Mirallas: Everton Was My Career High

This summer, Kevin Mirallas was forced to make the uncomfortable decision nearly every footballer dreads. 

After 18 years as a professional, amassing 553 senior club appearances across seven different countries while accumulating 60 caps for Belgium, the 35-year-old officially brought an end to his stellar career by announcing his retirement. 

A sizeable number of those appearances - 186, to be precise - came for Everton. It was therefore rather fitting that Mirallas, during this interview with evertonfc.com reflecting on his seven years with the Blues, first revealed his intentions to hang up his boots. 

"I would like to continue," he was quick to point out. "My head wants me to, but my body is telling me to stop. Plus, if I cannot play at 100 per cent, then there is no sense for me to continue. I will have to retire, I think." 

It's a familiar dilemma for seasoned professionals as the true physical cost of earning a living playing football starts to manifest into daily discomfort. 

A recent survey by The Athletic, which interviewed 100 former professional footballers to ask whether they had developed osteoarthritis since the end of their playing careers, returned the answer of 'yes' from 36 per cent - nearly half the group were aged under 44. 

Mirallas admitted minimising these effects was a key component in his decision: "I have a knee injury right now, and if I continue to play for another year or two, then it's likely I will have difficulties in terms of walking. I don’t want that issue after the end of my career. 

"Plus, it's hard for me to really produce the form I once could. You get older and it's harder. I've already had to adapt my game to prolong my career." 

Evertonians will remember Mirallas as a scintillating attacker who was at his best out wide, using his quick feet to drive and weave through opposition defences. However, as his speed started to decline, he had to adapt his role, particularly in more recent seasons playing for the likes of Portugal's Moreirense and Cypriot side AEL Limassol.

"I started to play more as a central midfielder," he said. "I enjoyed it as I saw a lot of the ball, but it was very different to what I had played in the years before. 

"There is more responsibility with and without the ball. I have enjoyed it, though, learning a new role and seeing the game from a different perspective." 

Mirallas had to make a similar playing adaptation when he arrived at Everton in August 2012. Coming through the youth system at hometown club Standard Liege, and then at French side Lille where he launched his professional career in 2004, Mirallas had honed an ability to play multiple attacking roles. 

A move to Saint-Etienne was the reward for his form in the north of France where he spent two seasons before joining Olympiacos, and it was in Greece where Mirallas really launched himself on to the radar of many top European sides. 

In his first full season in Greece, and playing predominantly as a striker, he finished as Olympiacos' top league scorer. The Belgian bettered that feat the following campaign by finishing as the division's top scorer, netting 20 goals in 25 appearances en route to helping Olympiacos win the league. 

"When I was at Olympiacos, it was a fantastic time," Mirallas reflected on that period. "I was playing well, and we were in the Champions League. 

"During my career, I had the opportunity to play in many positions. I started as a striker, then on the wing, then back to striker. To be honest, for many years I wanted to play striker. I loved the position. 

"It got me the move to Everton. I received a call from my agent to go to England, and it was so exciting. Every player wants to go to the Premier League and I already knew about the Club and the fans. Everton were and are a big club.  

"David Moyes told me when I arrived, ‘I know you are the best striker at Everton'. That was a big compliment." 

Despite that, the then-Everton boss had other plans for the Belgium international. "He told me this, but then said in England he believed I'd play best as a winger," he revealed. "To be fair to him, it was a good decision." 

Mirallas joined Everton for £6m and made his debut as a second-half substitute during a 3-1 league win at Aston Villa in August 2012. In his first start four days later at Goodison Park, he scored twice and provided two assists as Everton won 5-0 against Leyton Orient in the second round of the League Cup. 

"I felt good early on after the move," said Mirallas. "I adapted fast. But then after two or three months, I picked up my first injury. That was a sign.  

"I remember saying to my family early on, ‘Hey, this Premier League isn’t too tough’. But then after a few months, I was like, ‘Oh my god every game is tough, all the fixtures are like finals!’  

"The league is very hard and it starts to take its toll on your body. You need to be at 100 per cent, but I could tell my body was certainly feeling more fatigued.  

