In an interview that originally appeared in the Everton Matchday Programme ahead of Sunday's clash with Manchester United, James Tarkowski opens up on the strong connection he has quickly established with the Club, overcoming feelings of being 'soft' as young player, how he has grown as a player and a man, his international targets, why Seamus Coleman is an "unbelievable, selfless" leader, and his high hopes for the future with the Blues...
It was the type of tackle that elicits that unique, guttural roar from the Goodison Park crowd – one that sends a bolt of energy through the stadium, simultaneously invigorating the Everton team and fans.
With the score goalless, Everton’s home game against West Ham United three weeks ago was drifting towards half-time when James Tarkowski sprinted half the width of the pitch to thunder into a challenge with powerhouse Hammers forward Michail Antonio.
The tackle was hard, fair and timed to perfection – and reflected how the Mancunian has quickly settled into his stride on Merseyside.
His comfort in his surroundings at Everton is evident as he sits down with the Official Matchday Programme at Finch Farm ahead of training. The 29-year-old exudes an easy warmth and confidence as he turns up bang on time, to the exact minute, for our 1.30pm interview.
“I’ve loved every second here from day one… just the whole feel of the Club,” he reveals. “It’s special.”
That West Ham game was Tarkowski’s first since he reached the milestone of 200 Premier League appearances, but he has been forced to navigate a few rocky waters in his journey to the top of the game.
At 6ft 1in, Tarkowski is a towering presence on the field and his hulking, muscular frame is amplified in close proximity. His response, then, when asked why he made the decision to leave Blackburn Rovers’ Academy aged 14 to return to grassroots football is somewhat surprising.
“From the ages of about 12-15, I didn’t really grow at all,” Tarkowski says. “One of my close friends was with me at Blackburn and he shot past me, he was quicker and stronger than me, fitter as well.
“I felt I was out of my depth a little bit and, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t enjoying my football.
“Between myself and my parents, we decided it was probably a good time to leave and get back out playing football with my friends and enjoying it again.”
After a short period playing Sunday League, a 15-year-old Tarkowski joined North West Counties League side Maine Road.
It would prove a transformative move.
“I loved it there,” he says. “It made me speed up my play a little bit. I was playing central midfield and I had to get used to taking the ball quickly and getting rid of it quickly.
“I was playing against proper men and it toughened me up, because I was soft.”
“Yep. Not just physically, mentally as well.
“I knew how to play football, I knew how to receive the ball, how to pass and how to defend, but I wasn’t ready to battle properly and get my foot in all the time.
“If things didn’t go my way, I wouldn’t stand up to be counted. Playing with men toughens you up very quickly.
“I enjoyed being in that environment – seeing where those lads were up to in their day-to-day lives, working 9-5 and then going to train and play. It was a great experience and I enjoyed being part of that group.”
Tarkowski is now savouring being part of a united, determined squad at Everton, and has been praised by manager Frank Lampard for bringing personality and leadership to the team.
Alex Iwobi, meanwhile, described Tarkowksi and centre-back partner Conor Coady as being “like the dads of the dressing room”.
“I heard that!” Tarkowski says. “It made me feel a bit old for the first time in a while! I took it as a compliment in a way, because a lot of people look up to their dads, don’t they?!
“Myself and Conor are experienced, and we’ve played a lot of games in this league. We know our roles, we know we need to be the voices of this group at times, and we enjoy doing that.
“With Conor, it’s hard to get a word in edgeways when he’s around! You can’t shut him up sometimes!
“But, no, Coady’s class. As the manager mentioned when he gave him the captain’s armband [for the West Ham match], he’s a real, proper leader. He’s got great respect from all the lads and he’s an exceptional player, too.”
Tarkowski is quick to point out who the main man in the dressing room is, however.
“Everyone looks up to Seamus,” he says. “He’s an unbelievable captain. Even when he wasn’t playing a lot of minutes, it didn’t change him. Some players might think when they’re not playing, ‘It’s all about myself now’. But not Seamus. He’s selfless.
“He loves this football club and he wants us to succeed. That’s his passion and he’ll do everything in his power to make sure the lads are driving standards, pushing each other.
