In an interview that first appeared in the Official Matchday Programme for Sunday's 2022/23 season finale, Dwight McNeil reveals why the mood in camp was calm and focused heading into the crucial encounter with Bournemouth, as well as discussing his matchday routine, gains in the gym, why playing in unfamiliar roles helps his development and the deep sense of pride and responsibility that comes with playing for the Blues...
Everton’s fate is in their own hands.
Having missed just four top-flight seasons since the English Football League was founded in 1888, no club in the country has played more top-tier games than the Blues.
But, with the task in hand clear — win this afternoon and Everton will extend their stay in the country’s highest division into a 70th consecutive campaign — Dwight McNeil insists there has been a calm focus in camp this week.
“We’re relaxed and focused, knowing the job that needs to be done,” he summarises. “It’s been positive and we’ve had good sessions in training this week.
“We know we need the result and we’ve cracked down in training on how we can go about doing that, but we’re keeping things the same in terms of how we work.
“Of course, we didn’t want to be in this position but we have to deal with what is in front of us and really relish the challenge now.”
Echoing the sentiment of manager Sean Dyche, McNeil believes consistency is key when it comes to preparation.
Business as usual, then, for the 23-year-old, who will have woken up this morning and taken his Rottweiler, Knox, for a 30-minute walk, before having breakfast with girlfriend, Megan, and heading to Goodison Park early to meet close friend James Tarkowski for a pre-match meal.
He will put on his kit from left to right, as normal, and touch the Club’s crest on his shirt and shorts three times as he makes his way out of the tunnel for the first time of the day.
One other certainty this afternoon is that Everton will be roared on by a vociferous sold-out crowd, with whom McNeil has forged an impressive connection in recent months.
“It’s an honour to wear this shirt and represent Evertonians,” he explains. “We’ll fight to give them what they deserve.
“There was a little bit of a surprise in that just how it would feel [to be an Everton player]. Obviously, I’ve played here before as an opposition player, but to have the fans on your side is an amazing thing to be part of.
“Being here, it doesn’t take long to realise the Club means everything to these fans.
“The minimum is giving 100 per cent. Every game I make sure that is the case, then I try to let my quality come through as the game goes on. It’s nice to be building that relationship with the fans now and it’s not something I’ll ever take for granted.
“I want to keep providing big performances and important moments to keep building that connection stronger.
“We know it’s been a difficult season but you see how they back us constantly. Every game is sold out, they’re always behind us. They deserve huge credit for that.
“They’re desperate for us to do well and we’re desperate to give them that.”
McNeil’s trajectory has, perhaps, mirrored that of the team’s so far this campaign.
After joining the Toffees from Burnley for an undisclosed fee in July last year, McNeil showed flashes of his obvious talent before struggling for form and minutes as the early months of the season wore on.
His form since being reunited with Dyche – who handed McNeil his Premier League debut during their time together at Turf Moor - on Merseyside has been excellent, though, with the 23-year-old becoming one of the Blues’ key figures over the past four months.
Over the course of 2022/23, he has registered 10 goal involvements, including seven goals — more than any other Everton player.
“I feel like this season has gone faster than any,” he reflects.
“A lot has happened and there have been a lot of ups and downs on a personal level and as a team.
“I feel like I’m in good form. I’ve got my confidence back. It’s nice to be playing my football again, enjoying coming into training, enjoying representing this club.
“Every day I’m learning more — more about the Club. It’s something I’ve been keen to learn more about since I got here. It’s all around the training ground — you can see what the Club has won in the past, legends who have played here. You know it’s a massive club.
“I’ve been learning more about myself as well, on and off the pitch. I’m finding more ways to improve.
“I’m still a young player and I constantly want to get better.”
One of the more obvious routes to improvement has been McNeil’s increased gym work.
McNeil, along with teammates Nathan Patterson and Tom Davies, form one of Everton’s ‘gym clubs’, who regularly work out together at Finch Farm.
It is a process he has grown to enjoy.
“Fitness is massive to me,” he reveals. “Twelve months ago I wasn’t big in the gym at all. At Burnley, I didn’t really like doing it.
“Here we’ve got our own little group going on: me, Davo and Patto. There’s a couple of other little groups who go to the gym together as well, so it’s a good atmosphere and it can get competitive.
“There’s banter, too. If someone — normally me — is lifting the smaller weights, Mason [Holgate] will shout over to give me stick and we go back and forth!
“Getting stronger is something I see as a big part of my development. I’m actually enjoying myself in the gym, which I didn’t think I’d be saying a year ago.
“It can be quite addictive, when you start getting in there, getting used to your routine and knowing exactly what you’re doing, especially when there’s a few of us together and you can have fun with it at the same time.
