When you are younger and football is not going well, you forget about it, you are going out with friends and having fun.
“I was lucky my mindset switched at around 15 or 16.
“Something clicked – because of my own determination, not out of bitterness – and I thought, ‘I am going to prove those clubs wrong and make them regret letting me go’.”
From mixing it in League Two, aged 17, with York, through Norwich to Everton, via international honours, Godfrey’s stock sharply ascended.
Former youth team coaches, tracked down for background articles on Godfrey, unanimously talk about the player’s discipline, hard work and innate decency.
Those characteristics, he says, are inherited from his parents.
“You are a product of your environment,” reasons Godfrey.
“My mum and dad drilled those qualities into me and were strong on the importance of being a good person.
“They were young when they had me and I wasn’t as privileged as some of my friends.
“I didn’t have WiFi, or a console or a phone – any of the up-to-date stuff.
“Football on the street was all I knew.
“Hard work is something my family and I have always had to do and I will carry that through my life.
“I don’t see many footballers with grit and determination when things have been easy for them.
“A lot of footballers have an edge from playing on the street… from having to work for things growing up and seeing the tough side of life.
“That ingrains a belief that you have to work hard for every single thing in life.
“And it is the same on the football pitch.”
Godfrey played 15 games in five months following his York debut before being spirited away by Norwich on his 18th birthday in January 2016.
He knocked back a flood of rival offers – including from Barnsley and Middlesbrough – to relocate 190 miles south east, moving into accommodation shared with current Norwich midfielder Todd Cantwell and Louis Ramsey, who is playing with non-league Hornchurch and remains among Godfrey’s closest friends.
Godfrey’s capacity to compete physically in League Two, he reckons, led to the clamour for his signature.
Chances are, the teenager’s ability to shutout the potentially suffocating pressure of a Football League survival fight – York would drop to the National League – was another tick in the plus column.
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TOWNSEND ON EVERTON DEBUT AND BENITEZ INFLUENCE
“When you are playing among men at such a young age,” Godfrey surmises, “teams are willing to take a punt on you and work with you to shape you into the player they want you to be.
“I didn’t even think about the league position with York, so I didn’t feel the pressure.
“I just saw it as an opportunity and enjoyed it.
“I am a reasonably confident lad, so fitting into the dressing room was never an issue.
“Players at 21 and 22 today want to go on loan and get the experience I had at 17, so it gave me a head start.”
Huddersfield Town provided another option to stick in Yorkshire but, despite the separation from mum and dad and sisters Levi and newborn Sylvie, “Norwich was the right club for me”.
“Going three-and-a-half hours from home at such a vital time in my career was a bit of a blessing,” continues Godfrey.
“I was at an age where you can get caught up going out with friends.
“I wanted to go down there and be absolutely football focused, at a great club, to maximise my development.
“I had to learn to cook and do all the adult stuff pretty quickly, with my mum not around, so it benefits you in the long run.
“My sister had just been born and she is a massive inspiration for me. I want to do well to help her.
“I have had to make so many sacrifices – and it is the same for most players.
“I have missed every one of my sister’s birthdays – and had only one Christmas with her.
“But it is part of football and I am very fortunate this is my job.”
Godfrey marks his self-taught cooking skills at 8.5/10 and considers fajitas a speciality.
“I am a bit of a fajita connoisseur,” he laughs.
But while he was maturing into a domesticated soul off the pitch in East Anglia, Godfrey was wrestling with a modicum of professional frustration.
He was training with the seniors but the cut-and-thrust of playing for points at a weekend had been replaced by Under-23 and, on two occasions, FA Youth Cup football.
“Yeah, that was hard,” confirms Godfrey.
“You imagine that because you’ve played first-team football, where the standard is so much higher, Under-23s would be too easy.
“But it is not the case… it is a different game altogether.
“It was more difficult to play Under-18 and Under-23 football than for the first team at York.
“There is much less contact, it is like a game of chess… and not always a high tempo game of chess.
“When you get chucked in the first-team environment, you are playing for people’s livelihoods. The jump is so big.
“I never felt I’d moved too soon… but I needed to break through or go on loan.
