From Dark To Light: Everton Star DCL 'Reigniting Fire'

In an interview originally published in Everton's matchday programme for the Goodison Park clash with Manchester United in April, Dominic Calvert-Lewin talks about emerging from some ‘dark places’, a lifelong devotion to football, managing expectation and pressure as his team’s striking pillar, Everton’s appetite for the fight, a ‘character-building’ television experience, the importance of talking for a ‘strong state of mind’, and dealing with constant speculation.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin was so consumed by the journey that he arrived at the destination mentally drained.

He visited some “dark places”, the Everton striker, on the road back from a persistent quadriceps issue this season.

By the end, Calvert-Lewin “became a bit obsessive” over the granular details of recovery.

There were devices to measure his sleep and a fixation on nutrition and mealtimes. Electrotherapy and high-tech compression units were employed on the offending muscle.

The feeling of urgency over Calvert-Lewin’s return was compounded by Everton’s position near the foot of the Premier League standings.

He scored 16 goals from 32 league starts last term. That one-in-two ratio improved to one goal per game in the opening three matches this season.

We’ll never know for sure, but there is a legitimate argument that the picture for Everton would look rather sunnier had peak Calvert-Lewin been available for even half of the 14 matches he missed during an exasperating four months.

Coming back at the beginning of the calendar year, Calvert-Lewin “was that mentally tired from focusing so much on getting fit, I wasn’t as fresh as I should have been, not fully fit, so I was chasing my tail.

“I think I underestimated how long I’d been out,” continues Calvert-Lewin.

“I expected to be fitter and faster and stronger – I overlooked people had played 20 games, I’d played three and not kicked a ball for four months.

“That was hard to deal with.

“Even more so with the position we were in. I take great responsibility for helping my teammates and scoring goals and doing everything in my power to affect games.

“It didn’t quite happen when I came back.

“It was my first experience of a long spell out, the biggest battle was the mental one, I found myself in some dark places.

“But I can confidently say I am in a better position, physically, to help and score goals and, most importantly, allow my teammates to rely on me again.”

Calvert-Lewin talks through short, sharp breaths at the beginning of this interview.

A royal blue Everton training shirt sits proudly over the long-sleeved under-garment hugging Calvert-Lewin’s strapping upper half.

His ankle-length, snug-fitting bottoms are flecked with mud that is still drying as the player rests his right foot on his left thigh.

This is Calvert-Lewin in his element, savouring the endorphins resulting from a particularly taxing training session that finished only minutes previously.

“It is our hardest day”, he related hours earlier, as this conversation suffered a false start, with Calvert-Lewin needing to squeeze in his regular massage and gym work prior to the day’s main activity.

Football is the priority. Always has been and always will be for a man who has never wanted for belief in his own ability and potential.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin
It was my first experience of a long spell out, the biggest battle was the mental one, I found myself in some dark places.

This isn’t a one-dimensional individual, mind. That much is clear from a manifest interest in fashion, illustrative of a human being refreshingly comfortable in his own skin. 

“Wearing clothes and suits that divide opinion is what I like doing, so I’m going to continue doing it,” he said in an interview with GQ Magazine this week.

Calvert-Lewin was a thoughtful guest on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football programme at the midpoint of his injury layoff.

And channelling the same erudite, perceptive manner that enabled him to break down elements of Everton’s match at Wolverhampton Wanderers for television viewers, he explains the need for refuge from the day job.

“People can misinterpret doing stuff outside football as not focusing on your craft,” says Calvert-Lewin.

“Every choice I make, I consider, ‘How will this affect my football?’

“That’s been the case since I was a young kid. I have devoted my whole life to football.

“What people read on social media or see on news outlets is a fraction of my life.

“Nobody knows what I do behind closed doors and how much work I put in.

“They don’t live with me in my house, so they will never know.

“I devote everything to my craft and improving as a footballer.

“If anybody focused on what they do for a living, every minute of every day, they would explode.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin
I have devoted my whole life to football. What people read on social media or see on news outlets is a fraction of my life. Nobody knows what I do behind closed doors and how much work I put in.

“I am a human being and it is so important to have different outlets.

“I would never take anything anyone says to heart. People will always have opinions, but I know what I am about and what I do every day and I take confidence from those things.”

The invite to appear on the flagship Sky Sports football programme qualified as an opportunity for a “mental holiday”.

“I was injured, doing double sessions every day and still a way off coming back,” explains Calvert-Lewin.

It is no surprise to learn that the player was plagued by butterflies as the studio manager counted down to lights on.

Navigating an alien environment with such poise was fortifying, reckons Calvert-Lewin.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous,” he says.

