In an interview that originally appeared in the Everton Matchday Programme ahead for the clash with Fulham last weekend earlier this week, James Garner revealed why Everton already feels like home, how the midfielder’s time out injured helped improve his mindset, the qualities he offers, his affection for Goodison, and admiration for Sean Dyche’s direct management style.
It’s been a busy day at Finch Farm for James Garner.
As the midfielder sits down late afternoon in the media room at Everton’s training HQ, he’s already been put through his paces in a tough group session under manager Sean Dyche and his coaching staff.
A lighter touch followed with the Blues squad heading over to the facility’s showpitch to take part in the Club’s renowned Academy Day.
Much to the excitement of Everton's budding young prospects, stars from the Senior Men's team joined the Academy’s under-sevens to under-11s for a range of games and drills. Straight into one of the small-sided matches, Garner was quick to fully immerse himself in what was his first experience of the event which had, prior to the COVID pandemic, been an annual one.
A pre-planned team meeting and gym session later, the 22-year-old is able to sit back and fondly recollect some of the standout moments from his maiden Academy Day before the conversation soon switched to more earnest matters, starting with Everton’s recent trip to Old Trafford.
It would be easy to understand if last weekend’s contest against Manchester United carried added poignancy for Garner given his close ties to the club. The versatile midfielder spent much of his formative years with United, only officially ending his 15-year stint last summer when he joined Everton on a four-year deal.
“That wasn’t the case,” he is quick to point out, however. “Obviously I’m really grateful for the part United played in my development but I was ready to leave by the end of last summer.
“I had such a good season last term and was eager to kick on and play football. I didn’t want to be waiting around and losing momentum from a strong season prior. I knew I needed to establish myself somewhere else.
“I know it sounds weird that I'm reflecting in the way I am about last Saturday as I was there for so long but I didn’t feel like, ‘I am back home’. Everton is my new home and my only focus now is to deliver for this club.”
Garner was highly regarded by many at Carrington throughout his academy years and he was heavily fancied to forge an eventual pathway to United’s senior side. Loans spells with Watford, and twice with Nottingham Forest only enhanced those expectations.
Last season was a particularly impressive one for the England Under-21 international. He featured in 41 Championship games and played a pivotal role in Forest’s return to the Premier League.
However, it still couldn’t provide a platform to kickstart his career at Old Trafford and the boy born in Birkenhead made the decision to move back to Merseyside having made seven first-team appearances for the Red Devils.
“There was interest from Forest to bring me back,” Garner recalls. “It’s a move that could have made sense as I knew I was valued there. But that interest was very early in the window. I’d just gone back to United and wasn’t sure if there was still a future for me there but it soon became clear I needed to move on.
“Being from the Wirral, it’s all about Everton and Liverpool there. So, I already knew all about this club. It’s a big and great club. I saw it as an opportunity to play regularly in a great environment.”
United’s loss can certainly be Everton’s gain. A hard-working midfielder with an impressive range of passing, Garner has represented England through the age groups and showed his leadership qualities when he captained the Under-17s to the semi-finals of the 2018 European Under-17 Championship.
Life with the Blues so far has been stop-start, with a back injury sustained in November forcing him on the sidelines before returning off the bench for Everton’s past two matches.
Now fully fit and raring to go, Garner is eager to show Evertonians – and manager Dyche – what he is all about.
“I have settled in well at the Club but I have to admit there have been tough moments, too,” he admits. “I signed under one manager, then I got injured, meaning I couldn’t show the new manager what I could do straight away.
“I’m getting stronger every week and training every day now, which helps. I’ve come on the past two games and I’m just pushing now for that start and to help the team.
“The new boss is a straight talker and I like that. He’s brought in some new ideas and a new way of playing, and I think you can see the benefits with the results we’ve been getting.
“We’ve been going toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the league. Last weekend at United was obviously a tough day, but overall, it’s been good.
“Now I am back, I think I am adapting well. It’s all about impressing him from here and trying to secure more minutes.”
