In the second and final part of Dwight McNeil's exclusive sit-down chat with the Official Matchday Programme for last weekend's visit of Spurs, the Everton winger reflects on an incident-packed season-and-a-half with the Blues, the damage of a pre-season injury, a developing relationship with one of his teammates and his targets for the rest of the campaign...
On the pitch, McNeil’s season-and-a-half at Everton has been packed with incident.
A testing maiden campaign, culminating in a final-day victory over Bournemouth to extend the Club’s 69-year unbroken stay in the top-flight has been followed by improvements this term, blighted by off-field battles that saw the Blues docked an unprecedented 10 points by a Premier League commission after it was deemed Profit & Sustainability rules had been broken.
While the appeal process for that sanction is ongoing, McNeil echoes manager Dyche’s approach in focusing only on what he can directly affect.
“I’ve really enjoyed it, really enjoyed it - even through the difficult times and what has gone on off the pitch, I’ve just loved every minute of being an Everton player... and the challenges that have come with it as well,” he insists. “We’ve been much better this season compared to last - we’ve already got more wins than we had in the whole of last season. What has happened off the pitch is something we can’t do anything about as players. What we can do is concentrate on performing every week and we have been doing that. We’ve got to keep going and keep focusing on ourselves.
“The way this Club pulls together is massive. You see how much Everton means to people and it really does feel like one big family. No matter where we play, the fans will pack it out and win, lose or draw they are with us. We’re extremely thankful for them and we know it’s a difficult time for them with what’s been happening but they’ve been incredible. We want to keep moving forward together.
“It’s inspiring, to be honest. It definitely gives you extra belief and confidence because we know how much this means to them. We try to give everything back.”
After a stop-start beginning to his Everton career, McNeil became a standout performer under the familiar ways of Dyche - who handed him a professional debut aged 18 at Burnley - starting all 18 remaining games of the season that followed the manager’s arrival at Goodison Park in late January.
That positive momentum was halted as pre-season for the current campaign drew to a close, though, with an ankle injury sustained at Stoke City ruling McNeil out of the opening three league games of the 2023/24 term.
“It was frustrating because with what happened at the back end of last season, I just wanted to get back into pre-season and I was feeling good, feeling like I was building up nicely and going well,” he explains. “The timing of the injury was hard to take.
“It was my first proper injury, really. I have been fortunate so far in that respect and it was difficult but then you know it’s part and parcel of the game. You are stressed but in a different way. You are not football-stressed, you’re more worrying about the injury and how you’re going to get fit again as quickly as possible.
“I had really good people around me at the Club, with Adam [Newall] and Joe [Hinnigan] (First Team Physiotherapist), who were both top, top class with me.
“It definitely took me a while to get back up to the level I was again. I remember coming back into training and you feel like your touch isn’t as sharp as it was and you don’t feel as fit, especially when the other lads have had a full pre-season and have rolled into the proper season with the three games that I missed.
“That was a new challenge for me - trying to get back fit, properly fit. I was constantly trying to push myself and I think, looking back, I probably put too much pressure on myself to get back to where I was too soon. That’s one thing that I learned from being out.”
Reclaiming his place in the side immediately upon returning to full fitness, McNeil has once again become a mainstay on Everton’s left flank.
And his partnership with Vitalii Mykolenko - one of the Toffees’ most impressive performers so far this season - is one that is blossoming.
A huge smile lights up McNeil’s face as he is asked about his Ukrainian teammate. “He’s class, Meeks,” says Everton’s No.7. “We sit next to each other in the changing room - at Finch Farm and on game days, both at home and away. He’s great. I really like him a lot and we get on well. We have good conversations. His English is really good now, he talks more and gets involved which is nice. He’s a top man and you can see his quality as a player. He’s playing so well this season.
“Defensively he’s been amazing, with some of his blocks, tackles and one-v- one defending and then he’s been effective going forward as well. He’s impacting games at both ends. I think we’re starting to build a good little partnership and an understanding with each other.
“You only truly get that understanding when you play with someone consistently. You learn more about each other without having to talk, it just becomes natural. We’re getting that now. We know how each other like to work and how we can help each other. It’s brilliant to play with him.”
Many questions remain to be answered in the coming months - on and off the pitch, but McNeil says the collective focus inside Everton’s changing room is simple.
“We want to find the consistency we showed at the back end of last year,” he insists. “That’s what we can control and if we do that, we know the points will come.
“It’s about us keeping up our levels every week and keeping up the attitude of demanding more from ourselves and each other.
“I think we’re finding it this season but we know we’ve got a big period coming up going into February and March.
“We know we have to pick up points and keep our levels up on a consistent basis.”
If there is one thing for certain - McNeil has proved himself to be the man to be counted on in testing times.