"I knew I'd needed to prepare better than ever before. I changed a few things in my routine, like more work in the gym, a better diet and after that I felt better."  

Kevin Mirallas
But then after a few months, I was like, ‘Oh my god every game is tough, all the fixtures are like finals!’

Mirallas' quick adaptation to life with the Blues, combined with his pulsating style of play, made him an instant hit with supporters. Although he admitted he was initially taken aback by the unique nature of Evertonians' passion.

"At the time, I think I was a bit different to what Everton already had," he said. "I was very fast and a dribbler. There were not many players like that at the Club, and I think fans warmed to that. I felt when I first arrived that there was a buzz about me from the fans. It was very special. 

"But my first game at Goodison was in the League Cup, I remember I scored two goals and produced some really good dribbles. I felt like the response from the stadium was warm, like, 'Oh, that was nice'. But then, I made a long sprint to track back and help defend, followed by a big tackle and honestly, the whole stadium erupted like I had scored a goal." 

He laughed: "I thought, ‘Okay, so they prefer a tackle to a dribble.’ It was very strange to me in the beginning. But with time I realised, that Everton fans just love the passion you give on the pitch. They want you to give everything in every game. I understood after that. 

"Everton was a great environment. It was very settled. You could feel the manager and players spent a long time together, especially the likes of Sylvain Distin, Leighton Baines, Phil Neville, Seamus Coleman, Phil Jagielka and Leon Osman. You know, players who had been there for a long time.  

"I had to prove myself and I knew the team and manager expected a lot from me. But I built good relationships fast. When I started to work hard, I felt accepted quickly. Sylvain was a big help to me because when I arrived, I could not speak English. It was not easy, but he was great in helping me." 

Mirallas became a key attacking cog in Moyes' Everton side who went on to finish sixth in that 2012/13 season. The forward made 33 appearances across all competitions, returning nine goals and nine assists. Yet that summer the Scottish manager left the Blues to replace Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Former Wigan boss Roberto Martinez was Moyes' successor. 

"Initially, I was sad to see Moyes leave," admitted Mirallas. "He had been there 13 years and was a legend of the Club. He was often harsh with me, always pushing me. But he was fair, too. He gave me a lot of freedom on the pitch. I felt very good under him.  

"When he left, I was worried. Because I’d been happy with the system and the football I was playing. With a new manager, you never know what will happen. I might not be in his plans. It can be a stressful process.  

"But after my first chat with Roberto, I felt good. He made it clear he liked me and he wanted me. Although we took some time to adapt, the first season under him was unbelievable." 

Under the Catalan coach, the Blues successfully implemented a more possession-based philosophy and thrived. They went on to accumulate 72 points, Everton's highest in the Premier League era and narrowly missed out on a top-four finish.

Reflecting on that campaign, Mirallas said: "That season was one of the highlights of my career. The team was very good, and I had an impact in a lot of matches. Not only with goals and assists but also with my work off the ball. I felt great in Roberto’s system. We had a lot of the ball, meaning I had a lot of touches in the final third. " 

That season was another when Mirallas managed a standout personal campaign in terms of goal contributions, registering 19 in total (eight goals, 11 assists). Two of those came in a blockbuster Merseyside derby at Goodison Park that finished 3-3, though, his impact in front of goal was overshadowed by a memorable challenge on Liverpool's Luis Suarez which caused quite a stir post-match.  

The former Everton attacker said that while he was never out to severely injure the Liverpool striker, he did have revenge on his mind following a coming together between the two 12 months earlier. 

"My first season when we played the derby against Liverpool, Luis Suarez did a heavy tackle on me and I had to come off at half-time with an injury," he explained. "I promised myself that next year if I play against him, I would go hard in any 50/50 tackle we had. I remember in the moment, I saw the ball and I went in hard. 

"I must admit, though, it was never my intention to hurt or injure the player. That’s not what I am about. After a few seconds, I realised I had caught him toward the knee, and I was not comfortable with that. I was worried I might have caused a big injury – that wasn’t the aim.  

"At the end of the day, the derby is all about these kinds of moments – especially on Merseyside. It’s what the people want to see."  