“Before I knew it: 5,4,3,2,1, the lights are on you, Jamie Carragher is talking.

“All of a sudden, it hit me: ‘Woah, it’s live, don’t slip up’.

“I’ve done many interviews, but nothing can prepare you for a new experience like that.

“It was character building, dealing with that kind of pressure, with millions of people watching you speak.”

Character is the unquantifiable commodity dominating a lot of conversation around Everton today.

It was visible last time at Goodison Park, when Calvert-Lewin adroitly fed Alex Iwobi for the 10-man home team to thrillingly stun Newcastle United.

Performances against Brentford, in the FA Cup, and Leeds United similarly quickened the pulse. Frank Lampard and his players have nevertheless been left fielding questions over Everton’s response to setbacks.

Encouraging starts at Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace, again in the Cup, for example, dissolved following the concession of goals.

Calvert-Lewin began the Spurs defeat and played the second 45 minutes at Palace.

He is talking in advance of the midweek visit to Burnley – but most observers noted a marked change in Everton’s reaction to adversity at West Ham United six days ago.

“I have been playing with these guys long enough to say, hand on heart, we have the ability,” says Calvert-Lewin.

“I appreciate the fans will think they have heard us say that over and over and that we have to show it.

“And they are right, we do – we have no choice.

“We can talk all we want – it is our duty to talk, at times, it is a responsibility associated with the job – but we need action.

“I am speaking – and I am ready to fight and give my all.

“The manager has given us clear gameplans, but then, perhaps, something has not gone as we wanted, or we’ve started well, but conceded a goal, and we’ve retreated into our shell.

“In those moments, it might take me, or the other leaders in the team, to step up and say, ‘No, come on, keep playing and sticking to the gameplan and believing’.

“People can question your ability or technique or quality as a player.

“But the biggest disrespect you can receive is when people question your character.

“Everyone has a choice, you can choose to stand up and fight or choose to fold.

“We’ve never intentionally chosen the latter.

“People can’t question my character and beliefs and what I bring to the table.

“Confidence and belief are things only we can influence, individually and collectively.

“And we all have to commit to giving everything to getting us out of this situation.”

Calvert-Lewin in conversation is very adept at locating the middle ground between self-assurance and pragmatism.

In this instance, the mature outlook is best exemplified by the former Sheffield United player’s thoughts on missing an England camp for which he was available for the first time since a debut in October 2020.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin
Everyone has a choice, you can choose to stand up and fight or choose to fold. We’ve never intentionally chosen the latter. People can’t question my character and beliefs and what I bring to the table.

He has 11 caps and four goals and went to last summer’s European Championship, but wasn’t in manager Gareth Southgate’s party for friendly meetings with Switzerland and Ivory Coast last month.

“In my opinion, I belong there,” begins Calvert-Lewin, “but I didn’t do enough in the previous games for Everton to warrant a place.

“I am realistic, this is England, there are a lot of good players to pick from.

 “I’d have an argument if I’d been scoring goals. But I look at my performances since I’ve come back and they’ve been hit and miss.

“For the standard I set myself, and coming back from injury, there is more to come.

“The [England] manager didn’t speak to me but I am not high maintenance, so it didn’t need a conversation.

“If I was hitting the onion bag every week, I’d have been called up.

“That is where I belong and want to be – I am working hard to get in a position where I feel I deserve to be there and I know what I need to do.”

Calvert-Lewin’s glass-half-full perspective stems partly from the relief over his proximity to maximum condition.

His fitness was serviceable prior to the recent two-week break. “Not short, short [of top condition],” Lampard observed, “but a striker wants and needs to be 100 per cent”.

The Everton manager was responding to an enquiry over the potential boon of having a hale and hearty Calvert-Lewin at his disposal.

Lampard stressed he wasn’t viewing Calvert-Lewin as a silver-bullet. But the lean Yorkshireman would have to walk around with his fingers in his ears all day to avoid talk of his power to favourably effect Everton’s season.

“I like the pressure,” starts Calvert-Lewin. “It is part of the job, I worked very hard to reach this position – and I accept all criticism and responsibility and expectation that comes with being Everton’s number 9.

“I have felt what it is to be out and unable to play.

“It is like when you have a cold and all you wish is that you could breathe through your nose properly.

“When you are injured, all you wish is that you could play and train again.

“I try to not take my fitness and health for granted, these days, and do everything I can to stay fit and ready.

“I will always give absolutely everything.

“Sometimes, when games are not going your way, or the ball is not dropping for you, it might look to the naked eye as if you are not giving your all – but of course you are.

