Jose Baxter’s well-documented football story has been one of dizzy highs and crushing lows. Now, though, he’s writing a new chapter.
The former forward joined Everton at the age of just seven. He left a frustrated figure at 20 but returned four years later under unique circumstances. He’s now in his third stint at the Club, this time as a coach in the heart of the Academy.
Baxter has just finished his second full season back at Finch Farm and admits to evertonfc.com his coaching journey – still in its infancy – has been a steep learning curve, but one he’s thoroughly enjoying.
“I’ve spent more than half my life at Everton,” he says. “I mean it when I say to people Everton is my home. I skip in here every day. There’s never a day that goes by where I come in and feel down. Never.”
Baxter smiles before adding: “I don’t want that to sound cheesy, but if you are a footballing person walking into Finch Farm, how could you not love it?
“As a coach, I am still learning. I am aware of how far away I am. Badges and other things I need to achieve before I am ready to stand on my own two feet and lead a group. But I am loving it.”
Baxter returned to the Academy in the summer of 2021 after formally announcing his retirement following a spell in the USA with Memphis 901, a club partially owned by former Blues teammate Tim Howard.
“I never thought much about coaching after retirement”, admits the 31-year-old from Bootle. “But when I came back here as an older professional with the Under-23s, I always felt like I was coaching a few of the younger lads. Players like Jonjoe Kenny, Liam Walsh, Lego (Ryan Ledson)... really good kids.
“I got a buzz out of seeing them progress. Then one of the coaches at the time, Francis Jeffers, said, ‘Take up coaching, Jose, you’ll be great at it’. That was the first time I had thought about it.
“I’m grateful I was given the chance to explore that more back here at Everton. I believed for a long time that my journey here at the Club wasn’t finished. This is home. I’ll always want to be here in some capacity.
“I got the chance to come back as a player a few years ago, but at that stage, I already knew deep down my playing career was over and it was a different experience.”
Progressing through Everton's Academy as a player, Baxter made his professional debut for the Blues on the opening day of the 2008/09 season, coming on as a 78th-minute substitute against Blackburn Rovers to become the Club's youngest-ever senior player at the time aged 16 years and 191 days, beating the record previously held by teammate James Vaughan.
Another record soon followed as Baxter became the youngest player to start for the men's senior team when he was named in the XI at West Brom, before he penned a new two-and-a-half-year contract in March 2009.
Having made such a promising start, though, the midfielder soon found further opportunities at Goodison Park were limited and, following a loan spell with Tranmere Rovers in September 2011, Baxter rejected another deal to pursue regular first-team football.
Aged 20, he joined League One side Oldham Athletic, thriving with the Latics as he scored 13 goals in 39 appearances to help forge a £1million move to Sheffield United just a year later.
Baxter continued his fine form at Bramall Lane, finishing as the Blades’ top goalscorer across two seasons from central midfield and playing a key role in the club’s run to the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and League Cup.
However, bad decisions off the pitch had disastrous consequences on the upward trajectory of his career. In less than the space of 12 months, one failed drug test followed another and in 2015, Baxter was released by Sheffield United and banned from football for 12 months. It was during this low point of his career that the former Academy star admits he twice considered suicide.
With the support of family and friends and following voluntary work with Everton in the Community, Baxter was able to turn his life around. Back on track and with a positive outlook on the future, he was offered a route back into football by Everton in 2017 with a 12-month playing contract following the expiry of his suspension but very much with the awareness life on the pitch would never be the same again.
“I was so grateful to Everton but even though I was just 24, I knew I was done as a player,” he admits. “I was 40 per cent of what I was. People were telling me after games how well I was doing and that I could kick on again. But deep down I knew I was nowhere near the player I was.
“My body wasn’t reacting right any more to playing and training. My brain was still there but my feet couldn’t keep up.”
Baxter did not add to his tally of 15 men’s senior team appearances but did play 10 matches for Everton's Under-23s before re-joining Oldham in the summer of 2018.
He was released by the Latics a year later before moving to Plymouth Argyle. However, a calf injury hampered his ability to stay fit and he left the Pilgrims by mutual consent in November 2019.
“Despite how it all played out, I don’t regret leaving Everton when I first did,” Baxter reflects. “I played hundreds of games and scored at Wembley. If I never messed it up myself, I truly believe I would have ended up back in the Premier League like I wanted. I was playing well at Sheffield United, scoring goals and there were talks of teams higher up wanting to buy me.
“I was still young, too. But I can look at myself and accept it was my own mistakes that stopped me. There’s nobody else to blame.”
It’s a frank admission from the Merseysider who at one time was tipped to be a generational talent at not only Everton, but England, too.
Baxter’s ability as a youngster meant he was consistently at the top end of age groups as he rose through the Academy and he remains Everton’s youngest player to start a Premier League game.
“I never looked ahead,” he explains. “But at 13, I remember it being the first time I thought, ‘I’ve got a chance of making it as a professional’. I was moving up through the ages quickly. At 14, I was going with the Under-18s a lot, which meant I was coming out of school a day early. I was handling myself a little bit. My belief was really growing at that point.
“Then I remember I was on Crosby Beach doing sand dune runs with one of the Club’s Strength and Condition coaches at the time. They kept telling me to slow down.”
He laughs: “I’ve never been fast. I couldn’t work out why they were asking me to. It turned out that at the end of the session; I was told I was flying out with the senior team for their pre-season tour. I was just 15 at the time. That’s when I knew it was serious.”
Baxter’s talent at the time was undeniable, and his call-up to train with David Moyes’ squad was recognition of that. Yet, he acknowledges it was a big wake-up call when he got his first taste of action around that elite group of seasoned professionals.