“He’s also super welcoming. As soon as I joined, he sent me a text straight away, just telling me to be myself and that it was great to have me on board. Little touches like that mean a lot. It’s nice to know you’ve got someone there for you as a new lad at the Club.”
Tarkowski was also the new lad when he signed for Oldham Athletic in 2009 after a series of eye-catching performances at Maine Road.
Aged 17 and having developed physically, Tarkowski’s progress continued apace and, as well as his defensive qualities, memorably showcased his attacking prowess by scoring a hat-trick in a 5-4 FA Youth Cup defeat by Manchester City.
“I was a set-piece specialist at the time,” he explains. “I wasn’t fully grown but I was big for my age. We managed to use that to our advantage in a lot of games. I think I scored 10 or 12 one season. They were good times.”
Tarkowski would go on to make almost 100 senior appearances for Oldham, who competed in League One for the entirety of his five years at Boundary Park.
“I broke into the team quite soon into my second year as a youth team scholar, so I was quite young, especially for my position,” he recalls. “I came in at quite a crucial point where we needed points on the board, and I performed well for my age.
“From that part onwards, I had spells in the team and out of the team. I’d hoped I would have played a bit more, but it took time, which I understood because of the pressures of a League One manager. If you don’t get wins and points, you’re probably going to lose your job.
“Because of my age, I always felt I was one of the first ones to come out of the team if results weren’t going our way, which I fully understand now. It’s all a learning experience.”
Tarkowski’s promise captured the attention of upwardly-mobile Championship outfit Brentford and he left Oldham for the capital in January 2014.
Under manager Mark Warburton and assistant boss David Weir, the west London side played an exciting brand of football, with defenders encouraged to trust their abilities and build attacks from the back.
In Tarkowski’s first full season in the team, Brentford finished fifth in the Championship.
“I came on leaps and bounds there,” Tarkowski says. “They had great belief in me that I could just go and play football. That belief really benefited my game.
“The manager was very clear he didn’t care about mistakes. He said, ‘This is our style of play and we’ll do it no matter what’.
“Physically, they got me in a really good position, too. I felt like I was fit, I could get around the pitch well. I felt strong.”
In Weir, Tarkowski had the opportunity to learn from a classy centre-back who made 265 appearances for Everton and won 69 Scotland caps.
“Davie was class,” Tarkowski says. “We had a lot of individual meetings and defensive meetings, where he’d go through our clips. And knowing the level Davie played at for so long, he was great to have around.
“I’ve still kept in touch with him. I saw him in the airport this summer and spent five, 10 minutes with him. Whenever I’ve moved on in my career or I’ve seen Davie move on, we fire each other a little text to make sure we’re both okay.”
Tarkowski would leave Brentford for Burnley in February 2016 and admits he is “still not happy about the way things ended there”.
The player was eager to return to his North West roots to support his family following a significant deterioration in the health of his mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis.
With his head “completely frazzled” by the situation ahead of a Brentford match against Burnley, Tarkowski told the club he was unable to play to his usual standards and feared taking to the pitch may do his team more harm than good.
With Brentford fans unaware of Tarkowski’s mother’s condition, however, he came in for severe criticism for not playing in the game.
“It was difficult to see that reaction,” he says. “I knew the people closest to me, and the club, knew my reasons… It was just the general public who didn’t know and it took a bit of time to get that out there.
“Football fans are really passionate for their team, so some are never going to fully understand when they feel a player or manager goes against the club in any way.
“But I still have a good relationship with lots of people at Brentford. I saw the owner, Matthew Benham, send a tweet out congratulating me when I played for England, which was great.”
That England debut in March 2018 came during a stellar campaign for Tarkowski, who had become an instrumental part of a Burnley side defying all expectations in the Premier League.
He received his call-up following a series of high-calibre displays, with Tarkowski crediting Clarets boss Sean Dyche for advancing his defensive play and developing him into a more complete centre-back.
“That season was just a bit of a whirlwind,” he says. “In my first Premier League campaign [2016/17] I was used more as a sub, mainly in midfield.
“But I broke into the side the next year at centre-back, the team were playing well, and there was a lot of talk about me and Popey [Nick Pope] going into the England set-up.
“It never felt like it was going to happen, it was more just paper talk, so, when I got that call-up, it was amazing.”