“I missed Saturday, 3pm kick-offs, fighting for points in a men’s environment, proper football.
“I needed it because of how competitive I am. I need something to look forward to at a weekend.”
Godfrey, then, reflects on a season with Shrewsbury Town in 2017/18 – when he played 51 matches, predominantly in midfield, and twice reached Wembley, in the finals of the League One play-offs and EFL Trophy – as a “massive year for my development”.
He returned to Norwich for the following campaign “flying… I’d set my heart on playing”.
Manager Daniel Farke wasn’t initially on the same page, however. Godfrey barely kicked a ball in anger during the opening four months and was anticipating a January loan.
Then centre-back Timm Klose was injured warming-up for a match against Bolton Wanderers, presenting Godfrey with a battlefield promotion.
There is no need to ask Godfrey if he views that day at Carrow Road as a sliding doors moment. He recites the date – 8 December 2018 – as one would any major personal milestone.
Norwich beat Bolton 3-2 and Godfrey was on the pitch for every minute of the remainder of the club’s Championship-winning campaign, playing as a central defender after Farke privately related to Godfrey: “You will be a good midfielder but a top centre-back”.
“I trusted his opinion and can’t argue with it so far,” says Godfrey, who netted one of his four goals in that 2018/19 season against today’s opponents Rotherham.
“He mentioned my pace and being aggressive and playing out from the back (Godfrey insists Evertonians are yet to witness his “passing range”, with the majority of his 11 appearances coming at full-back).
“People were telling me to be patient when I wasn’t playing – it’s easier said than done, that.
“It is so hard when you’re not expecting to play but you have to keep grafting to be ready for your chance.
“When my opportunity came, I grabbed it and never looked back.
“I didn’t break through and relax.
“Football is a dog-eat-dog industry, someone always wants to take your place.
“I didn’t want to sit on the bench again, I knew how it felt.
“I carried on working and made sure I stayed in that team.”
Godfrey played 30 matches for Norwich in the Premier League last term, one of a bright and bold cadre of youngsters – along with Cantwell, Jamal Lewis, now with Newcastle United, and Max Aarons – who emerged from a relegation season with their reputations enhanced.
“I didn’t want to roll over because results weren’t going our way,” says Godfrey.
“If we were going to be relegated, I wanted to be relegated knowing I had no regrets and had done everything I could.
“As a young player who, touch wood, has a long career ahead, I wanted to impress in every game I played.”
Godfrey twice captained Norwich last season. He wore the armband on his full England Under-21 debut – three days after earning the first of seven caps in September 2019 – and was skipper of his York youth team.
“It is an aspiration of mine to be a captain one day,” says Godfrey.
“I feel it [leadership] comes naturally.
“I find myself talking a lot on the pitch, instructing people.
“I had a bit of an older head on my shoulders as a youngster, probably because I hung around with a lot of kids who were older than me.
“I was always vocal and backed myself to be a leader in terms of my actions on the pitch.
“I love that side of the game, it is the personality I have.”
When he watched football as a boy, Godfrey considered Patrick Vieira the consummate leader. Another Arsenal player – and, back then, fellow forward – Thierry Henry was a favourite.
Later on, he would study Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand, a confidant today.
If the game on television came from Goodison, Godfrey would be struck by the sound and fervour filtering from his screen.
“You could tell from the atmosphere that the fans are so passionate,” says Godfrey.
“When I came to play against Everton [for Norwich], you got a sense of how much everyone in that stadium cared.
“The Club is a massive part of their lives.
“Everything I stand for as a player and person matches with Everton, the fans and the Club as a whole.”
The quality on Everton’s training pitch, admits Godfrey, represents a “massive jump”.
He has been especially impressed by fellow Yorkshiremen Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Mason Holgate and, inevitably, the divine skills of James Rodriguez – “he has so much feeling in his left foot, he can unlock anything with it”.
“The table doesn’t lie,” says Godfrey.
“I am developing and learning with these players every day and the move has worked out perfectly.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Premier League opponents would say the opposite when they find themselves being tackled by Ben Godfrey.