Before looking ahead, Garner is asked whether that frustrating period in the treatment room has taught him anything new about himself.
He pauses for a moment and ponders the question before revealing: “I think I have learnt more about myself. As in, I think if I was to suffer a setback like that again, I’d be better prepared to deal with it. Although, I hope I am never in that situation again.
“You come back from such an injury physically stronger, but you also come back mentally stronger, too. That time out of the game, you can focus on yourself and your mindset.
“I feel like I am more professional. I’d like to think I have always been professional, but now, even more so. What I mean by that is I don’t want to risk being injured again. So, things I have maybe overlooked previously, like going to the gym earlier or stretching off after a session, I am now doing. I know how important that side of the game is. It’s what I was doing in my rehab and now it gives me a platform to have the best chance not to suffer injuries again.”
Garner was brought on for the final half hour at Old Trafford and was used in the No.8 role, a position he often played at Forest last season, as well as a No.10, ending a productive campaign with four goals and nine assists.
He nods along when reminded of that return, but quickly admits: “I’ll be honest, though, I don’t set targets. I have spells where I might score and get hungrier to repeat it in the following game. But, truthfully, I’d rather have six great performances with no goals or assists, rather than six average displays where I register, say, three goals and an assist.
“I know everyone talks about stats these days, but for me personally, it’s not the be-all and end-all. I don’t base my game around them. People who know this game understand the different roles players have in a successful team. There’s more to a game than just goals and assists, especially for a midfielder.”
When asked whether he’d prefer to play more advanced or in a deeper position at Everton, Garner responds committedly with: “Wherever I am wanted, I’ll play. I think I have the skillset to play the higher role, say as a No.10, or as a No.8; I can do both jobs. I have a lot of energy and I am willing to do the dirty work.
“But also, I have the creativity to my game, too. This means in that No.10 role, I can potentially help score a goal or help others to do so. Playing deeper, I can help maintain possession and get the team to play forward.
"I know under this manager, showing energy and commitment is important. I believe I have those traits which can only put me in good stead. But working hard for Everton should be a given, anyway, and it is for me.
“I enjoy doing that work. If you work hard and are honest, then positive things happen around you.”
Such a mantra indeed rings true at Everton, and nowhere is that appreciation for sweat on the shirt felt more than at Goodison Park.
Garner reveals he’s been blown away by the recent atmosphere at the Grand Old Lady, and he’s looking forward to experiencing more of it in the weeks to come.
“I’ve seen Goodison at its best from both sides, off and on the pitch,” he explains. “There’s been a few games this season where I’ve had to watch from the stands, and I’ve been really involved with our supporters.
“You can feel the passion when you are in the crowd. I was in there for the game against Arsenal and the fans were phenomenal. It was similar against Tottenham recently when I was playing. We were a man down, and while we only got a point, it was a massive one that could be the difference.
“Keano scored that worldie and, honestly, when the crowd erupted my ears were left ringing. That’s the first time I’ve been out on the pitch when we have scored such an important goal at Goodison. It was remarkable.”
Having acknowledged the potential importance of that 1-1 draw with Spurs last time out at Goodison, Garner says he and his teammates have their eyes wide open when it comes to the task ahead.
“The goal this season is all about staying in the Premier League,” he acknowledges. “You can’t look past that. Everyone wants to play Premier League football. We can’t look beyond the task ahead of us. We have to work hard to seal our place in this division for next season.
“Once we have completed that mission, we can start looking to build and get this club back where it belongs. But our focus is firmly on that goal right now, and our fans will play a big role in that.”
He adds: “What player doesn’t want to play in an environment like Goodison in high-pressure games with all the Everton fans behind you?
“Of course, we’d much prefer to be playing in those types of games at the other end of the table. But it’s a good feeling knowing you can go out at Goodison and give your all, and in return, thousands of fans will show you love. It’s that kind of place.
“These last eight games, the fans are going to be massive. I know how clichéd it sounds, but they are the extra man for us.”