Ledson: I Achieved My Everton Dream

Research conducted by the Football Association has concluded that fewer than 0.5 per cent of players signed by professional teams aged nine and undergo all the way to play First-Team football at those clubs. 

That alone makes Ryan Ledson’s story a successful one. Yet it’s also just the tip of the iceberg.  

The Liverpool-born midfielder has always been a tenacious player with standout traits. He is versatile, strong in the tackle, combative in the air and boasts an enviable passing artillery.  

At just 25, he can vaunt that he has led England to a European Championship, played for Everton in Europe and accumulated more than 200 Football League appearances.  

He’s certain to add many more to that tally across the remainder of an already fascinating football journey which all started as a young boy with Everton Academy. 

For any football-mad kid born on Merseyside, the chance to play for one of the city’s two biggest clubs is the ultimate aspiration, Ryan’s potential attracted interest from both Everton and Liverpool, though, handing him a big decision early in life.    

His mum was an Evertonian, while his dad supported Liverpool and although Ledson himself leaned more towards the team from Anfield than the one at Goodison, that had little influence when it came to making up his mind. 

“I just remember going and really enjoying it with Everton,” he recalls.  

“I was at Liverpool at the time, too, and I remember my mum asking me where I enjoyed it the most.  

“Even though I was brought up a Liverpool fan, I loved it at Everton and decided that’s where I wanted to be.”  

Ledson excelled as he climbed the Academy ladder and was fully aware from an early age that he was developing at a quicker rate than many of his other peers.  

“I knew I was always right up there at the top end of my age groups,” he admits.  

“I think any coach or even lads I played with would say the same. I was always the lad who played up an age. It felt like there was always me, plus a few others, playing up.”  

Ledson was very much in good company in those early formative years.  

“There was me, Jonjoe Kenny, (Callum) Dyson - who had to retire through injury, sadly - Joe Williams, and then we had Jedi (Anthony Robinson), too.”  

Robinson has just returned from representing the USA at the World Cup finals and is now a regular in the Premier League with Fulham.  

“At that point, he wasn’t anywhere near as good as us, and he would probably say that himself,” remembers Ledson on the defender.  

“But as he grew, and got over his knee injuries, he became an absolute machine and he’s gone to have an unbelieve career so far.” 

Ledson’s quick to recognise others. 

“There’s even more who have done well, Jordan Thornley is another, he’s now playing at Blackpool. Then the year below you had Liam Walsh, Callum Connolly, Kieran Dowell and Tom Davies.    

“All these lads mentioned are playing in the Championship or Premier League, which is a testament to just how many top-quality players Everton were producing.” 

In May 2014 came one of the landmark moments in Ledson’s fledgling career when at just 16, he captained the England Under-17 side that won the European Championships.  

“Most people don’t know that I had to make a tough decision on that tournament, though,” Ledson reveals. 

“At the end of the season, Everton had Hull away in the Premier League. I was going to start in that game and make my Premier League debut. I was just 16.  

“But I was left with a choice, I start that game and miss half the Euros, or go away and captain England in the tournament. It was the hardest decision I had ever had to make.”  

He continues: “I sat down with Roberto Martinez and Alan Irvine, and we came to the decision that I should go as it was better for my career. I was captain and I was a massive part of that team, I couldn’t have missed that.”    

Ledson admits he sometimes ponders the decision he came to with Everton’s former manager and Academy boss. 

“Of course, on one hand, I would have made my Premier League debut at 16, who knows what happens after that, but it’s a decision I don’t regret.”  

Ledson’s performances throughout the competition saw him named in UEFA's team of the tournament. His stock quickly rose upon his return and appearances in various media publications became common.  

Arguably not since Wayne Rooney and Ross Barkley had a 16-year-old Everton Academy prospect attracted so much attention.  

“I know there was more scrutiny on me than others,” he admits.  

“But I thought I coped with it well. I was just a young kid playing footy. I don’t think at that stage I couldn’t have done any more than what I was doing.”  In the summer of 2014 and on his 17th birthday, Ledson signed his first professional deal with the Club, a three-year contract, keeping him there until 2017.    

Then came the biggest reward of them all, when in December 2014 he was handed his full debut against Kuban Krasnodar in the Europa League, becoming the 10th youngest player to start for Everton.  

“It was unbelievable because I joined the Club at just five, played every age group, and then the end goal was to play for the First Team. Whether that be just once or 100 times, I achieved that dream,” he said.    

“That season, I travelled away with the squad to every single European game, as either the 19th man or to get on the bench.  

“There was talk of me maybe starting against Wolfsburg away or being on the bench and making my debut in that game, but it never happened.  

“The team we had then though was unbelievable - Jamesy (James McCarthy), Gaz Baz (Gareth Barry), and Ossie (Leon Osman) was still playing. Just unbelievable players in front of you.”  

Ledson pauses briefly before adding: “Sometimes you need luck, maybe a few injuries to get a look-in, but it didn’t happen. 

“But then I got my chance at Goodison Park which was brilliant, and I think I did well in the game itself.  

“It was Goodison, a game in Europe. Okay there were some changes to the starting XI, but it was just unbelievable.”  

 Ledson revisits the subject of luck and the role it can play in a footballer’s career.    

“I did nearly make my debut at the back end of the prior season,” he reveals. “I went down to Southampton, and I was on the bench, we got beat in that game.  

