Everton prospect Francis Okoronkwo has opened up on his impressive recent form and outlined his ambitions to establish himself as a key member for Paul Tait’s Under-21s.
The 18-year-old joined the Blues from Sunderland in September 2021 and arrived with plenty of promise after a string of impressive performances while climbing through the ranks at the Black Cats’ academy.
He enjoyed a fruitful first campaign at Everton, illustrating himself as an exciting and versatile forward who demonstrated an ability to operate seamlessly across different positions in attack.
Reflecting on his 18 months with the Club, Okoronkwo admits he found the transition from Sunderland to Everton a smooth one and says he was made to feel right at home from the beginning.
“Honestly, I felt settled within the first week or two,” the teenager told evertonfc.com. “Everyone at the Club made sure that as soon as I come in, I was comfortable.
“This is a place where we all want to get better and improve. Nobody is left by themselves, it’s a welcoming environment to come into.”
Under the guidance of Tait - who was promoted from Under-18s boss to Under-21s manager in June – Okoronkwo enjoyed a solid first year in the Academy.
After making the step up in age group this season under Tait, he has gradually become a more prominent figure within the Under-21s squad and has scored in two of his previous four Premier League Two appearances. However, the forward confesses it’s not been a straightforward step up for him.
“I was injured for three weeks of pre-season, which set me back,” he reveals. “I felt for the first few months I struggled with the physicality and pace of the Under-21s game.
“Obviously the higher the level you go, the closer it mirrors the men’s game. For the first few months, I struggled, but I was keen to stay persistent and give my best every time.
“The past month or two, I’m improving, scoring more, assisting and my all-round game is getting better. I’m trying to help the team as much as I can.”
While recollecting this period, Okoronkwo was keen to display gratitude to his manager Tait who was on hand to provide much-welcomed advice and guidance which helped the youngster navigate through the challenging stage of his early career.
“I speak to Taity frequently, he’s a very good man manager,” added Okoronkwo. “He told me during that spell to stay persistent and confident. He said to me that he believed I have the talent, so I just needed to keep a level head, keep going and I will see that light at the end of the tunnel.”
While it’s still been a relatively short space of time since Tait and his staff were tasked with leading the Under-21s, they have have successfully implemented a new and exciting style of play that has produced plenty of good attacking displays and standout results.
That has included the Papa John’s Trophy where the young Blues secured standout wins against the likes of Hartlepool and Mansfield Town senior teams en route to reaching the last 16. For Okoronkwo, the manager deserves a lot of credit for the success Everton have enjoyed.
“Every day, he’s always looking for ways to improve us as individuals and the team in general," he added. "As you can see, the form this season compared to last season, we’re flying and doing well as a group.”
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HIGHLIGHTS: BLACKBURN U21S 4-2 EVERTON U21S
The nature of football means results will always be a key measurement of success for any team. However, player development is just as crucial at academy level.
Club prospects like Stanley Mills, Isaac Price, Reece Welch, Joe Anderson, Seb Quirk and Tom Cannon have all thrived under Tait this season, and been rewarded with opportunities to train with, and in some instances play for, Frank Lampard's First Team.
Striker Cannon joined Championship side Preston North End on loan earlier this month. Okoronkwo admits he has learnt a lot from his Everton teammate this season and hopes to step up in his absence.
“For the first six months of the season, it was all about learning and looking at what Tom does, because he’s a fantastic striker,” says Okoronkwo.
“We knew he was close to being ready to play men’s football, so for me, it was learning about what he does well and then trying to add that to my game.
“The loan move is a fantastic move for him because it’s what he needs and I think it also gives me that opportunity to have more starts, more game time and to improve myself.
44' GOAL! Okoronkwo slots #EFCU21 ahead!— Everton Academy (@EvertonAcademy) November 25, 2022
Watch live: https://t.co/KpioB2MWJf pic.twitter.com/WDgG74uX6t
“My ambition now is to be that focal point for the Under-21s, be the No.9 that all the players can rely on.
“I want to play more minutes, score more, keep adding assists and hopefully towards the end of the season, have a few sessions with the First Team to get a taste for what that’s like in the coming years.
“You can see there’s a pathway to the senior squad. If you look at the lads who’ve been in and around it this season, they have all been really consistent and worked hard to do all they can to be professional footballers and play in the First Team.
“To me, that shows when you put that work in, you will get your rewards, you just need to stay consistent with it and keep chipping away.”
Everton Under-21s return to action on Wednesday when they travel to take on Southampton in the Premier League Cup (12pm GMT).