For all he brought to the team from an attacking sense, it wasn't unusual to see Mirallas get caught up in talking points at Everton. That’s a reputation he’s aware of and one he was keen to address by, in his words, providing greater clarity on his side of events.

One such moment comes to the forefront of the conversation almost instantly. "You know, I remember getting such a hard time following a penalty I missed against West Brom," he recalls. 

In a home contest in January 2015, Everton won a penalty minutes before half-time with the game level at 0-0. Mirallas took the spot-kick away from Leighton Baines, despite protests from him and teammates - the left-back had missed just one penalty in 16 at the time. 

"I felt really confident as a few days earlier I had taken and scored a penalty," he explained. "Leighton Baines gave me the penalty because he knew I was confident. But I missed it, and then that really added fuel to the fire as it was around this time I had an interview with the Liverpool ECHO that was taken out of context. 

"I was asked and admitted I had ambitions to play Champions League again. My comments were taken out of context. People were then thinking, ‘Oh, he just wants to leave’. But that wasn’t true. Yes, I wanted Champions League, but primarily I wanted it with Everton. 

"I know my character was a bit selfish at times, but that was my mentality. I was driven and sometimes I would get frustrated if I didn’t think things were right. But if you ask anyone around me, they will tell you I love Everton, and still do."  

While Mirallas admitted he and Martinez didn't always see eye to eye during the coach's tenure on Merseyside, there was mutual respect and an understanding between the two that created a healthy environment for the attacker to thrive. 

Martinez was replaced by Ronald Koeman in 2016, and despite a strong first year under the Dutchman when Mirallas made 37 appearances, their relationship was one that quickly deteriorated and ultimately put the forward on a downward trajectory that would eventually result in his Everton exit. 

"That was an example of why when there’s a new coach, there should be some fear," claimed Mirallas reflecting on Koeman’s arrival. "Because you never know what will happen. You can go from being the star to being out of the side if the manager does not like you, or wants to change the system. 

"My first year with Koeman, we were playing in Europe and I was very happy. I signed a new contract that next summer, for three years. I was planning to buy a new house, everything was good. Then I recall I started in a Europa League qualifier but then in the next match, I did not start. I went to Koeman to chat about this decision. But then what he said to me next, I could not believe it. He said, ‘If you are not happy with my decision, you can leave the Club’. 

"I was so shocked because I was happy and had just signed a new deal. I’d had interest from the likes of Tottenham but I’d committed to Everton, so I was pretty taken back by his response. 

"But I had support from people at the Club who were eager for me to stay. I thought, ‘Okay, but we need to fix the problem with Koeman’. After the international break, I came back and spoke to him, I wanted to apologise and clear the air. But then he was sacked in October. After that, there were rumours that I and certain other players didn’t want to train or play for the team. 

"It wasn’t true. New manager Sam Allardyce came in and told me directly that I was not going to play under him. It was a World Cup year, so I wanted to make sure I was playing.  

"The best route for me was to go back to Olympiacos, this is why I left, not because I didn’t want to train or play for Everton. I knew everyone there, and my family knew and liked the city. I came back to Everton in pre-season, by which time Marco Silva was in charge. I was in good shape and thought I was in a good position to make an impact. I felt good and was physically in a good place.  

"But then Silva told me he didn’t want me and that it was best I go on loan. I told him that I wanted to stay and play for Everton, but he said I would not play. So again, I had to go. I went to Italy and joined Fiorentina on a season-long loan. I came back, and I was told again that I wasn’t wanted. We agreed to terminate my contract and I went back to Belgium." 

Having unloaded those frustrations, there's a more serene tone in Mirallas' voice as he continues: "It wasn’t what I wanted, but I accepted the Club’s decision. I am 35 now, and at this stage in my career, and life, I can reflect with more clarity. 

"I can say with confidence that I spent six or seven years at Everton, and for me, it was the best time of my career. I hope this isn't the end of my journey with the Club. 

"Now retired, I want to come back to watch many matches. I know we haven't got long left at Goodison Park. I understand why they must go, for commercial reasons, it is important. But Goodison Park is a special stadium. 

"Then more long-term, I’d love to even work with the Club in the future. I was happy there, and so was my family. It was the best club of my career, I hope we can one day make more memories there."