“I was close to coming on at the end. I remember I was warming up getting ready, and then Bainesy got injured and Garbs (Luke Garbett) came on instead. 

 “If we were winning comfortably, maybe Martinez would have opted to throw me on earlier. But that’s the luck that plays a part sometimes.”  

Although no further First-Team appearances followed that campaign, Ledson continued to remain on the periphery of Martinez’s squad. 

He returned for pre-season in the summer raring to go and eager to get more senior games under his belt. However, it didn’t play out like that.  

“I come back that summer and I was with both the First-Team and Under-21s,” Ledson remembers.  

“I should have been moved up to the First-Team squad for all of pre-season or get put back in with the Under-21s for the summer so I could get and stay fit. Because I was in and out of both. 

“With the senior side, I went away and played against Dundee in a friendly, coming on as a substitute. Then I flew back from Scotland and in the night, I was playing for the Under-21s at Prenton Park against a League One side.    

“I was in between, here there and everywhere. I needed games to get fit, but I felt like that really slowed me down in terms of progression.”  

He adds: “The first game we had in that new season was against Tottenham’s Under-21s at their training ground. I got pulled out of the squad last minute as I was meant to be going to Scunthorpe United in League One, who were flying at the time.   

“So, I didn’t play in that, but then the move fell through.  

“Then after that, we had a Merseyside derby with the Under-21s, and eight clubs had come to watch me from the Championship and League One, all with the view of making a loan offer for me.  

Ryan Ledson
The end goal was to play for the First Team. Whether that be just once or 100 times, I achieved that dream.

“I only needed 45 minutes and I am sure some of those clubs would have made a move for me. I remember it vividly as it was on my 18th birthday. But I didn’t get on and no clubs from the Championship or League One ended up coming in for me because I hadn’t played. Then I wasn’t even playing for the Under-21s because I wasn’t getting selected, and on the back of that, I was left out of the England squad for the first time since I was 16.    

“I’d gone from winning the European Championships as captain to not even making the squad a year later. It was a tough period for me.” 

Not willing to lie down and feel sorry for himself, Ledson came out fighting during this period of adversity and was eager to make a statement when he was given the opportunity to do so.  

“I remember soon after all this, I went and played back with my actual age group, so with my mates, the likes of Dyson and Jonjoe, in an Under-19s game. Taity (Paul Tait) was in charge,” he recalled.  

“In the game, I scored a hat-trick before going off with cramp on 80 minutes because I had not been playing. In my opinion, the performance showed the level I was at during the time.  

“Then soon after Cambridge United in League Two came in for me for a loan move. Although it was probably a lower level than I would have liked to have gone, and a little bit further from home, too, I had to go because I just needed to play regularly.”    

Still just a teenager, Ledson enjoyed a fruitful campaign at Abbey Stadium and returned to Goodison Park feeling like he’d benefited massively from coming up against seasoned senior professionals every, week.   

“I played 28 times in League Two that season, which as an 18-year-old was no small feat. Then I come back, and I had a year left on my deal at Everton,” said Ledson.  

“I came into pre-season and felt like I was flying, but then I was basically told that I’d struggle for game-time with the Under-21s in the season ahead.  

“I didn’t agree with the decision and perhaps I could have stayed and tried to fight, but then Everton had just appointed Ronaldo Koeman. He opted to not take me away with the First-Team squad for pre-season. 

Sounded discouraged, Ledson admits: “After that, I just couldn’t see a clear future for me. I just loved going out and playing, especially after the year out at Cambridge, so I felt like my only option was to go.   

“Sometimes I look back with a little bit of regret, I think I could have played for Everton many more times, and I wish I did. But it just wasn’t meant to be.”  

Ledson left Everton in the summer of 2016 to join Oxford United, overcoming an initial lengthy injury setback to become a key player for The U’s.  

Two years later Championship side Preston came in for him, and he went on to become a star player at Deepdale, signing his third contract at the club in December 2022.  

“Oxford came in, and they had a good record of signing young lads, playing them and then selling them on. They told me if another club came in for me, they wouldn’t stand in my way. 

“I had a nightmare when I first got there, I tore my meniscus in my knee during a warm-up. This was after just buying a house down there in Oxford. 

 “I’d just left Everton after spending all those years there while living at home. Now I’m in a new house, in a new place, with no couch yet, sitting on a beanbag with my knee in a brace thinking, ‘What have I done here?’” he laughs.   

“But then I completed my rehab, got fit, and played 30 games after my return and won League One’s Young Player of the Year. I also got back in the England squad, playing for the Under-19s.  

“In my first game we played Holland away and I scored. It was a big moment for me after a tough period. Then the next season, I played 50 games.”  

“In the January of that campaign, Preston came in for me,” he recollects.   

“Oxford rejected it because they wanted me to stay because we were in a bit of trouble and they don’t want to lose important players at a crucial period, which I can understand. 

“I was disappointed because it was a chance for me to move back home after being away for 18 months.  

“But you know what, I loved it there, I had some great memories. So, I accepted I’d have to wait until the summer. Then in May, as soon as the season ended, I signed for Preston.  

“Preston is a great club, I now live back locally, too, which is good. It’s my fifth season there now, in the Championship, which is a brutal league, but a boss one, too.” 

Ledson might have been born a Red and grew up a Blue, but he looks to have found his long-term happiness in white.  

“There are great players, grounds and I have just signed my third contract with the club, so I am very happy and loving it here.”