Tarkowski made his England bow against Italy in front of more than 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium, playing the full 90 minutes in a 1-1 draw.
The boy who left Blackburn’s Academy to play Sunday League football had come a long way.
“It was an incredible feeling and something I’ll never forget,” he reflects.
“I watched the game back for the first time about six months ago. I looked a bit younger, and I had a nice clean-shaven face! I was happy with my performance and I was trying to picture being in that position again… It was nice to watch and, you never know, maybe it can happen again sometime soon.”
With the Qatar World Cup racing into view and Tarkowski performing at a high level for an Everton team with the second-best defensive record in the Premier League, the centre-back is surely in the conversation for a place in the England squad.
When asked about his international ambitions, Tarkowski answers instantly and unequivocally.
“I’ve got full belief in myself that I’m more than good enough to play for England,” he states. "Absolutely.
“The opportunity is still there at the moment for players to get into the squad.
“I just have to perform to the best of my ability. I feel like I’ve started pretty well here at Everton. The team is playing well, too, and that can only benefit me.”
Tarkowski’s grandfather was from Poland, with the defender also eligible to play for the country.
“I am very proud of my Polish roots and I have family I speak to over there,” he explains.
“It [playing for Poland] is not something I would have ruled out, but I was born in England and I only speak English, so they are the things that tie me to England most.
“My grandfather died when I was 11 or 12 but I was very close to him.
“He came over [to England] during World War Two. He was quite young then – first of all he went east, then he travelled west and ended up in the Polish Free Army driving tanks.
“It was a very difficult period of his life, but some of the stories he used to tell were great.
“I’ve actually got a DVD of him talking through his story, which I’m going to watch back soon.”
Tarkowski joined Everton in July 2022 following six years at Burnley in which he became nigh-on undroppable.
His consistency and reliability is underlined by the fact he missed just eight of Burnley’s 152 Premier League matches in his final four seasons with the club.
Three months into his Everton career, Tarkowski – who has played every available top-flight minute for the Blues this term – explains how his decision to join the Club ahead of several other suitors has been entirely justified.
“Everyone here is looking up, looking to the future and is excited about where this team can go,” he says.
“We’ve got good characters and great ability here. Seeing the players we’ve brought in and how much of a close-knit squad we’ve got, it’s a really positive place to be. The coaching is unbelievable and there’s a great work-ethic.
“The squad’s changed quite a bit and the mentality has probably changed a little bit, too.
“People are excited to be out there training and looking forward to games. I’m proud to be a part of it."
Tarkowski’s wholehearted defending has quickly seen him become a fans’ favourite, with his 18 blocks the highest of any Premier League player this season. Tarkowski’s 50 clearances, meanwhile, place him fourth in that category.
An uncompromising defender when in the heat of battle, Tarkowski is a good-humoured, courteous and approachable character off the field.
Teenage Everton centre-back Reece Welch recently described the centre-back as a “mentor” and Tarkowski revealed his desire to support the Blues’ emerging talents in any way possible.
“I want those lads to be the best they can be,” he says.
“We’ve got some great young lads here, so I want to try to guide them and help them in their careers.
“I’m 29 and having someone like Seamus text me when I was joining… Something like that really helped. There have been a few new faces here who I’ve tried to speak to and give little bits of advice to, because it’s not easy, especially playing at this level.
“I’m a little bit different off the pitch than I am on it. You get me on the field and I’m a bit more fired up – I’m more of a wind-up on there!
“Off it, I just enjoy my life. I’m super fortunate to be a footballer and even more fortunate to be a footballer for this club.”
The roaring and unrelenting support of Evertonians has also made quite an impression on Tarkowski.
“The atmosphere on a game day is incredible,” he says. “Turning up at Goodison this season… I’ve never experienced anything like it. That’s not just the derby or the first game against Chelsea, that’s every game we’ve been here so far.”
Tarkowski is the embodiment of the spirit, confidence and ambition coursing through the Club at present.
And he is convinced the staff and players’ collective focus – combined with the depth of quality in the squad – can drive Everton forward.
“Some of these players are the best I’ve ever played with,” he says.
“They are real talents and if we get these players performing to the best of their ability all the time, we’ll be in for a good season
“We’re showing the start of something good here, but there is still a lot more to come from this team. I’m sure of that.”