“In one of my first sessions with them, Thomas Gravesen fizzed a ball into me and I was being marked by David Weir,” he recalls. “I will always remember it. My touch wasn’t spot on, and I gave the ball away.
“For the next 20 minutes, Gravesen slaughtered me. He kept saying things like, ‘Hey, young boy, keep hold of the ball’. That’s when I knew how serious that level was, and the standard was through the roof. Even if you think in those teenage years you have a chance, you find out when you step up that there’s a whole new level. That’s what I found out that day.
“It helped me, though, because straight after that session, it stuck with me that losing the ball could not happen. It made me think that whenever the ball came to me, I had to make it stick or I had to do something for the good of the team, whether that was finding a teammate or buying a foul.
“I saw Gravesen in the indoor gym about a week later, he was two yards from the wall just passing the ball to himself over and over. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. I asked him, ‘Tommy, why so close?’ He replied - with a Scouse twang to his accent - ‘because it’s the easy ones that everyone switches off with, lad’. He went on to play for Real Madrid, and that’s the sort of dedication he put in to get there.”
Irrespective of that baptism of fire, Baxter showcased he was ready to mix it with the best and his senior debut came in the opening game of 2008; a 3-2 home defeat by Blackburn. A week later came that historic start in a 2-1 away win at West Brom.
Baxter spent his career predominately as a central midfielder or striker, but on that day at the Hawthorns he was assigned a role on the left wing. In unfamiliar territory, he admits he was talked and helped through the game by key figure Leighton Baines behind him.
“Bainesy was great for me that day,” he says. “He’s super intelligent. One of the best I ever played with and massively helped. I came off on 65 minutes and David Moyes grabbed me and said I did well. We scored late on to win and that made the day even better.”
Although Baxter remained in and around the men's senior squad for much of the next five years, opportunities were few and far between. That was what ultimately lead to his decision to depart in 2012, despite being offered a new two-year deal at the Club – albeit on a lower salary than his previous contract.
“I feel I never really got a shot in my proper position,” he says. “I was a No.10 who scored goals all through my youth career. I’d often played No.9 but never had the pace for that level. There were much better No.9s than me at the Club. But I truly believed there was a space for me to play No.10.
“Out on the wing wasn’t really for me. I couldn’t take anyone on, I used to pass the ball around people or buy a yard with my movement, it was never to take anyone on. That was where my frustration kicked in when I got a bit older.
“I was with the senior side from a young age, you know four or five years I was around it by the time I was 20. People now would say you are still a baby at that age, but I felt like I deserved a proper shot.”
Baxter feels Baines always looked out for him during those early years of his career at the Club and believes he is doing the same now as both navigate through their early coaching journeys, with the former England left-back the current Everton Under-18s Head Coach.
“When I was a young lad coming through, he was living just outside Liverpool and I was living in Bootle,” he remembers. “He’d drop me off after games, even though I lived nowhere near him. Leighton one million per cent looked out for me. He still does now.
“I am still learning, and his football knowledge is superb, as you can imagine. Everything he does, he’s top drawer. Even things like the analysis side of the game. He does it all himself. He always says to me, ‘I will show you what I do’. He always wants to help. He’s brilliant, I can’t speak highly enough of him.
“He’s new himself in coaching, but ahead of me and he will always have his phone on. I feel comfortable enough with him to say, ‘I didn’t quite get that; can you show me?’ Because he’s an understated guy, there’s this perception that he may have drifted off into the sunset after retiring.
“But you see him now at Finch Farm, doing pitch runs like he would do as a player. It’s easy for people to think he could put his feet up for the rest of his life, but it shows you the love he has for the game.
“I text him wishing him the best on his birthday not long ago and asked if he had any plans. He told me he was in the coffee shop by his house doing clips from a recent Under-18s game. He’s obsessed, and I truly believe he will go on to be a great manager...hopefully, one day at Everton.”
Baxter laughs when reminded this interview is meant to be about him. But on the subject of management, he is asked whether he has those ambitions himself. “Do I want to be a manager? Yes,” he replies with no hesitation.
“Not just a coach, but a manager. There’s something different about being a manager. You have to get to know the players a bit more. I get on well with a lot of the young players here now. I could name pretty much all of them from Under-9s up.
“I’m too new to try to claim I’m better at managing people than I am at coaching. But in this journey, building relationships is a big part for me. I enjoy sitting down with lads and asking how they are doing, asking about life at home.”
There’s a sincerity to Baxter’s tone as his growing passion for life in the dugout comes to fruition.
“People ask me, ‘Who is the best manager you have played for?’ and you know what, I never remember a single session that was put on for me,” he says. “But I do remember the managers I had, as people.
“That opens the question to me, what does a top coach look like? You can lash cones all over a training pitch. But you need to earn players' respect. Top managers, like your Pep Guardiolas of the world, yes they might be great tacticians, but they’re brilliant managers of people, too. You see them hugging players and building relationships. They also lead by example and set standards.
“I and the other coaches at the Club are aiming to do that every day with the lads coming through now – set standards. People might look at my career and come to the wrong conclusion but ask anyone who coached me. I followed those rules and standards set. We all did coming through at this club.
“I get times move on, and I don’t want to sound like the bitter ex-pro, but I do think there’s an element of respect that needs to be adhered to. When you put on an Everton tracksuit or kit, there should never be a changing room left dirty. You should never be throwing your kit about and leaving it wherever.
“The lads in the Club now are good, to be honest, but I think we can get even better. That’s the challenge for us coaches now, beyond improving players. We need to keep instilling and improving the standards.
“Over this journey I’m embarking on, helping to set them standards will remain a priority, especially while I’m here at Everton Football Club.”