“It’s all fun until people like Tarky [James Tarkowski] and Conor [Coady] come in. Then they just embarrass you with the weights they’re lifting… they’re just massive. I’m there thinking I’m doing alright, then those two come in and they’re doing the same exercises but with weights miles heavier. Tarky, especially, is huge. He’s not one of them who is in the gym every day lifting but when he does, he’ll lift massive weights and not even look like he’s trying. I stay away from them when they’re lifting weights!”
With the end of the current campaign now just 90-odd minutes away, McNeil has no plans to let his progress slip.
“We track everything,” he explains. “When I first started doing gym, the sports scientists weighed me, did my arm girth and things like that.
“Then they did it again a few months ago and my weight and my muscle is increasing. My body fat has always been really good so that’s stayed the same.
“I had my final measurements this week to see where I am going into summer and that’s with the idea of coming back for pre-season being in an even better position than I am now.”
The Rochdale-born winger’s impressive fitness can be tracked back much further than those hours spent in the gym.
A natural runner, Everton’s number 7 excelled in cross country events throughout high school, even being selected to represent his region in long-distance running — and he believes those experiences stood him in good stead for Premier League football.
“I’ve always been pretty fit and able to run,” he explains. “When I first did cross-country running in Year 7, I didn’t really know what it was all about. There were loads of us running so instead of running as fast as I could, I kind of just stayed in the middle of the pack, thinking, ‘I’m alright, here’… My dad at the end of the race was saying, “I know you can run more than that, so what were you doing?!”.
“It went a lot better after that chat! I was ready and took it more seriously. I won the next year’s race and remember I got a letter afterwards asking me to represent Oldham in some regional events, which I did.
“Looking back on it now, I think doing that cross country has actually really helped me because it goes without saying running is such an important thing in football, especially at the top level.”
Those impressive energy levels have been called upon in recent weeks, as McNeil has been deployed in more unfamiliar roles at left wing-back and full-back in the absence of the injured Vitalii Mykolenko.
Hailed for his commitment and adaptability by manager Dyche after Everton’s clashes with Manchester City and Wolves, the man himself says the transition was made smoother by one of his teammates.
“It was the first time I’ve ever played left-back in a back four,” explains McNeil. “I played wing-back a couple of times for England Under-21s but left-back was a first. It was something new but I actually enjoyed it. Hopefully it shows I can be versatile when needed.
“The days building up to the game was a different challenge for me and there was a lot of learning to be done but I think it was a really good experience for me.
“Having Tarky [Tarkowski] next to me at centre-back helped because he was talking to me throughout the game.
“He was telling me where I need to be when the ball was in certain areas of the pitch and things like that.
“There are a lot of small details you have to be aware of as a defender, like shoulder position, getting over quickly in certain situations and being at the right distance to make sure you can get out to the winger if needed in other situations.
“Then, when we’re in attack, you see a whole different picture because the whole pitch is in front of you. It was a case of being disciplined with my position and not bombing on all of the time but choosing the right time to do it.”
McNeil’s relentless work ethic and moments of quality have naturally endeared him to Evertonians during the second half of the season.
He, too, feels like an ideal fit with the Club when it comes to life away from football.
McNeil and his girlfriend have been regular contributors to the Blues’ official charity, Everton in the Community, throughout this term, including a host of activity around Christmas to ensure local children had presents to wake up to and struggling families had food on their tables.
“It’s something that is really important to me,” says McNeil. “As a footballer it’s probably easier to lose your way, so it’s always important to take a step back to appreciate what you have and give back to people who are less fortunate.
“The way Meg and I look at it is we were in that position growing up.
“We and our families have come a long way so it’s important to reflect on that and use the opportunity to help other people now.
“Everton and their work in the community speaks for itself. I know they’ve been doing it for a long time so it was something we were really keen to get involved in as soon as we could.
“It really made our Christmas knowing kids were able to wake up on Christmas Day to something with a bit of help from us.
“It’s something we definitely want to continue into the future, helping out wherever we can.”
For now, though, the sole focus remains on today’s crucial encounter. “The past few games I think we’ve played really well and got some decent results,” McNeil adds. “I thought we were unlucky at Leicester not to win but then we had the amazing result at Brighton, which just shows what we can do as a team, and then we fought to the very end at Wolves.
“I feel good. The manager and his staff have played a big part in that. They know me. They know what I’m like on and off the pitch and because of that I think they know how to get the best out of me. Having them here and their encouragement has allowed me to express myself more and get my confidence back to the point where I’m really enjoying my football again.
“The goal today, obviously, is to get over the line, then we will reflect on it and come at it fresh after the summer, ready to push on towards a brighter future.”