“Things in football can change quickly, in a positive or negative direction.

“We can’t affect what’s gone, so the focus is on the next game and collecting as many points as possible.

“If you buy into the narrative created, what good is that to us inside this building?

“We have to protect ourselves – and that helps the collective.”

At the height of his injury frustration, Calvert-Lewin would confide in a select band of friends and relatives.

The process of saying what he is thinking out loud is liberating, relates Calvert-Lewin, and it is one he will maintain, regardless of whether he’s scoring in numbers to rival Dixie Dean or in one of those periods, familiar to every striker, wondering where his next goal is coming from.

“I talk to my mum, first and foremost,” says Calvert-Lewin.

“And I wouldn’t like to give away names, but I have someone I speak to who helps me massively.

“I can vent and get what is on my mind off my chest or ask if a feeling I have is normal.

“The most important thing is managing what is going on internally.

“What we do is physical but a lot of it is mental – if you get yourself in a strong state of mind, the rest takes care of itself.

“I know that from experience.

“People talk more about mental health, but when you are an elite athlete, it is difficult because of the expectation on you to perform.

“There are those who think the money you are paid is a natural remedy for not dealing with things well. That is not the case.

“It is important you have people around you who are open and honest and I am able to express how I feel to them to help me through.

“It is something I will continue to do because you have to remain balanced.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin
People talk more about mental health, but when you are an elite athlete, it is difficult because of the expectation on you to perform.

“I have been extremely high and very low and those two states are as dangerous as each other.

“If you get too high, it is a steeper fall if things don’t go as you planned.”

It can be an odd world, football, for those who inhabit it. The swirl of speculation and chat, certainly at the summit of the sport, is incessant.

Calvert-Lewin can’t keep up with the cycle – so he was startled to be asked by his mum about the veracity of some recent conjecture around her son.

He laughs at the memory now.

“I said, ‘It’s not true’,” says Calvert-Lewin, incredulous.

 “I am the last to know about a lot of things written or said. I don’t check or search.

“It is important to focus on the job at hand.

“The manager spoke to me about my role. He is aware of my strengths and how I like to play.

“It is not all about me and playing how I want.

“But if we want to win games, it will help if I start scoring.

“I’ve enjoyed crosses in the box and collectively we must sing from the same hymn sheet – if we press, press together, if we sit, sit together. Stick together in everything.

“I’ve been an Everton player five-and-a-half years. I love playing here and want to score the goals to keep us in the division.

“I am here working and have respect for myself and my teammates and Everton Football Club.

“I will always give my all for the badge and my own self-respect and I never pay attention to any other talk.”

Calvert-Lewin is, on the other hand, “paying more attention” to training preparation. Pre-activation, as it’s termed.

“I have a massage almost every day for 30 minutes to get my legs going, then 20-30 minutes in the gym, jumps and stretches to get my body ready,” says Calvert-Lewin.

“It is investment in myself. Preparing for training limits the risk of injury.”

It has been a peculiar time for Calvert-Lewin, then, all told.

The enforced timeout was as welcome as a rabbit punch and it’s been a painstaking process back to full capacity under a new manager.

But as Calvert-Lewin swipes up his water bottle and strides towards the door, where he will turn left and make for the well-appointed Finch Farm gym, he leaves behind an unmistakeable sense of optimism.

In relation to both Everton and their smart and ambitious boss – and a player who turned 25 last month and, with a fair wind, is on the cusp of his best years.

“The manager wants to play attractive football, but at a high-tempo and not keeping the ball for the sake of keeping it, keeping it to penetrate teams,” says Calvert-Lewin.

“He came at a very difficult period for us as a club and as a team and had to pick up our confidence levels – and he’s done that.

“It is down to us to apply in the games everything we’re working on in training.

“With the gaffer and his backroom staff, I have full confidence everything is there to succeed.

“But I can’t imagine anyone is looking past the job for the rest of this season.

“Everyone wants to be the person who makes an impact and wins the next game for us.

“I am not a young player anymore.

“I look at 20, 21-year-olds, and think, ‘Flippin’ ‘eck, time goes quick’.

“In my mind, I am 25 and getting older.

“Seamus [Coleman] told me, ‘No, you’re so young, but enjoy working and where you are because it passes you by so fast.

“I always remember that.

“I have had the number 9 on my back since I was 22 and been building myself to this point.

“It is a welcome responsibility, but this is definitely an important stage in my career to kick on and be more consistent.

“I want to score in every game, which I know is perhaps unrealistic in the Premier League.

“But that is the expectation I set, so it is a case of reigniting that fire and hitting the back of the net.”